Ahead of Their Time: The Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg Story

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 31, 2017

AUBURN, INDIANA—This coming weekend is a great time to be in Auburn, Indiana, which is celebrating the Auburn Cord Duesenberg (ACD) Festival with auctions, cruises, parades and lots of food. This year, Cord is featured. As a preview of the gala events, I toured the ACD Museum, and saw a plethora of these Hoosier dream cars up close.

In the original ACD showroom in Auburn, Indiana, this classic two-toned Boattail Speedster sports space-age Woodlite headlamps. Touring the museum can be part of the fun if you go to Auburn this week. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve always admired Errett Lobban (known as “E.L.”) Cord, the hugely engaging engineer, race driver and businessman who brought the stellar Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg brands together in Indiana—unfortunately, at just the wrong time.

Three streamlined, ahead-of-their-time failures: from left, the Lincoln Zephyr, the Cord 810 and the Chrysler Airflow. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The economy was still booming when Cord founded the Cord Corporation in 1929. It was a holding company for more than 150 companies, suggesting that ‘ol E.L. may have been spread a little too thin. Lycoming engines? Checker cabs? Cord owned both companies. He may have learned the wrong lessons from William Crapo Durant, the stock-crazed industrialist who built General Motors—and then lost it because he couldn’t stop buying companies.

Just think of the audacity of the man. He closely followed racing, and liked what Harry Miller had done with front-wheel drive at the 1925 Indianapolis 500, and so launched the L29, a magnificent and ahead-of-its-time FWD Cord, in June of 1929—just months before the crash. As you surely know, most cars today are FWD. Did the L29 fail in the marketplace? Of course—production ended in 1931.

The L29 Cord barely made an impression on the market, but it was an influential front-wheel-drive car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The next namesake car Cord launched was even more innovative. The “coffin nose” Cord, launched in 1936 (the depths of the Depression) sported unitary construction, FWD, a 125-horsepower Lycoming V-8, disappearing headlights, a pre-selector gearbox, sleek non-running-board styling. Heady stuff for 1936, and it wasn’t even expensive!

Imagine how radical the 810 "coffin nose" Cord looked in 1936! FWD, disappearing headlights, pre-selector gearbox, Lycoming V-8, and more--good for  100 mph. But only 3,000 were built. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Did the coffin nose fail? Of course! Despite strong initial interest in the radical car, fewer than 3,000 were built in 1936 and 1937. The ACD Museum displays one alongside other notable streamlined failures of the period—the Chrysler Airflow and the Lincoln Zephyr. Cord seems to have defied conventional wisdom, which might have suggested economy cars, and instead introduced a V-12 engine for 1932.

Auburn was the affordable choice, but the cars were a dream to drive--and there was even a V-12, introduced in 1932. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Auburn sedans were the most staid and affordable in the company’s lineup, but ACD also offered the outrageous Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster, one of the great icons among classic automobiles. With its steeply raked windshield, chromed supercharger pipes and tapering wasp tail, this Gordon Beuhrig creation looks like it’s going 100 mph when it’s at a standstill. The Speedster was guaranteed to go 100 mph, and sold for a reasonable $2,245. But only 500 851 cars were built.

This highly unusual Cord features Auburn headlights, a padded leather roof and LaSalle ventports. Cars could be ordered with special features in those days. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The other brand in the tri-headed lineup was Duesenberg, one of the most famous marques in the world. The phrase “It’s a Duesy!” has obvious origins. Duesenbergs, even more than Cadillacs of the period, were an international standard of excellence, sporting custom coachwork and big Lycoming straight eights, often supercharged. Output was 265 horsepower, and each car was tested to 100 mph.

E.L. Cord had a lot in common with Preston Tucker of movie fame. They both innovated in markets that weren't ready for them. This Tucker, the 52nd built, was put together from spare parts after production ceased. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cord bought Duesenberg, developed by a pair of race-going brothers, in 1926 and introduced the revered Model J in 1929. (Debate continues on whether the supercharged cars should be identified as SJ or not.)

The Duesenberg bare chassis cost $8,500, and by the time the coachbuilder completed his art, the bottom line was often $20,000. But now a J will cost in the millions. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kings, celebrities (including Clark Gable and Gary Cooper) and well-heeled business tycoons owned Duesenbergs. The Model J’s chassis alone cost $8,500, and by the time one of the world’s more illustrious coachworks had put bodywork on it, the bottom line could be $20,000. Derham, Judkins, Murphy, Rollston and Weymann bodied Duesies in the U.S., and Franay, Gurney Nutting, Fernandez et Darrin and Saoutchik in Europe.

Cooper and Gable even sported around in ultra-fast 400-horsepower SSJ models, which were capable of 140 mph. Howard Hughes had a Duesenberg, as did Al Capone and William Randolph Hearst. But did it all fall apart? Of course! This is the Depression, remember.

Gordon Buehrig designed the streamlined Tasco, but only this one was built. (Jim Motavalli photo)

E.L. Cord began to neglect his car business, and in 1934 moved to England (allegedly because he was afraid of kidnapping in the wake of the Lindbergh baby’s murder), but maybe to escape the long arm of the law—there were Checker Cab stock manipulation charges. He sold the Cord Corporation in 1937, moved to California, and became wealthy in real estate and owned radio stations (including KFAC, whose last two initials stood for Auburn and Cord). Don’t worry about him, he came out fine, and died at a ripe old age of 79. He was asked to run for governor of Nevada in 1958, but declined.

I had a great tour of the ACD Museum, conducted by Josh Valadez, the marketing manager. I’ll tell that part of the story in the captions. If you’re interested in the ACD Festival, read the official program here.  Also in Auburn is the National Auto and Truck Museum, the Kruse Automotive and Carriage Museum, and the Early Ford V-8 Museum.

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