America in the 1930s was an exciting time for the automobile. It was a period during which the rules of the car as we know them today remained largely unwritten. There was little in the way of prerequisite legislation to satisfy, there was nothing to state how things should be done, and as such, designers were free to let their minds and their pencils wander. Yes, there was a ‘conventional’ way of doing things, as evidenced by offerings of Ford, Chevrolet and others. But they were building in the numbers to get sales. They were trying to satisfy what was an exploding market. Other brands, which were still holding onto the romance of luxury and exclusivity were free to do what they wanted. One such brand was Cord.
Cord was a luxury automobile company born out of the Auburn Automobile Company. It shone brightly, but oh so briefly – it was only in operation from 1929 to 1932. It then lay dormant before rising again in 1936 and once again falling away in 1937, the year from which the car we’re looking at here harks. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Founded by E. L. Cord, the Cord company was a platform from which the most luxurious and most innovative cars could be launched. The L-29 – Cord’s first offering – was the first passenger car to offer front-wheel drive, for example. It might not have been hugely successful, but outside of motor racing, it was the first. That’s something. It was also wheeled opulence. Acres of chrome, flowing fenders, running boards big enough to park another car on. It was a plush, ‘if you need to ask, you can’t afford it’ kind of machine. Which is probably why it wasn’t a huge success. Priced similar to peers from Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and Stutz, it was too much of a risk for many buyers. Combine this with the impact of the Great Depression and you’re left with only 4,400 sold.
When Cord rose again in 1936, it had a new car up its sleeve, namely the 810 and soon after, the 812. That latter model is what you’re looking at here. The car pictured is from 1937, and as such, was one of the final machines to be built by the now-forgotten Cord company. And it is, make no mistake, magnificent.
There is of course the wow factor that comes from the fact this car has survived through to 2021 in such remarkable condition. Yes, it’s been restored, but restoration or not, any car making it to be eighty-five years of age is something to celebrate. Once, of course, you’ve finished celebrating the 812 in its own right.
You see, this car was a bold machine full of hitherto unseen design touches. The big thing to note is how smooth it is. The 810 and 812 had no external seams, and thus they were clean and elegant, unlike every other car that still had seams and evidence of how they were constructed on display. The door hinges were hidden, further adding to the smoothness. The car’s designer, Gordon M. Buehrig, didn’t like the idea of the headlights sticking out, so he hid those, too. To operate them, the dash had a chromed crank handle on either side so the driver could wind them up or down. It was the first car to have hidden headlights. Other design touches included the front-wheel-drive design, which was again unheard of at the time. This meant the 810 and 812 were low and long, with no cabin intrusion from a prop shaft or transmission, and as such they didn’t need running boards.
It was and still is an utterly stunning machine. Its looks are almost cartoonish, in the sense that they seem impossible. But this was a glowing example of what could be done when there were no rules to follow. The car was the result of free-thinking unhindered by conventional formulas or trends. It was its own car. It stood out.
It was also ahead of the game mechanically speaking. It was powered by a 4,739cc Lycoming V8, which was mated to a four-speed semi-automatic transmission that sat ahead of it. As we touched on earlier, this made it front-wheel drive, and this freed up acres of space for the passengers. The 812, as you’re seeing here, was further fitted with a Schwitzer-Cummins mechanically-driven supercharger that sat atop the engine. It meant this sleek machine was all of a sudden capable of 170bhp. Impressive, staggering in fact, for 1937.
When the car was unveiled at the New York Auto Show in 1935, the crowds were stunned. The Cord stand was deep with people, while neighbouring stands had to ask show attendees to kindly not stand on their cars in order to see the Cord. The orders for the Cord flooded in, and all of a sudden the second rising of the company seemed to be a most fortuitous one. At least, to begin with.
Cord simply couldn’t meet demand, and of the cars it did build, most were hampered by electrical issues as well as vapour-locking problems. The transmission also proved unreliable, often popping out of gear. The delays in production paired with the mechanical issues meant enthusiasm for the car soon dried up and by 1937, the car and soon after, the company, was killed off. One prototype car was built in 1938, but that was it.
Only a few thousand were built, and of those, only a handful survive. Any Cord is rare, but the 812 is rarer still. To be able to see one and photograph it was nothing short of an honour, as while there is at least one other 810 in the UK, we don’t know of another 812. This car is very, very special, and it’s also deeply important. It was a pioneer, a forward-thinker, a car built by design and passion, not by board members and accountants. It was here for but a moment, but at that moment, it made a truly lasting impression.
The car pictured here is currently available via Car & Classic Auctions. If you want to own one of the rarest American cars ever built, this is your chance and not one that will present itself again any time soon. Get bidding!