A supercharged, front-wheel drive oddity

The 812 is not your typical American prewar coupe. Produced by the Cord Automobile division of the Auburn Automobile Company for just a single year, the 812 evolved from the 810, the first front-wheel drive car equipped with an independent front suspension and built by an American automobile company. The 810/812 duo also featured weird eccentricities like hideaway headlights and variable-speed windshield wipers, and it was one of the first models offered with a radio as standard equipment. It looked the part of an odd duck as well, with a strange “coffin-nose” design led by a wraparound grille spread across the front fascia. Nevertheless, the car’s supercharged performance was undeniable, and thanks to the blown V-8 situated under the hood, the 812 was one of the fastest cars in the world during the pre-war time period.

While buyers loved the impressive performance and streamlined look, the 812 suffered from reliability and production issues that hampered its long-term success. These days, the 812 is considered a valuable collectible model, as evidenced by its six-figure sale price at the recent Mecum auction in Monterey, California.

Read on to learn more about this interesting American two-door.

Continue reading to learn more about the 1937 Cord 812 Sportsman.

History And Background

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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In the mid-‘30s, E.L. Cord sought a model to fit between the Auburn and Duesenberg, and created the 810/812 in the process.

The first of the two models, the 810, debuted in November of 1935 at the New York Auto Show. The immediate consumer response was overwhelmingly positive, with attendees clamoring over one another to get a look at the curious design. In response, Cord declared a delivery date of Christmas of that year, anticipating production to hit 1,000 units a month.

Cord quickly followed the 810 with the 812, which critically came with the option for a supercharged powerplant

Unfortunately, the semi-automatic transmission Cord intended on using ended up stalling production. No cars were delivered that Christmas, and it took until February of 1936 for the first batch of cars to roll out from the factory. Deliveries to New York were stalled even further, with the first units not arriving until April.

In total, Cord managed to sell just 1,174 units in the 810’s first model year, despite the widespread demand for the car when it was first introduced.

Cord quickly followed the 810 with the 812, which critically came with the option for a supercharged powerplant, as opposed to the older naturally aspirated V-8.

Demand once again took a hit when the Cord cars ran into reliability issues, such as vapor lock, and a transmission that would occasionally slip out of gear.

With a batch of 1936 cars sitting around unsold, Cord decided the best course of action was to resell the cars for the 1937 model year. That batch includes the example featured here.

This particular example arrived in Monterey with an older restoration, with a history that includes two “well-respected” collections, according to Mecum.

Exterior

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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Responsible for penning the interesting and unusual exterior design is Gordon Buehrig, whose work also includes designs for Packard, General Motors, and Stutz.

Probably the most defining feature of the car can be found in front, where Buehrig’s iconic “coffin-nose” design is seen. This includes a wraparound grille that stretches all they way back along the hood and to the doors with a series of vertical louvers. This standout styling element was critical to the weirdness of Buehrig’s flair.

Probably the most defining feature of the car can be found in front, where Buehrig’s iconic “coffin-nose” design is seen.

Along the profile, we find what’s known as pontoon fenders – bulbous, rounded metal that encapsulates the wheels and tires with iconic prewar style. Other notable features include a hidden gas cap, and hideaway headlights that could stow away into the body by turning a hand crank in the dash. These units were originally landing lights sourced the Stinson Aircraft Company, of which E.L. Cord owned a majority of the stock.

Even the windshield wipers were interesting, offering variable speed operation, unlike the more common vacuum-operated units that would cease to work when applying the throttle.

Unique to the 812 (versus the 810, that is) are the chromed-out steel exhaust pipes you see snaking their way out of the side screens on either side of the engine cover. These pipes distinguished the supercharged model from the naturally aspirated model, and look pretty damn cool, too.

Beyond these flashy additions up front, the rest of the 812 body is surprisingly devoid of the multitude of polished details common for models of the day. The result is a slick body that looks mean and purposeful.

This particular example is draped in a paint hue dubbed “Cigarette Cream,” and it’s equipped with large polished hubcaps mounted on red wheels and fitted with whitewall tires. And although you can’t see it, the underbody was refinished, as well.

Exterior Dimensions
Length 195.5 inches (4,966 mm)
Width 71 inches (1,803 mm)
Height 60 inches (1,524 mm)
Wheelbase 125 inches (3,175)

Interior

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Interior
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1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Interior
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1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Interior
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Taking a peak into this thing is easy, thanks to its roofless coupe convertible design. And that’s a good thing, because it looks like quite a nice place to be.

First off, the door hinges are hidden, and placed towards the rear of the car, aiding ingress and egress alongside those large pontoon fenders. Once you get inside, you’re met with a single bench seat draped in bright Crimson Red leather upholstery. The door panels and dash base are also in this eye-catching hue.

One of the coolest parts of the interior is the dash face, which uses an engine-turned panel set with full instrumentation.

One of the coolest parts of the interior is the dash face, which uses an engine-turned panel set with full instrumentation. It looks fantastic, with eight different gauge faces keeping tabs on all the vitals, including a tachometer. This car was also fitted with a radio as standard, a selling point that arrived two decades before the rest of the industry would catch up.

Also note the tiny key ring gear shifter located just to the right of the steering wheel. This thing is actually gated, with a dogleg shift pattern – another weird little detail about this car.

I’m a particular fan of the Cigarette Cream steering wheel, which uses a three-spoke design and includes a smaller inner ring for extra style points.

Drivetrain

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Drivetrain
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Here’s another eccentricity you might not expect – the 812 uses a front-engine, front-wheel drive layout, offering a stark contrast to the idea of the stereotypical rear-drive American car.

The predecessor to the 812, the 810, originally came equipped with a naturally aspirated 4.7-liter (4,739 cc, 289 cubic inch) Lycoming V-8 engine, driving the front axle with 125 horsepower. This engine was actually a replacement for an older straight-eight, and consequently, the more compact design of the vee placed the weight more squarely on top of the front axle, aiding handling.

The car’s front-wheel drive system was improved over its predecessor thanks to the inclusion of ball-bearing constant velocity joints

With the introduction of the 812 came the new, supercharged iteration of the 4.7-liter, as was fitted to the example you see here (the blown V-8 was actually retrofitted afterwards).

The blower is a centrifugal unit sourced from Schwitzer-Cummins, and includes a modified intake manifold. With the supercharger installed, output was raised by 36 percent compared to the naturally aspirated V-8, maxing out at 170 horsepower when new.

That’s a lot of output for a front-wheel drive automobile, even by modern standards. Flat out, the 812 could hit a top speed of 110 mph.

A rear-hinged hood aids access to the powerplant, which is an uncommon feature for the time period, as most cars used hoods with side access instead.

All 170 horsepower is routed through a semi-automatic four-speed transmission, offering three normal gears, plus an overdrive. This gearbox is actually extended forward from the engine. There’s also a Bendix pre-selector, which lets the driver choose which gear to shift to, then engage the gear using a single stab of the third pedal.

Without the need for a driveshaft or transmission tunnel, the 810 and 812 are built very close to the ground, with only 9 inches of ground clearance.

Finally, the car’s front-wheel drive system was improved over its predecessor thanks to the inclusion of ball-bearing constant velocity joints, which were installed between the driven and driving shafts.

Chassis And Handling

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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Critically, the 812 offers an independent front suspension, with trailing arms, leaf springs, and friction shocks. Unfortunately, the rear uses a very outdated (even for 1937) tube rear axle, with semi-elliptical rear springs. Hauling it all down to a stop are 12-inch drum brakes.

Total curb weight comes in at 4,110 pounds (1,860 kg).

Prices

In total, Cord produced 3,000 examples of the 810 and 812, and prices at auction can vary quite a bit.

The particular example you see here (chassis number 8121163F) sold at the Mecum auction in Monterey this past August (Lot S71) for $120,000 – quite a bit below the initial estimated range of $170,000 to $200,000.

However, that price is right on track for the average, which hovers around the $150,000 mark. That said, some examples have gone for as much as $500,000. It really all depends on the history and condition of the example in question.

Competition

Cadillac Series 85

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
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Another big, bad, and beautiful American bruiser made in the ‘30s was the Cadillac Series 85, a V-12 powered luxury liner with 150 horsepower, a three-speed manual gearbox, and four-wheel drum brakes. The twelve-cylinder model was actually a downgrade compared to the even more outrageous V-16 model. If you find one at auction nowadays, expect to shell out at least six-figures to get it into your garage.

Packard 1500 Super Eight

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
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The Super Eight was the mid-range model for Packard, slotted above the Eight, but below the Twelve. The body of the Super Eight is similar to that of the Eight, and is made out of steel and wood. And although it wasn’t the top model, there was still all the opulence inside that you might expect from a top model. Under the hood is a straight eight-cylinder engine, which replaced the outgoing V-12 powerplant, making for the perfect style of the time, where long hood lines were supreme.

Conclusion

1937 Cord 812 Sportsman High Resolution Exterior
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The Cord 812 is a weird car, but quite innovative and clever for its time. It bears a unique look that stands out next to all the other classics of its era, with a wraparound grille and uncluttered lines. The interior is a pleasant place to be, the hideaway headlights are cool, and with 170 supercharged horsepower hitting the front axle, it’s pretty fast too – for a car from the ‘30s, I mean.

It’s a shame the car didn’t last that long in production, but that’s usually what happens with something that’s ahead of its time. Thankfully, there are still a few examples floating around on the collector car market, so picking one up shouldn’t be too difficult – if you have the cash, that is.

  • Leave it
    • * Had reliability issues when it was first introduced
    • * Top examples are very expensive at auction now
    • * Upkeep not exactly an easy proposition

Source: Mecum

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