The Great Depression had a devastating effect on the American automobile industry, drastically shrinking the market for new cars. Small manufacturers of upscale luxury cars found themselves particularly hard put to survive difficult economic climate of the time. One small company that saw the demand for its products dry up was Auburn Automobile Company, which was the manufacturer of three luxury marques: Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg. In a last-ditch effort to survive the depression, Auburn Automobile Company’s president E.L. Cord ordered the development of an upscale luxury car that he hoped would sell in the midst of the depression. The end result did not save the company, but did go down in history as one of the most innovative and recognizable cars ever built: the Cord 810.
The brainchild of famed automobile designer Gordon Buehrig, the Cord 810 was a technological marvel for its time. It employed a longitudinal front-wheel drive layout, which was a setup Auburn Automobile Company had previously pioneered on the 1929-1931 Cord L-29. The 810 was the first American car equipped with independent front suspension. Power was provided by a Lycoming V-8 engine, which had a displacement of 289 cubic inches (4.7 litres) and produced a then-impressive 125 horsepower. The engine was mated to an innovative 4-speed semi-automatic transmission, with which the driver changed gears by flipping a lever, then pressing the clutch.
The Cord 810’s was equally renowned for its avant-garde looks that set it apart from all other cars on the road. It was fitted with a sleek streamlined Art-Deco style body shell which had a number of distinctive visual cues, including a “coffin” nose, a wrap-around louvered grille, and pontoon fenders. In addition to being futuristic looking, the car’s body featured a number of innovations. The 810 was the very first car equipped with hidden headlamps, which were mounted in the car’s front fenders. It was also one of the first cars to be equipped with a rear hinged hood and hidden door hinges, both of which later became common design features throughout the automobile industry.
The Cord 810 made its debut at the New York Auto Show in November 1935, where it caused a public sensation. But in terms of sales, the 810 proved to be a disappointment, which was attributable to a number of factors. Delays in bringing the 810 into production, something Auburn Automobile Company was not able to accomplish until February 1936, prompted a number of customers to cancel their orders. Because it was rushed into production, the 810 experienced a number of serious teething troubles, most notably problems with its transmission, which turned even more potential customers away. Last of all, the 810 was expensive, selling in the $1900-$2200 range. During the Great Depression, few people could afford to buy a car at that price and most of those who could were not willing to pay that kind money for an unconventional car known to have serious bugs.
For the 1937 model year, the Cord 810 was replaced by the Cord 812, an improved version of the 810 which was available with a supercharged engine. But neither the 810 nor the 812 was enough to save Auburn Automobile Company, which ceased all automobile production in August 1937. A total of 1,764 Cord 810s were built. Surviving examples are highly prized collectibles today.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 335-337.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 377-379.
The New Cord (Dutch), Cord: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model and Various Models, 1931-1978, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
The New Cord (English), Cord: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model and Various Models, 1931-1978, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.