Yet another bunch of magnificent classics is to be auctioned off by RM Sotheby’s on 6-7 April in their Fort Lauderdale, Florida auction. It goes without saying that plenty of them come with great stories attached, but one of them really stands out. It is a story of ambition and innovation in the era of austerity, it’s the story of the Cord 812 Phaeton.
To understand the Cord 810 from 1936 (renamed 812 for 1937), we must look at the Art Deco movement as a whole. It traces its roots to Europe in 1920s, where the design philosophy appeared as a push back against the cluttered Art Nouveau approach. Instead of complicated curves and details, Art Deco emphasized functionality, cleanliness and straight lines. It was thought to be the design of the future. Of course, everything is bigger and better in the States, and so Art Deco grew in proportions when it reached the other side of the Atlantic. If French Art Deco is characterized by the delicate Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, USA received the enormous Empire State Building.
Cord 810 by Auburn Car Company was a perfect embodiment of Art Deco approach and it stole the limelight when it debuted in New York Auto Show in 1935. There are reports of the visitors climbing on other cars just to get a glimpse at the Cord. From the iconic “coffin nose” upfront to the hidden gas cap in the back, this Gordon Buehrig’s brainchild looked like nothing else on the road. On the outside it was sleek, low and refreshingly sparse on chrome with striking features like covered headlights or non-existent running boards. It was a different approach to a sports car, lightweight front wheel drive chassis with a capable power plant. Two body options were on offer, a 4 door sedan or a convertible Phaeton. The latter variant is going to be sold in the RM Sotheby’s auction.
Underneath it was just as unconventional. Most importantly, Cord 810 utilized the aforementioned front wheel drive layout, pioneered by the French, with independent front suspension. But the Americans from Cord were the first ones to power the front wheels with a V8. There even was a supercharged version producing very respectable 195 BHP, but the car to be sold in Lauderdale comes with a naturally aspirated engine. Of course, the power was not transferred through any ordinary gearbox either, Cord received a Bendix pre-selector unit, previously used in Hudsons of the era and branded as the ‘Electric Hand’.
The wonderful 810 was an instant hit and the buyers came in flocks. There were 7000 people who placed requests for their 810s right on the New York Auto Show floor. And yet, the 810 and 812 weren’t the great success you’d expect them to be. Albeit abundant in ideas, Cord didn’t have the deep pockets like GM, Chrysler or Ford and America was in an economic downswing.
Consequently, the Cord couldn’t keep up with the unanticipated demand, failing to deliver cars on time. And when the cars eventually arrived they still needed a few of their gremlins sorted out. Pretty soon the car’s reputation was tainted and hardly anyone wanted a Cord. Mind you, 810 and 812 were luxury cars that cost as much as a Cadillac so such mishaps were unforgiveable. It was disastrous for the brand and 812 was the last model Cord ever built.
Insufficient reliability testing aside, the Cord 810 is lightyears ahead its peers. It looks and drives as a post war car. To top it all off, it was fitted with one of the prettiest interiors to ever come in a car. Polished dashboard features all of the necessary instruments and then some – the car has a heater and a radio, features that are present in the most frugal econoboxes today but were a luxury back then. Petrolhead superstar Jay Leno is a proud owner of a Cord 812 and touts its driving qualities. He also claims that the car is perfectly reliable as long as you don’t use it on daily basis and stay on top of the maintenance.
As you’d expect, the 812 Phaetons are more desirable than their 4 door counterparts and can easily go for USD 150,000 or so if in good condition, while a sedan can be bought for half that price. The Phaeton auctioned off by RM Sotheby’s is expected to bring between USD 120,000 and USD 140,000. But it is sold with no reserve, so it’s possible that somebody will leave with an absolute Art Deco bargain.