The story of Errett Lobban Cord is an American legend of success and failure, of attempting mightily and falling hard. It mirrors the age in which he lived, and it is chock full of soaring victories and dreadful failures, and, of course, his ultimate creations, the Cord L-29 and Cord 810/812, ultimately represent both.
Beauty before performance
Cord was part visionary, part promoter, the man who, in real life, was very much similar to the Tucker Francis whom Ford Coppola portrayed on the silver screen. A business tycoon and fast-track salesman, Cord came of age in the Roaring Twenties. Attracted to the car business because of its rich money-making possibility, Cord took over the day-to-day operation of the moribund Auburn brand of automobiles in 1924 when he was just 30 years old. In an era when conventional functionality ruled auto design–there were no such thing as auto stylists in those days–Cord placed most of his emphasis on cosmetics. Auburns quickly came to be famous as some of the best-looking cars on the road, and the American buying public, always ready for a pretty face, responded by driving sales of Auburn cars ever upward.
Things moved apace through the Twenties, and as the Twenties came to a close, Cord had taken full control of Auburn. But as a promoter of the Babbit stripe, he had bigger plans on his mind. Down the road, Augie and Fred Duesenberg were building some of the greatest racing cars of theirs or any other generation, but their street machine, the Model A, had a bleak sales record. Despite mechanical brilliance, its styling was a snore and buyers stayed away in droves.
A scheme materializes
It was the perfect opening for Errett Cord, because if there is one thing he learned how to do, it was to bring some sales surprises in the form of exciting styling. In rapid succession, Cord set out to create a new Duesenberg model that would out-perform and out-style any motor car in the world and to introduce a completely new line of technically distinct cars that would carry his name. The scheme was a rough approximation of the General Motors strategy, but it began much higher on the automotive foodchain. Auburn was at the low end (though compared to the overall American car market it was barely low-priced; in today’s marketing-speak one might call it a “near-luxury car.”) Cord was aimed at the center of the American luxury market, but it hung its hat on technical innovation.
Finally, Duesenberg was the “ultra-luxury” marque, targeted at the burgeoning nouveau riche who might otherwise have bought Bugattis, Rolls-Royces, or Isotta-Fraschinis.
As 1929 dawned, E.L. Cord’s marketing strategy seemed quite sound indeed. And when he introduced the avant garde Cord L-29 that summer, the plan seemed ever-more wise. The L-29 was a technical and styling tour de force that swiftly took its place as one of the most attractive cars on the road.
Front wheel drive an improvement
At the core of the L-29 was its front-wheel-drive system, a layout Harry Miller had championed on the American champ car race circuit. Cord was so enamored of the system he purchased the patent rights from Miller, and an early prototype of the L-29 actually took shape in Miller’s Los Angeles race car emporium.
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Modern-day proponents of front-wheel-drive cite its traction benefits–the engine’s weight resides over the drive wheels–and its production benefits–the engine and drivetrain can be dropped into a car on the assembly line as a unit. But one imagines that Cord cared little about traction and didn’t care one whit about ease of assembly. He fell in love with the dramatic styling advantages front wheel drive provided.
John Oswald, the man who had penned many a memorable Auburn design, was hired to draw the lines of the L-29 Cord, and he took every advantage of the front-wheel-drive scheme. While all the rear-wheel-drive cars on the streets had bodies that sat up high above their driveshafts (Stylists had yet to prevail upon engineers to let the shaft run through the passenger compartment.), the L-29 sat elegantly low. Its hoodline was a foot lower than its luxury car rival.
And, yes, what a hoodline!
It stretched nearly half the length of the car. Not only was the long hood a styling statement that reverberates to the present day, it was also a necessity. Under that hood was a Lycoming-built longitudinally connected straight-eight powerplant that displaced 299 cubic inches (4.9 liters). Not only was the engine long, it was also followed by the transmission that straddled the front axle. Housing that formidable drivetrain took a bunch of sheetmetal and even then the last cylinder of the engine encroached into the passenger compartment ala the AMC Pacer.
Interestingly, the enormous engine wasn’t particularly powerful, especially by today’s standards. The low-compression, side-valve unit was built for top low-end torque, not peak horsepower so its 115 horsepower rating at 3300 revolution per minute is not too surprising. In the days before the widespread use of synchromesh transmissions, one of the objectives of engine design was to produce so much torque that shifting gears could be kept to an absolute minimum.
In any case, when the Cord L-29’s 115-horsepower engine was faced off against the car’s 4,600-pound curb weight, acceleration was leisurely and maximum speed (about 80 miles per hour) was not appararently pulse-quickening.
Stylistic flourishes won the day
But there was no hestitation the L-29 did posses pulse-quickening styling, the extended hood was flanked with gracefully curving fenders topped off with twin side-mounted spares. From the cowl, the ventilating windshield leapt up in a stark vertical, 90 degrees from the plane of the hood, and the passenger compartments of the convertible and the coupes were selfishly small on the 137.5-inch wheelbase.
Unfortunately, because the stock market crashed within months of its introduction, sales of the Cord L-29 were small as well. Originally priced at over $3,000, a 25% price discount did nothing to increase its popularity in the Depression-ridden marketplace. In 1932, with fewer than 4,500 built, Cord stopped production of the car that bore his name. But not before the car had shown the way to today’s most famous configuration: front engine/front wheel drive.
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