Among automobile aficionados, the name Cord resonates as one of the most unique and important automobile makes of all time. Innovative in engineering concept, beautiful in appearance, responsive on the road, and coveted by automobile collectors the world over, these fascinating Cord automobiles nevertheless are eclipsed by the man who brought them into being. This took imagination, guts, hustle, and style – all of which E.L. Cord had in abundance.
Errett Lobban (E.L.) Cord was born in Warrensburg Missouri in 1894, the son of a grocer and a teacher. When E.L. was 10 years old his father’s general store went bankrupt. Cord’s father was set up in the jewelry business in Joliet for a time by his brother-in-law, but the entire clan pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles in 1904. While growing up in California, young E.L. discovered the automobile.
In Los Angeles, Cord became car crazy. He went to technical school to learn how cars worked, and he spent his free time hanging around with other car enthusiasts. By the time he was 15, Cord had left school and was working as a used car salesman by day and studying business by night. His father died in 1911 giving Cord at age 17 the additional responsibility of providing for his mother and sister. These events all combined and made it necessary for E.L. to fully develop his entrepreneurial skills. He got busy.
Cord took a job in an auto service station as a supervisor and mechanic, and also began developing his skills in sales and marketing. He bought his first car in 1913 – a used Ford Model T for $75 – and spruced it up to sell at a profit. Next, he bought a new Model T which he customized and sold, doubling his money. Cord had discovered the saleability of style. He also discovered the saleability of performance. He raced his cars and found that if he won a race in a modified car, he could sell it on the spot for hundreds of dollars more than if he sold it later. In 1914, he even eloped in one of his special Ts that had a “For Sale” sign on it, looking for a sales opportunity while on his honeymoon! By the end of 1914, Cord had bought and sold about 20 cars, making a good profit on each.
Cord wasn’t satisfied. In partnership with a cousin, he bought a truck which hauled ore from an Arizona mine to the smelter. He became a car salesman for Paige in Phoenix. At one point he owned a bus service between Los Angeles and San Diego, and he even had a rental car business that only had one rental car! He next had good success selling Chandler cars for the Hay Company of Chicago, but left that to sell gas home heaters back in California – and failed. But entrepreneurs seldom give up.
Cord’s former boss at Hay back in Chicago had secured the Moon automobile distributorship for Chicago, and he offer Cord the chance to buy into the business. Becoming a star salesman, within a couple of years Cord saved nearly $100,000 from his commissions but again grew restless. He wanted to build his own automobile, and that time was almost at hand. However, saving Auburn came first.
In 1924, the Auburn Automobile Company was almost bankrupt. It had low production, seven hundred unsold cars, and a huge inventory of parts. Coincidentally, Cord had sold a Moon automobile to one of the Board of Directors of Auburn, and the two men struck up an acquaintance. Cord was invited to tour the Auburn Operation and was offered a top management position. Cord countered with the proposal that he be given total decision-making responsibility, 20% of any profits, and the option to buy controlling interest in the company with those profits. The board agreed, and E.L. went to work. He repainted the existing inventory with flashy two tone paint jobs and sold the cars at a deep discount. He used that capital to build new cars that also had flash and sex appeal. He added Lycoming straight eight engines to the cars to improve perceived performance. Within a year, he had turned Auburn around and bought out the company owners! At the age of 32, Cord became the President and took complete control. He finally had the resources to build his own car, and it would be a beauty.
E.L. Cord was not a man to shrink from risk, and he envisioned a new type of automobile that would break new ground on a number of fronts. It was to appeal to the well-to-do of the roaring twenties and be slotted in between the Auburn Eight and the Duesenberg Model J – both companies of which he owned. It would be designed in a way unlike anything that had been built in America, and it would incorporate the latest engineering found in racing machines. The car would not only proclaim its owners’ status, it would also set the bar for performance and safety in a road car. It was given the project number L-29.
The great Harry Miller had been building front wheel drive race cars in Los Angeles and was considered one of the finest pioneering race car builders in the world. Miller agreed to develop the drive train for the L-29 and assigned his engineer Cornelius Van Ranst (who had driven in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race) to head the project. The two men brought their visionary talents to Cord, and the L-29 became the first production front wheel drive car sold in America. Other innovations were added. The power train featured an early use of constant velocity joints. The Lycoming straight eight engine had too much torque for the prototype frame, so they created the first “X” braced frame to stiffen the car. The frame was also designed to make the car as low to the ground as possible for good handling and innovative styling.
Alan H. Leamy was given the task of designing the car. Because the engine, cutch, transmission, and final drive were all ahead of the passenger compartment, an extremely long hood was required. To keep the car’s visual proportions under control, Leamy incorporated a set-back V-shaped radiator, a vertical windshield, and a long wheel base. He created an innovative way to mount the headlights, carefully sculpted the flowing fenders, and even incorporated a new aristocratic crest into his design. He used the finest materials in the interior, and included many delightful details throughout the whole of the automobile. Leamy may have been a self-taught designer, but he created a masterpiece in the Cord L-29.
Upscale advertising was used to promote the car to the rich and famous. One ad proclaimed “The Cord creates a place for itself no other car has ever occupied” and was illustrated in a rich setting indeed with a thoroughbred horse and three obviously well-to-do young ladies. And the wealthy took the bait. One customer was none other than architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who found the L-29 “becoming to his houses” and thought that front wheel drive was more “logical and scientific” than rear wheel drive. He bought one and had it painted bright orange!
Other advertising emphasized the safety aspect of front wheel drive, showing the car operating in the pouring rain. Ads stated that the Cord was easier to steer than conventional cars, and that front wheel drive would actually pull the car through corners and curves. The car was described as having superior handling, control, stability, and comfort. Its design was fresh, and its beauty was undeniable.
Despite the overall excellence of the L-29, and despite all of the well-reasoned promotion, an historic event killed the car and almost killed the company. The Great Depression enveloped America, ending the classic car era and evaporating the market for coachbuilt automobiles. The good news for E.L. Cord was that he had just sold all of his shares in his company, and became a multimillionaire as a result.
E.L. Cord started with nothing and built a business empire that in his heyday spanned some 150 companies. Among them were Cord, Duesenberg, Auburn, Checker Cab, Lycoming, Stinson Aircraft, New York Shipbuilding, and American Airways (later American Airlines). The L-29, with its magnificent design and multiple innovations, remains one of the most desirable classics of all time. Produced from the summer of 1929 until December 31, 1931, only about 5,000 examples total were built in all available body styles. The cars have won many of the most prestigious awards in the world from 1930 until the present time. They are sought after today and command premium prices when they are bought and sold.
Cord eventually retired to his ranch in Nevada and entered politics, becoming a state legislator. He was asked to run for Governor but declined. The reason why he did not run is still a mystery. E.L. Cord died in Reno, Nevada in 1974 at age 79.
This summer, visit the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn Indiana. I have been there, and you are in for a treat! Not only can you examine incredible classic cars, but you can step back in time to when designers used pencil, paper, and clay to create some of the most beautiful automobiles ever conceived. The museum is open seven days a week from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. Visit the website for details.