Today we tend to think of front-wheel-drive in association with cheaper cars, or cars that are decidedly unglamorous. But, when the technology was still new, the possibilities that it offered were exciting, and it genuinely did bring about a revolution in automotive design. The most famous of the early front-wheel-drive cars is the Citroen Traction Avant, a car that was actually just given the name for the French word for front-wheel-drive. The Citroen certainly popularized front-wheel-drive, but several years before it debuted, an American company called Cord introduced the system for a new model called the L-29.

Despite its revolutionary drivetrain layout, the L-29, which debuted in 1929, didn’t look especially different from the other cars in its price range at the time. It was also introduced just as the stock market crashed, so it never did sell all that well. Cord’s second front-wheel-drive model, however, was a whole different story. Not only did it have this new and highly advanced drivetrain, but the styling now looked the part, and nothing before or since looked like it. This car was the 810, which was renamed the 812 in its second year of production after a number of design tweaks were made.

Continue reading to learn more about the 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton.

Exterior

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution Exterior
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1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution Exterior
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1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution Exterior
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In the early ’30s, the invention of the “step-down” interior (an interior that was sunken in between the frame rails) had made some of the newer and more fashionable cars much lower than what had been the norm. There were still only a handful of cars using this technique when the 810 debuted in 1936, but even so, the lack of a driveshaft passing under the passenger compartment meant that the 810/812 was even lower. It was so low that running boards were unnecessary, and leaving them off was a revolutionary look at the time. This low body also meant that the greenhouse could be made shorter, and the smaller windows give the 812 a much more streamlined look. The 810/812 was nicknamed the “coffin nose” for its front end.

The design was originally chosen to be a Duesenberg, a brand owned by the same parent company, Auburn.

The design was originally chosen to be a Duesenberg, a brand owned by the same parent company, Auburn. At the time, Duesenberg’s only model was the Model J, and it was staggeringly expensive, competing with European luxury brands like Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza. A less expensive entry-level model was seen as a good way to weather the Great Depression, but it was ultimately decided that the design would work best with front-wheel-drive and that such a model should therefore be a Cord.

The design also incorporated hidden door hinges, pontoon fenders with pop-up headlights and a rear-hinged hood that allowed for the unusual shape of the front end and the louvered wraparound grille. Pop-up lights were still several decades away from being commonplace, and the 812 was built before anyone had the idea to put electric motors in them. So the lights were raised and lowered by a pair of cranks on either side of the dashboard.

The lights themselves were actually Stinson aircraft landing lights, one of a few fashionable airplane-themed touches on the car. The story goes that when a pre-production version of the car was shown at the 1935 New York Auto Show, it drew such a big crowd that people were standing on the bumpers of nearby cars just to get a peek.

Interior

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution Interior
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Front-wheel-drive didn’t just mean a lower body, it also meant a roomier interior, particularly when it came to headroom. It is an exceedingly well appointed interior as well. The 812 was by no means a cheap car when it was new, but it was very much a mainstream sort of luxury car. This makes it all the more remarkable that the interior could easily have come from a car costing four times as much and with custom coachwork.

Of particular note is the dashboard, which is made of machine-turned aluminum. It is another airplane-inspired design feature, and one that was again used primarily in considerably more expensive cars. It is lacking any of the wood trim pieces that you would typically find on more expensive cars, but for the price it is an absolutely beautiful example of an art deco automotive interior.

Drivetrain

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution
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The inline-8 engine displaced 288 cubic inches (4.7 liters) and produced 170 horsepower with the supercharger.

One of the big differences between the 810 and the 812 is that the 812 was offered with a supercharger and the 810 was not. It was an expensive option, raising the price of the car from about $2,500 to $3,000, so only 688 units of the 812 were built with superchargers — the one you see here is one of them. Supercharged versions are easy to spot by the chrome exhaust pipes exiting through the sides of the engine compartment.

The inline-8 engine displaced 288 cubic inches (4.7 liters) and produced 170 horsepower with the supercharger. That was a pretty respectable amount at the time, but it should come as no surprise, as the engineering work was done by August Duesenberg, one of the Duesenberg brothers, and a highly talented race car engineer. The power was sent through a custom transaxle to the front wheels. These would be plagued by reliability problems, but the 810/812 wasn’t in production long enough for this to be the biggest of its problems.

Prices

When it was new, the 812 was pricey, but not a top-tier luxury car. So today it’s rare but not nearly as rare its corporate sibling the Duesenberg Model J, and therefore doesn’t cost nearly as much either. But, it’s still not cheap, with 812 prices averaging about $150,000 and moving up to around $200,000 for supercharged versions. This particular 812 is supercharged and has been restored. That restoration was back in the mid ’80s, but it still looks new, and it is even wearing factory correct paint — a shade called Geneva Blue. In this case, it’s unlikely that the age of the restoration will have a huge impact on the price, and we can expect that it will go for somewhere around $200,000 when RM Auctions puts it up on the block.

Competition

Packard 1500 Super Eight

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
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By 1937, cars that rode as high as the Super Eight were starting to look a bit old fashioned, but the Super Eight carried it well, and was one of the last and finest examples of older-style luxury cars that still had things like running boards. Packard also made up for a lack of innovative styling by offering a number of other advanced features like improved power steering, assisted braking, automatic spark advance, and automatic choke. The company was rewarded by large numbers of new female customers, an otherwise largely ignored segment of the market.

Cadillac Series 85

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The Cadillac that was attracting the most attention during this period was the big Sixteen, a V-16 yacht of a car that is considered one of the finest American luxury cars of all time. For those that couldn’t afford the high prices commanded by the Sixteen, there was the Series 85. This still offered more cylinders than the competition, sporting a V-12 based on the design of the bigger V-16, and Cadillac was also able to offer a much wider variety of bodies than Packard or Cord could even come close to. Perhaps there’s a reason why Cadillac is still around and the other brands aren’t.

Conclusion

1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton High Resolution Exterior
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Cord, and all of Auburn Automobile Company in general, were not doing well during this period. The Depression had hit them hard, and while innovation had helped carmakers stay afloat, it just didn’t work out that way for Auburn. The company, which included the Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg brands, shut down in 1937, making the 812 its last new model. All three brands had produced some seriously incredible cars, but without any lower-end brands in the lineup, the company just wasn’t equipped for serious economic hardship. In 1996, American Heritage magazine would name the 812 as “The Single Most Beautiful American Car.” It was obviously several decades too late to save it, but it’s still quite an honor. The 812 is a beautiful car, and it is extremely unfortunate for the whole automotive world that such a bold car was made at such an inopportune time.

  • Leave it
    • Front-wheel-drive just doesn’t sound that exciting anymore
    • Reliability is poor and parts are obviously scarce
    • Styling might be a little too adventurous for some

Source: RM Sothebys

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