The Cord 810 was one of the most innovative cars when it was introduced almost 75 years ago.
When it debuted in 1935, the Cord 810 did at least part of what it was supposed to. Built with technical innovations unavailable on any other car of its time, the 810 turned heads and caught the attention of the entire automotive world.
The Cord 810 was unlike any car that came before. Originally conceived as a “baby” Duesenberg, the 810 was billed as the flagship of the automotive line (Auburns and Cords) built by Auburn Automotive Company (AAC). Made with a distinctive design flair that set it apart from anything else on the road, the 810 is easily one of the most beautiful American cars ever built.
The front was so similar in look to a coffin, so the car was often called “Coffin Nose”. The Cord 810 was available as a Sportsman, Phaeton, and two sedan models – the Westchester and the up-market Beverly. All rode on 125-inch wheelbases.
The 810’s styling was centered around a huge, coffin-nosed hood with an integrated wraparound grill assembly of horizontal louvers resembling Venetian blinds. The flared front fenders were massive, and incorporated the automotive industry’s first disappearing headlights, which opened and retracted through a cranking mechanism and cables. The next two American cars to use a front-wheel drive layout, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and 1967 Cadillac Eldorado (both built on GM’s E-Body platform), also had hidden headlamps.
Its engine-turned dashboard included complete instrumentation, a tachometer, and standard radio (which did not become an industry standard offering until well into the 1950s). The 810 had a four-speed electrically-selected semi-automatic transmission, among other innovative features.
The elegant fingertip control lever was unique, being the most advanced system at the time. It was the same Ypsilanti transmission also used by Tucker cars after the war, and it was a step towards automatic transmission.
The body of the Cord 810 featured unitized all-steel construction, center-hinged doors with concealed hinges, a sharply-angled (45 degrees), split-pane windshield, an elegant, sloped rear end and a roomy interior.
Mechanically, the Cord 810 offered an innovative powertrain with front-wheel-drive and a Lycoming V-8 rated at 125 horsepower (but actually slightly less powerful) under the hood. Cord claimed the car had a top speed of 95 mph, although that has not been documented.
Front suspension was independent, with dual trailing “swing arms” acting on a transverse leaf spring, and made for an unusually smooth ride. While the first American front-wheel-drive car with independent front suspension, it had an archaic tube rear axle with semi-elliptic rear springs.
But for all its innovations and its outstanding design, the Cord 810 was maybe a little too far ahead of its time in more ways than one. The model was plagued by production problems from the word go, and didn’t make it into full production until 1936, several months after it was to have shipped. The Cord 810 had persistent troubles with its transmission and drivetrain, and received numerous complaints from car owners, who had become unwitting test drivers when the car was put into production before all the bugs were worked out.
Other problems mounted…paint jobs were sloppy, and the company admitted later it used leftover Auburn paints on some cars, giving them an uneven finish. Many cars leaked badly whenever it rained. The front-wheel-drive powertrain also had problems with wearing in the joints that caused an annoying noise.
To their credit, engineers and workers at Auburn worked frantically to correct the car’s problems, but the company was in the midst of hard times financially and proved to be on its way to oblivion.
The 810 sold about 1,100 units in 1936, then became the improved 1937 Cord 812, but prices went up as well, and the company actually lost money on each car. Ironically, the revolutionary 810 – Auburn’s hope for revitalizing a struggling company – may have sealed AAC’s fate.
The Cord 810 had its successes…Many of the innovations featured on the Cord 810 were later perfected and have become commonplace on today’s cars. The Cord 810 even experienced success in racing, taking first place in the 24-hour Stevens Trophy Challenge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The design of the Cord 810 remains one of the most distinctive of the 20th Century. In 1996, American Heritage magazine proclaimed the Cord 810 sedan ‘The Single Most Beautiful American Car’. The Cord 810 is one of the few automobiles on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
And today, the Cord 810 is a success among collectors, if only for its unique styling and the place in automotive history it’s given for its innovative design.