Few prewar cars can cruise at 80 mph. Few prewar cars that sell for less than $200,000 are regularly permitted to park on concours d'elegance lawns. Few cars from any era have styling and proportions so timeless that it's hard for onlookers to correctly guess their era. The 1936–1937 Cord is all those things.
Cord's story is short but dense. Savvy young businessman Errett Lobban Cord effectively bought the struggling Auburn Automobile Company (AAC) in 1925. Earlier that year, Harry Miller's Junior 8 Special amazed the automotive world by taking second place in the Indianapolis 500. It was the first front-wheel-drive car to compete in the famous race. In 1927 -- having recently taken over Duesenberg, the other great American racing name of the day -- Cord hired Miller to help develop America's first front-wheel-drive production car. The result was the low-slung 1929-1932 L-29, the first vehicle from Mr. Cord's namesake brand. Unfortunately, the Depression stifled sales of AAC's flashy midlevel entrant.
Big, ostentatious Duesenbergs grated against the reality of the Depression even more, so a "baby Duesenberg" project was launched in late 1933. Its shape was based on drawings by Gordon Buehrig that had been soundly rejected months earlier by his then-boss, General Motors design king Harley Earl. AAC management sidelined that project to devote attention to the more mainstream Auburn brand (result: 1935's fine 851 boattail speedster). When focus returned to the new small luxury model, Buehrig's design team -- including unsung sculptor Vince Gardner -- and company engineers had to quickly ready the car, now a Cord, for its crucial November 1935 auto-show debuts. Contrary to typical practice, none of the Cord show cars could be test-driven, likely because the transmissions weren't ready. Nonetheless, the new Cord overshadowed everything else on the show floors with its breathtaking lines, hidden headlamps and door hinges, lack of an upright radiator grille, low stance, and futuristic dashboard. One of the most famous reactions, its speaker lost to time: "It didn't look like an automobile. Somehow it looked like a beautiful thing that had been born and just grew up on the highway."
In his seminal 1949 book Kings of the Road, Ken Purdy communicated the lingering sentiment. "For sheer taste, for functional correctness and for beauty," he wrote, "the 810 Cord is the best design the American industry has ever produced." The same could be argued today. Without the Cord 810 (the 1936 model) and 812 (the '37), at least two of the other most beautiful American cars of all time wouldn't be the same. The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado is the obvious one, with its hidden headlamps, front-wheel drive, and horizontal face. The 1961 Lincoln Continental is the surprise.
Howard Payne was a toddler when the Cord debuted, but its design was imprinted on him even before he visited the Indiana factory at age ten and crawled around Cords that were awaiting refurbishment. (The last new Cord rolled off the line in August 1937.) Payne grew up to be a designer at Ford from 1955 through 1997. Early in that tenure, he and cohort John Orfe crafted the first model of what would evolve into the classic '61 Lincoln. "I always revered the Cord and its design," Payne says, adding that the '66 Lincoln had a Cord-like grille because fellow designer John Aiken admired the cars, too.
Payne had owned various vintage cars -- Mustangs, a '41 Lincoln, a Ferrari 365GT4 -- and got the bug again a few years ago. He planned to buy a '32 Ford like the one he drove in high school, but then he started thinking about a Cord. He got a copy of the fabulous Josh Malks book Cord Complete and "got bitten even worse." (Malks has owned Cords since 1953 and has driven his current 810 Westchester from California to Auburn, Indiana, five times for the annual gathering of the faithful.)
Payne was seventy-seven when he finally bought a Cord, the Beverly sedan pictured here, which -- speaking of nuances -- is a 1936 model updated and sold by the factory as a '37. Just days before we had a turn behind the wheel, he drove it from Detroit to Auburn ("I'm too old to get a pickup and a trailer, so I won't trailer it"). You don't just hop into a Cord and drive. First you must conjure the courage to approach and touch such a beautiful objet d'art. Then you have to know how to operate the preselector manual transmission; the root of many problems when these cars were new is today the primary reminder of the Cord's age. The chrome shifter mechanism lies in the same spot as a typical column shifter, but the little fixed square houses a four-speed shift pattern and a short lever for the Bendix Finger-Tip Gear Control. Your thumb and forefinger pinch the looped shifter, which moves easily with the shortest flicks this side of a light switch. The weird part is that you mustn't push the clutch while moving the gear lever. "Preselect" the gear with forethought and later engage the clutch for a slightly vague amount of time -- don't rush it -- to allow the gears to change before releasing the pedal. A dog might hear the sound that accompanies the actual gearchange.
Cogs definitively engaged, the engine exhibits strong torque. The longitudinally mounted V-8, built by corporate cousin Lycoming, has its main belt drive tucked against the firewall. The transaxle case points toward the car's nose, and the gearset juts in front of the drive axle. The transmission cover is the part of the Cord's front end that made a perfect armchair cushion in the 1980s sitcom My Two Dads.
The gorgeous gauges and dashboard, wide hood, and peaked fenders create a surreal driver's vantage point. The Cord feels a bit like a chopped-roof hot rod from inside, but lots of headroom and the flat floor help reduce the cramped feeling common to cars built before the invention of efficient packaging. Ride quality is smooth even by modern standards, and the steering is fairly direct ...once you've turned the big, slippery wheel a couple of inches away from center.
This car couldn't save the Auburn Automobile Company, but driving one of these lovely timepieces today is the ideal way to revel in the cutting edge of 1930s automotive technology and design.
4.7L (289 cu in) flathead V-8, 125 hp, 223 lb-ft
4.7L (289 cu in) flathead supercharged V-8, 170 hp, 258-273 lb-ft
Transmission 4-speed manual
Front suspension Trailing arms, leaf spring
Rear suspension Beam axle, leaf springs
Weight 3700-4100 lb
Years produced 1936-1937
About 2975, including roughly 690 supercharged cars, 800 convertibles, and no more than three coupes
Original price $2545 (1937 Beverly)
Sedan: $45,000-$70,000 (four-seat Beverlys are a bit pricier than five-passenger Westchesters; LWB Berlines are worth the most)
Convertible: $110,000-$160,000 (two-seat "Sportsmans" cost more than four-seat Phaetons)
Supercharged models carry a premium of about 40 percent.
The Cord 810/812 turns heads and starts conversations in a way that few other cars do. Although not cheap, it offers excellent value -- think of it as the Tucker 48's prettier, no less revolutionary predecessor (and direct transmission donor, in fact) for a million-dollar discount and with more body styles and wheelbases to choose from. Even in nonsupercharged form, this car can keep up with modern traffic and is fairly easy to drive as long as it's shifted carefully. Proper maintenance is critical, but the Cord community is sizable and helpful.