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The Cord that thought it was a Chrysler (or is that vice versa)

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Geoff Hacker, except where noted.

[Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, on a trip to our neck of the woods, Geoff Hacker of Undiscovered Classics unearthed something remarkably long: a Cord that sat on a rear-wheel-drive chassis with a nearly 140-inch wheelbase. Just as intriguing as the car itself is the fact that noted automotive historian Karl Ludvigsen actually spotted this long Cord (should that be Cooooooord?) in the Fifties while studying at MIT. As part of his research into the history of the car, Geoff asked Karl to write up that encounter and passed the story on to us in the hopes it might lead to more history on the car.]

Photo History
Starting in the autumn of 1952 until the spring of 1954 I was a student at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), studying mechanical engineering, in the Boston area of Cambridge. I lived in a fraternity, Delta Psi, on Memorial Drive on the north side of the Charles River at the western extremity of the MIT campus. I was the proud owner and driver of an MG TC, my first car.

Already a car enthusiast, I visited the foreign-car establishments in the Boston area. I joined MIT’s Motor Sports Enthusiasts Club and took part in tours and races at Thompson Raceway. I also wrote about cars for the MIT undergraduate magazine, Tech Engineering News. Starting around 1950 I photographed cars and other events with a Kodak that used 120 film. With it I took a picture of a Cunningham sports car racing and winning at Watkins Glen in 1951 that was used in a Cunningham advertisement in Auto Speed and Sport.

Photos by Karl Ludvigsen.

Always interested in unusual cars, I spotted an unusual Cord parked at a Mobil station in Brookline. Located to the west of central Boston, this is a largely residential area. It is just over the Boston University Bridge, very near to my fraternity, and I could well have driven over the bridge in that direction, south and then connected to Route 9, Boylston Street, which led southwest out of Boston. Had I done so I would have seen the Cord on the right as I passed the junction with Cypress Street. The Mobil station was on the northeast corner of this junction. Indeed, there is still a Mobil station there today.

Timing is difficult to establish with certainty. It clearly is wintertime with barren trees and plenty of slush. I am inclined to think that it was the winter of 1953-’54. By that time I had stopped putting my pictures in an album and was filing them by marques. I regret not getting a better rear view but an uncovered spare tire is clearly visible in one photo. Ideally, clearer versions of these pictures would be acquired from REVS.

The Subject Vehicle
Recognizing the car was not difficult. My first sight of a Cord had been on a street in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, not far from the headquarters of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company. I had no idea what it was. That evening I described it to my father, who told me it was a Cord. Not long thereafter we were traveling in the Midwest when we visited the home of an engineer who had worked at Auburn on the Cord. Regrettably, I do not recall his name. He had one of the wonderful cast bronze models of the 810 and was nice enough to give me an original Cord brochure. Several Cords were circulating in the Kalamazoo area, in one of which I had a back-seat night-time ride, enjoying the impressive glow of the four big instruments.

Clearly from my 1962 communication to the ACD Club, I had worked out that the subject car was no longer based on a Cord’s integral body/frame. One clue was certainly the steering wheel, which — according to one photo, dimly perceived — was that of the source of the chassis rather than an original Cord wheel. It was of a distinctive design associated with Chrysler. The hubcaps also carried a crown motif which was characteristic of some Chrysler models including the Imperial. The bumpers, however, were no help. I have not identified the source of the very inappropriate bumpers.

No other clues are available to the car’s history. If I have read the door-jamb sticker correctly (in a photo provided by Geoff) it was last lubricated in 1962 at a garage in Lowell, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston. The fourth-largest city in Massachusetts, it is home to the Lowell Technological Institute. It is not inconceivable that someone there may know about this car.

My conclusion, additionally supported by the photos of the car as it is now, is that the original Cord Phaeton body has been superimposed on a chassis and frame of Chrysler origin. In other words, the Cord bodywork should lift off the chassis. Evidence of this is that raised channels for the chassis rails run through the floor of the interior, which on the original Cord is completely flat.

Further evidence for the source of the car’s chassis and drive train is that Chrysler was the only American company making wide use of a longer frame for taxis, limousines, and other special-purpose models. First created before World War II, the frame had a wheelbase of 139.5 inches — close enough to the length measured on the subject car. This frame has a parallel-arm independent front suspension and a live rear axle.

Late in 1947 Chrysler changed its wheel sizes from 16 to 15 inches. Because the subject car has 15-inch wheels, the chassis clearly dates from the post-1947 period. Thus the car as seen would have been constructed in the relatively small window between 1947 and my sighting of it in 1953-54.

The engine is a side-valve six-cylinder unit, with manual transmission and column shift. In this period Chrysler built two such sixes, one with a bore size of 3-1/4 inches, chiefly for use in Plymouth and Dodge models, as well as a newer six with greater cylinder-center distances that allowed a bore size up to 3-7/16 inches. My hunch is that this engine is the larger unit, probably with a 4-1/2-inch stroke giving a displacement of 250.6 cubic inches. A typical output would be 116 bhp at 3,600 rpm with 208 lb-ft of torque at 1,600 rpm with a compression ratio of 7.0:1.

The Cord body is that of a 1937 Type 812 Phaeton with hood and exhaust pipes that were usually associated with the supercharged models. Its factory plate identifies the car as a Type 812, with serial number 1886 H , the “H” indicating that it is a Phaeton. Its engine number is FB 2548, showing that the car was not originally supercharged, which would have called for an FC prefix. This is confirmed by the absence of the prefix “3” for the car serial number that would have identified a supercharged car.

The subject car should not have had external exhaust pipes because these were expressly created by designer Alex Tremulis to set the supercharged cars apart, a principle that ACD also applied to its Auburns and Duesenbergs. I do not know definitively whether ACD was willing to supply the external exhaust separately as an option. This may be known to the ACD Club. In any case we know that the exhausts fitted to the subject car post-date the first 300 such installations because they have simpler grilles around the exhaust pipes, replacing the wire mesh used on the initial 300 such exhausts.

The Central Manufacturing number is C91 524. “C91” identifies the body as a “Convertible Phaeton Sedan.” The three-digit number identifies its sequence in production, which was not followed in the final assembly of cars at Connersville. However, during 1937 a batch of Phaetons were assembled in sequence using bodies number 516, 521, 527, 531, 532, 533, and 537. It is not unreasonable to suspect that this Cord would have been assembled as part of this group.

In the documentation available to me, this car is not known to the ACD Club. Any and all such information should be confirmed and submitted to the ACD Club, which can use it to complete the identification of the body and car.

The subject car’s body, complete with instrument panel, has been adapted to the chassis with considerable skill. The necessary lengthening has been carried out at the rear of the front portion of the body forward of the cowl, in part by adding and forming sheet metal at the rear of the hood. Here artistry in metal forming was needed to maintain the tapering of the hood, as well as the sides of the engine bay, from the nose back to the cowl.

The “exhaust pipes” remain in their original position with louvering added rearward of them in a professional manner. Although the headlamps were raised when I photographed the car, their lowered position now suggests that the crank and cable mechanism to operate them has also been adapted to the longer front end.

Door furniture seems to be original Cord as do the seats with their handsome bucketing. The steering wheel is no longer the one that I saw in Brookline. Instrumentation is in place but the central control levers for choke, hand throttle, and headlamp operation seem to be missing. Controls for the factory-fitted radio are in place, but I can’t speak for the radio itself or its speaker. The two glove boxes should be searched for any clues to the car’s history.

The builder’s decision to mount the spare wheel on the trunk lid could have several motivations. Trunk space in these Cords is notoriously poor, which is why most 1937 812s have a bulging “bustle back” trunk lid. As well at the time of construction the “Continental look” with an exterior spare was fashionable. I’m sorry I failed to get a picture that would show just how the spare wheel was secured. Evidently it was never given a suitable cover, which would be desirable in any restoration.

ACD did equip five Phaetons and one Westchester Sedan with externally mounted spare wheels, carried under sheetmetal covers for their tires. The installations were designed so that the wheel could be released from the rear decklid and swung down, behind an extended bumper, so that the decklid could be opened.

General Considerations
Lacking extensive development and testing, the 1936-’37 Cords were not trouble-free. The four-speed transaxle was considered fragile, as was its vacuum-operated shifting system. Front-end alignment had to be perfect to avoid a shimmy at high speeds. Engine cooling could be marginal. If not properly serviced, the front drive’s constant-velocity universal joints could be troublesome. The original cylinder heads were considered a weak point of the Lycoming-built V-8 engine.

After World War II, with the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg enterprise having ceased activity after 1937, service for its cars became less accessible. At the time this car was built, entrepreneur Dallas Winslow had bought the ACD headquarters in Auburn, Indiana, and all remaining parts supplies for Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs. They could and did meet demands for parts and had a workshop able to repair and restore these cars. But assistance elsewhere in the United States was sparse.

As a consequence of these developments, it was not unknown for Cords to be fitted with conventional drive trains. It was not overly onerous to replace the standard power unit with, say, a Mercury or Oldsmobile V-8 engine and its transmission and rear axle, requiring fabrication of a central tunnel for the drive shaft. Then one had the glamorous looks of the Cord combined with a relatively trouble-free drive train. This was in fact what was done in 1939-1940 for cars marketed by Hupp (Skylark) and Graham (Hollywood) using the original Cord body dies with conventional drive trains.

In 1952, two developments promised help. One was the first book on the Cords, compiled and published by Dan R. Post. It provided much-needed information on the design and servicing of the cars. The other event that year was the first step in founding the ACD Club. By September of 1953 the Club had more than 200 members, more than half of them owners of the 1936-’37 Cords.

The creation of the subject car is a much more extreme version of the concept of fitting a rear-drive package in an otherwise unchanged Cord. Marrying a Cord body with a completely different chassis is probably unique in Cord annals. The ACD company built a handful of special cars that married the Cord front-drive package to Auburn frames on which custom bodies were built by LeBaron, but this bears no relationship to what was achieved with the subject car.

Difficult though the servicing position was in the late 1940s, it may be thought surprising that this Cord’s condition then was such that it was considered suitable only for mounting on a completely different chassis, especially one with an engine that was less powerful than the Cord’s V-8 of 125 horsepower. It is tempting to suggest that a more powerful V-8 engine be used in any restoration of this car, one that could do justice not only to its performance but also to its four external exhaust pipes.

Accordingly, it is not easy to suggest what the creator of the subject car had in mind when it was built. They also had to have access to the long-wheelbase Chrysler-built chassis that underpins the car, leading us to presume that the original car was damaged or disabled in some manner. Could both cars have suffered some damage that made them uneconomical to repair — the Cord in particular? Work on the subject car’s restoration may reveal some clues. Whoever built it had access to comprehensive fabrication facilities.

Personal Observations
I have always been a passionate enthusiast of the Cord 810 and 812. When my wife’s son was reaching a substantial size we decided we needed a classic car with more seating capacity. Why not a Cord?

I found an 812 Beverly sedan in Florida. Built in February-March 1937, it would have cost $2,960 new. It was later owned for many years by Wisconsin-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who used it as his daily driver before it went into his museum. It no longer had its original supercharger and outside exhaust pipes, although I could see traces of them in the fenders. Designer Alex Tremulis did a nice job with its extended trunk lid for the 1937 model year, when the designation was changed from 810 to 812.

The Cord’s shape still astonishes, still amazes. We can credit its designers with many advances. Built much lower than its contemporaries, it made running boards redundant. Full-cover discs over a steel wheel were new; its holes were added by the engineers for better brake cooling and heartily approved by body designer Gordon Buehrig. Instead of sticking out on stalks, taillamps were flush with the body surface.

The fuel filler cap was hidden under a hinged and lockable door. Drip rails above the doors were dispensed with, and the door hinges were concealed. The headlamps were hidden, opened by individual cranks from the fascia. No “hood ornament” was needed. The trunk was integrated into the body, not added on. The four-passenger cabriolet had rear quarter-windows for the first time and (like the convertible two-seater) a top that disappeared under a steel cover.

The interior was equally innovative. A horn ring was new on American cars. Edge lighting for the instruments was a novelty, as was a radio completely integrated with the aircraft-look panel. My 1937 Beverly model had fold-down centre armrests both front and rear. One stepped down into the interior past the sills that were an integral part of the structure.

The Cord was a completely integrated and resolved conception of an automobile that still stands as successful more than 80 years after it first took to the road. At the time, as The Autocar said, “there is much to become accustomed to” about its appearance. Added the magazine’s road testers, “one comes fairly quickly to a half-unexpected realisation that the car’s shape has something essentially right about it when once the point is accepted that the makers’ aim has been to arrive at something entirely new.”

Not having driven a Cord before I owned one, I was thrilled by its road performance. Its acceleration was excellent and its handling amazingly steady and flat, even on a race track. It took quite a while to be brought to that condition, with problems with the engine, transmission and suspension to be rectified. Once done, however, it was a superb car. Having achieved that, I decided it was time to sell it.

About the subject car, I wrote in 1962 that “a little more work might have (and perhaps did) result in an exciting-looking Cord-like car. But it is a tribute to the designers of the 810 that this long-hood version, theoretically better (or at least sexier) fails to look just right.”

The risk, I think today, is that care must be taken to avoid a “broken-backed” look. The added length seems to ask for a lifting of the cowl by an inch or two in order to add a visual robustness that matches the extension of length through the center of the bodywork. Or this might be “cheated” by allowing the “coffin nose” to slope downward by an inch or so more at the nose.

It might be thought that the longer hood should be complemented by the addition of a another set of exhaust pipes to the rear of the existing pairs. Although that could be problematic in the disposition of the pipes into the front fenders, and of course the reworking of the side grilles to greater length, I think this is worth considering.

As I hinted in my comments of 56 years ago, this has the potential to be a “sexier” version of the great Cord 812. It requires serious thought about the bumpers and wheels, which now are not helping the car’s appearance. If thought through in all respects, the revival of this unique car could create a stunning showpiece.