REVISED AND EXPANDED – With the fabulous Cord, the Auburn Automobile Company went down firing its best shots. Here’s a closer look at one of America’s most acclaimed automotive designs.
Automotive history has its dark side. There have been thousands of auto manufacturers in America, but only a few remain. The inescapable conclusion is that nearly all automakers ultimately fail. Most do not die well. Car companies are founded on brave promises of innovative design and bold engineering. They end with one last run of unwanted cars, thrown together from the surplus inventories of disproven ideas and leftover parts.
Not the Auburn Automobile Company. This manufacturer went down firing its best shots. By 1935, the Indiana car maker’s sales had dried up and its dealers were vanishing. The end was coming, and everyone had to know it. Yet Auburn managed to exit the scene with one original, magnificent and—so far as the company’s future was concerned—totally futile gesture: the Cord 810.
With its striking, louvered nose and groundbreaking hidden headlights, the Cord 810 looked nothing like the conservative offerings from the Big Three during the Great Depression. Created by Gordon Buehrig, the stylist who also created the Auburn 851 Speedster, the Cord is recognized today as one of America’s greatest automotive designs. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art named the 810 one of the 10 most significant cars of the 20th century.
The 810’s engineering was also audaciously original—impossibly so for a shaky operation like Auburn. Cord’s then-radical front-drive system would have taken a General Motors millions of dollars and years to perfect, had it the guts to even try. The Auburn engineers didn’t have the resources, or even much time left, but they did have the nerve. The Cord 810 went from engineering prototype to the production line in 240 days.
The first Cord front driver of 1929, the L29, used a conventional drivetrain turned around backward, more or less—a crude, ineffective package. The late Cord historian Josh Malks reported that with the 810, Auburn carefully studied the Citroen Traction Avant layout, which underneath, the 810 more closely resembles. The 810’s drivetrain sat on a front stub frame that attached to a unitized cab structure, just like the next American front-drive three decades later, the Olds Toronado. The Cord’s front suspension was not predictive of anything, employing an ponderous trailing arm hung on a gigantic pivot on each side.
The transaxle was a departure as well, and the weakest link of all. It remained woefully underdeveloped as Auburn engineers improvised desperate revisions on the production line. Inside the transaxle was a conventional synchronizer gearbox controlled via Bendix Fingertip Control, a feature previously offered by Hudson. The vacuum-electric setup was moody and balky, but Auburn simply lacked the time and resources to develop a proper mechanical shift linkage for the front-mounted transmission.
Since the gearbox was designed as a three-speed, its four forward gears were undersized, generating excessive friction and heat. The gearset hung on a long, whippy input shaft that extended out over the differential, with the whole works encased in an integrated housing that proved impossible to lubricate. The ad-lib design was prone to hammering out its thrust spacers, jumping out of gear, or simply seizing up altogether.
On the other hand, the Cord’s Lycoming V8 was as advanced as any flathead could be in 1936. The camshaft rode high in the block, angling the valves nearly 45 degrees—semi-overhead valves, if you will. The 289 CID developed 125 hp in standard, normally-aspirated form, enough to propel the 3800-lb. Cord to 100 mph. On the 1937 812 model, an available centrifugal supercharger boosted the output to 170 hp.
Uniquely beautiful, the Cord 810/812 never failed to draw a crowd when it pulled to the curb. But when it pulled up to the service entrance, the mechanics fled in terror. Yes, the Cord sparkled—like a mackerel by moonlight.
The Cord could not have saved Auburn. Even at $2,195, double the list price of a Packard 120, Auburn still lost hundreds on every Cord it sold—around 3000 units. Nor would Auburn survive long enough to correct the many but solvable mechanical defects. The company closed for good in 1937. If the Cord had been a GM product—say, an Oldsmobile—the car probably would have been properly developed. But then it probably would have come out looking like an Oldsmobile, too.
An earlier version of this story by Bill McGuire originally appeared in the December 6, 1999 issue of AutoWeek, and another version at Mac’s Motor City Garage in January 2013.