By the mid-1930s, three stunning brands of cars -- Auburn, Duesenberg and Cord -- made up the Auburn Motor Co. The company's "ahead of its time" status was best illustrated by its 1936-37 Cord models.
Almost everyone knows about these Cords, but, according to Cord owner Bob Pease, only 2,960 were built during the two model years of production. He estimates about 1,200 are still around, with probably one-third being drivable.
"When I got this 1936 Cord in 1976, it was a total mess," Pease said. "Rats had torn apart the roof liner and interior of the car during the 20 years of storage. I bought it at a probate sale for $3,000 and became the second owner."
After investing about $75,000, the proud owner showed it for the first time at the Silverado Concours d'Elegance in 1987. He estimates the current market value at $80,000.
In 1935, Gordon Buehrig designed the car and was given a limited budget, about 25 percent of the industry average, for tooling. Things like the door handles and window cranks, items not labeled, were generic or taken from other makes.
Pease pointed out, "This was the Depression; people were not working, and it caught up with Cord. Cutting corners, the car was rushed into production with very little testing."
The company took four cars to the big New York Car Show in November 1935. The hoods were sealed shut to hide the fact the show cars had no engines or transmissions because they weren't ready.
"It was pandemonium," according to Pease. "People stood on top of other cars to get a glimpse of the Cord cars. At the end of the 10-day show, they had over 7,000 orders, and the company thought God had saved them. Then they went to the banks, but the banks wouldn't give them any money because the Big Three got to them first and said if you give them any money, you've lost our business."
Often described as the coffin-styled Cord because of the distinctive hood design, the car had features that were years ahead of other manufacturers. The Alamo resident pointed out favorites. The Cord had no running boards because it was inches lower than other cars of that era. The headlights were not only built into the front fenders, they were concealed.
Two window-type cranks on each side of the dash opened and closed the two headlights individually. Pease pointed out a slight inconvenience: "In order to turn the lights on, if you are by yourself, you had to pull over, as the driver could not reach the right headlight crank while driving."
Little chrome was used on the Cord. There are two small chrome front and rear logos on the vehicle, with only the front one including the Cord name. It is the only location on the entire car with the Cord name.
The Cord had front-wheel drive with the transmission in front of the radiator, resulting in the hood and grille being about 18 inches behind the front bumper. The transmission, built by Bendix, used Finger-Tip Gear Control.
The control box was mounted on the steering column and had a miniature but standard "H" transmission selector pattern. It was a semi-automatic transmission in which the driver could select gears by moving the lever only about an inch, then depress and release the clutch to engage the gear.
It was a pretty advanced system for 1936. In fact, unused and rebuilt Cord transmissions were used in the 50 or so Tucker cars built after World War II.
Advance features for the day included unibody construction with a solid steel roof. On the Cord's beautiful machine-turned-metal dashboard was a button the driver could push to tell how much oil was in the engine without checking a dip stick.
"This is the base model of the Cord," Pease said. "It came in six colors with wool broadcloth with leatherette trim and sold for $1,995 new (about $34,000 today)."
It wasn't the most expensive car available on the market during the Depression years, but it was popular with some big-money celebrities, including Amelia Earhart, movie star Tom Mix, singer Carmen Miranda and Olympic swimmer and movie star Johnny Weissmuller.
If you are a car nut like me and enjoy playing "stump the dummy" with your friends, you might want to get "Cord Complete," a 304-page book put together by Pease and author Josh Malks. It includes probably the most complete printed history of Cord with fantastic photographs, sketches and art work as well as the people involved in the car's creation. For more information, contact Cordbook@gmail.com.
So what have we learned from Bob Pease's Cord story? First, if you build a better mouse trap (or car), a crowd will beat a path to your door, and second, there ain't no substitute for cash.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com