Indiana-based car companies Auburn and Duesenberg produced some of America’s most beautiful and powerful automobiles from 1900 through the late 1930s. Known for their advanced engineering, the cars established speed records it took the competition years to match, and the term “It’s a Duesie” entered the English language to describe a product or event of unparalleled excellence.
By 1929, the two companies – and several other firms such as engine-builder Lycoming – had come together under the management of E.L. Cord, a charismatic and business-savvy former car salesman. Cord debuted his L-29 that year, an elegant series of sedans, cabriolets and town cars that were gorgeous but did not push the edge of the styling envelope. The L-29 was mechanically innovative, with front-wheel drive and X-shaped bracing for a strong frame, but Wall Street’s stock market crash would end all but the strongest companies’ chances to sell high-end luxury cars. After only 5,010 L-29s were built, production ended in 1932.
In 1936 Cord introduced a new self-named model, built on a front-drive chassis as a way to make the sleek body sit low. Originally designed to be a “baby Duesenberg,” the Cord 810 featured such Buck Rogers styling features as concealed headlights, a raked windshield and other aerodynamic tricks. E.L. Cord’s ownership of American Airlines was hinted at in the 810’s aviation-like body and interior appointments. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the car was its nose, which looks at first glance like a polished coffin from the school of art deco design.
The futuristic bodywork was incredibly labor intensive; the solid curved roof alone was made from seven different metal panels that had to be bolted together and filled without a trace of a seam. Early mechanical problems tainted the car’s reputation, so an improved 812 was released for model year 1937 – available with the earlier car’s 125-horsepower Lycoming flathead V-8 or a supercharged version that produced an impressive 170.
Unfortunately, the updates came too late to save the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg trio from extinction, its final product an 812 built in August. Only 3,000 of the 810/812 models were made.
In 1949, an auto enthusiast and aspiring racer named Ray Smith was making $50 a week when he located and bought a Cord 812 Beverly. Smith owned the 13-year-old dream car for less than two years, during which time it became a nightmare.
“I sold it after replacing two sets of transmission gears at $285 each time,” Smith recalled. “But I always wanted to drive that beautiful car without worrying about mechanical problems. In the early ‘90s, I decided to build one with a modern engine, but it took awhile for my wife Linda and me to find a suitable body.”
Since that first Cord experience in 1949, Smith has learned a lot more about cars and the automobile industry. His career had taken him to Stewart-Warner in the ‘50s, where he was an engineer on the B-52 bomber program; Gemini and Mercury space capsules at Bendix Aerospace; then to General Motors where he would eventually work for Cadillac, Buick and other brands.
In 2000 he found a ’36 810 body in Massachusetts that turned out to be the 24th one ever made. Starting with a custom frame that E.L. Cord would have been proud of, Smith’s crew of customizers installed one of GM’s 355-horsepower, ZZ4 crate engines and a 700R4 automatic transmission. Air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and Buick power bucket seats were skillfully integrated into the Cord’s interior, which otherwise looks like the factory intended. The aircraft-inspired dash was painstakingly reproduced, down to the detail of having the lettering painted on the reverse side of the glass instead of on the gauges themselves.
To add an extra dose of nostalgia to the mix, Smith installed the supercharged engine’s external exhaust pipes, which gives his ’36 the appearance of a ’37 812.
“It took about five years from start to finish,” Smith said, “unless you count the 50 years I spent planning it.”
The Cord, which turns heads now as much as it did when new, will be displayed in the Food Lion AutoFair Pavilion along with the Monster Garage’s Ultimate Surfmobile, a 900-horsepower Shadrach Mustang and 40th Anniversary gatherings of two important American musclecars that have recently been revived: the Dodge Charger and the Shelby GT-500 Mustang. Hundreds of examples of vintage farm machinery, courtesy of the Stumptown Tractor Club, will fill the show lot next to the infield Pavilion, and there will be an automotive art gallery. Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.