#0061 - Cord L-29 Cabriolet Roadster, 1931
Photographed: Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance, 2010.
Style & Engineering: The ironic sort of advantage to repositioning the differential and drive-wheels at the front of the chassis was not, as we believe relevant to our modern day cars, tractive advantage, but was instead a form of aesthetic supremacy. The whole of the classic era was spent in a number of stylistic pursuits, the most obvious of which was to make the automotive form look slimmer and faster. But, in compliment to this obvious tactic, the practical way to make a car look better was to make it lower. Firms dating back to the teens learned of subverting the chassis, positioning it below the axles rather than on top of them, and jumping ahead some large ways, Bugatti famously noted its change-over to a lowered foundation with the type 57-S, the 'S' indicating a chassis subaissé, wherein the axles passed through the members, rather than on top or below them. From this point on, early in the classic era, cars became lower and leaner.
However, by removing everything under the car along the entire wheelbase, Cord achieved a lean appearance unmatched among contemporary auto-makers. While this was not the sort of ergonomic bellwether suggested by the open, rear-engined platforms developed by Tatra, Stout, and sometime later by Volkswagen, (each of them penned in the thirties), the instant lowering of the bonnet line within two sweeping skirts was envied by car designers across the country. For immediate comparison, look to the Chrysler CG Imperial, which was designed with the Cord L-29 as its ideal. The Cord has a slight leap-forward aspect and, in evidence for the advantage of the front-drive platform, the Cord sits approximately 8 inches lower than a conventional classic era car. But the Chrysler makes the best of its conventional chassis; its features are a bit more bold as well, consuming the extra bulk with a deft use of sheet metal—and quite a deft use at that, as the CG Imperial did better than most any early classic at appearing so lithe without actually being a Cord L-29. And to further this line of thought, once we get some contemporary Duesenberg and Bentley cars up here, the difference will be plainly evident.
Other Design Notes: The L-29 was produced in a pleasing variety of bodies ranging from sporting concepts to proper chauffer intended devices. Pictured here is a standard model, the Cabriolet Roadster with rumble-seat. The design is among the most popular of the species, and is typically set off in luscious two-tone liveries. If you've wandered the concours circuit for any sturdy length of time, chances are a similar example has crossed your path. Perhaps among the best executed of the standard offerings (and hence no coachwork acknowledgement is given in the name, as these are not custom designs) are the two-door and four-door open cars, both of which were designed by Murphy and built by the Limousine Body Co. As for standard features common to all Cord automobiles, these were established jointly at the outset in 1929, with John Oswald of Auburn merging ideas with designers from Murphy. There is some discrepancy between sources concerning the role of Al Leamy, who is named as both a Murphy employee, and as Auburn's chief of body design, but either way it is written that he was responsible for the Duesenberg inspired grille and radiator shroud assembly, and the long flowing bonnet lines.
Oswald, in any case, was deeply involved in the development of the L-29 idea. Automobile Quarterly reports that he played the roll of "designer, draftsman, metal worker, body builder, engineer, and foreman for the prototype L-29." The Leamy-designed elements, along with the basic proportions prescribed by E. L. Cord and established by John Oswald, became standard attributes of the species carried through on these production models, as well as on less prominent production models built by the Union City Body Company, which Cord also happened to own.
The People Behind the L-29: It was a rush job, for sure, but the L-29 did not suffer from the alacrity of its development process. If anything, Errett Lobban Cord and his ad hoc committee of engineers and creative masters took a compulsive attitude toward building, trouble-shooting, and refining the car, pushed with the force of a hurricane by Cord himself. The nucleaus of the team began to draw itself together when Cord purchased every patent related to Harry Miller's fabulous front-drive platform. Almost immediately, however, the three-speed Miller gearbox presented an obstacle in its incapacity to shift smoothly at speed, something that could not be tolerated in a top-rate road car. Noted racer Leon Duray put Cord on to the idea of the Miller's insufficiency, but also suggested that he approach Cornelius W. Van Ranst, an engineer who had a front-drive racing platform that, if not as successful as the Miller, was nevertheless formidable, and might be better suited to a production variant. Van Ranst was immediately shipped over to Chicago from Detroit.
It took five months for Van Ranst to design and build a solution to the gearbox problem, working out of Cord's own facility in Los Angeles. The eventual unit moved Van Ranst's box from in front of the axle to a position in between the clutch and the differential. The gearbox and differential were fitted to a Lycoming straight-eight, reversed to match up with the backward layout, with a basic Miller radiator, suspension designed by Leo Goossen of the Miller race car stable, and the Oswald and Leamy designed platform.
Cord, Duray, Miller, and Van Ranst (what a crew!) took the prototype for a drive through the canyons outside Beverly Hills and quickly discovered another glaring problem. On sharp turns, the joints delivering power from the differential to the wheels created a harsh jutter. Van Ranst claimed the single Cardan joint was to blame. (A Cardan assembly is limited in that, due to the fact that the input shaft and driven shaft are connected by a separate piece, often called a gimbal, the driven shaft rotates at a variable rate even when the input shaft rotates at a constant rate. Doubling the Cardan joints can solve vibration issues, but this was not the case on the L-29.) Van Ranst was tasked to fix the matter, and quickly found himself on the Southern Pacific Chief en route to the Duesenberg plant in Indianapolis.
The Cardan joint was replaced by a revised universal joint, increasing the angle of rotation of the front wheels from 40 degrees to 42 degrees while doing away with the juttering. In the process, the Cord actually achieved a turning radius better than many contemporary cars—21.5 feet on its 137 ½ inch wheelbase. Once Van Ranst had a new car together, a quick test run was conducted around an Indiana cornfield. Again, a problem was encountered—this time all the doors flew open as the ground twisted the chassis and shell. To increase structural integrity, Auburn's Herb Snow suggested X-bracing for the chassis, which was a first for the American auto industry. With good fortune, the next five cars proved reliable and strong. Cord rushed their production, quickly grabbed the first one he could, and headed off to California with a mechanic. Once they arrived safely, having covered about 2,000 miles, E. L. Cord flew back to New York to brag of the feat.
In a stroke of commercial hubris, Cord announced at the debut of the L-29, "Years have been devoted to its development. Being the leader, we were unhurried." Hah! That, as they might have said, was a lark. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Cord was how quickly the car was cobbled together, how quickly every issue was diagnosed and resolved, and how, in spite of this, how good the finished product turned out to be.
The Lycoming Eight: Automobile Quarterly counters the popular conception that the Cord's Lycoming straight-eight is simply an Auburn unit reversed to accomodate the front-drive layout. "Cord had instructed that as many Auburn parts as possible be used, but internally it just couldn't be done: The head had to be revised to get a water fitting up front; the crankcase was entirely redesigned to provide a rear engine mount and to affect the unique front attachment to the frame. The oil pan was reshaped to fit the new crankcase. The crank and camshaftes were unalike," and if that was a startling deviation, "the Cord crankshaft now turned counter-clockwise, although an extra gear in the crankhandle drive train allowed one to hand crank the car in the normal clock-wise direction." Automobile Quarterly concluded that, with more than 70 crucial components differing between the two, the new Lycoming unit "clearly adds up to an engine all Cord's own."
This conclusion is important for pointing out that, between Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg, each division used a strikingly different version of the Lycoming motor. Auburn's was the vanilla motor, with the least amount of embellishment. Cord's was the jury-rigged motor, contorted by a host of talented engineers to work with an innovative platform. And Duesenberg's was the hot motor, the one pushed to impressive limit first for motorsport supremacy, and then for the ultimate drive for those automobiles of classic era road-king proportion.
A Bit of a Scandal: Apart from the regular challenges of steering an automotive empire through the depression era, Erret Lobban Cord added to the mahem with a bit of financial trickery that, at the close of it all, saw him run out of his holdings. The Corporation began with Auburn, and then Duesenberg. The firm purchased Lycoming Motors, sensible in that they sought to own their engine supplier, and much as Cadillac had done with Fleetwood and Fisher, acquired the Limousine Body Company and Central Manufacturing. Various parts and general manufacturing companies were also purchased, including The Columbia Axle Company and L.G.S. Devices. Apart from those companies directly related to the car-building trade, Aviation Manufacturing Company, Stinson Aircraft, New York Shipbuilding, and the Checker Cab Company were also added to the mix. A number of these holdings received the focus of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation following activity within the New York Stock Exchange that maintained reliable earnings in Cord Corporation stock despite the treacherous climate.
According to a Time Magazine piece from January 1938, a trader suspected of working to the prescribed benefit of Cord Corporation "effected enough artful Auburn deals to raise the price from $38 on Dec. 24, to $54.25 on March 5, 1936," and did so "by such oldtime pool methods as buying heavily at the close, issuing extravagant statements, using discretionary accounts to create an artificial demand." Apparently, Cord had written around $2.8 million in bonds to cover Auburn's debt, all of which could be converted into common stock at $50 per share.
On to the taxi cab business, where a lot was going on and not all of it was white as snow. The story was typical of those dealings among Chicago businessmen back in the golden era, and as to the Checker Cab Company its operation had never been clean—a saga complete with Teamster wars, upset balance sheets that failed to account for loses, and the occasional shooting. That was before Cord purchased the company. At the time of Checker's acquisition, the conglomerate was already part of the taxi business, with Auburn producing cars for the Cleveland based Saf-T-Cab. Saf-T-Cab production was then moved to Checker Cab, while Auburn developed a new car for the new taxi company, the Model Y, that looked similar to its commercial offerings and was powered by the same Lycoming motor. That was all well and good. Less than promising, however, was E. L. Cord's sudden sale of his controlling interest in Checker back to the company's former magnate—and Cord's close personal friend—Morris Markin. This move sparked the ire of the SEC, which deemed the action to have improperly affected the price of stock by, again, artificially inflating its price, and led to an injunction in 1937 banning Cord from any further activity in the operation of the Checker Cab Co.
In present day terms, the Cord Corporation story is a mix of Dick Tracy and Enron, with a bit of Blagojevich thrown in. There were salvagable pieces of Erret Lobban Cord's empire, but due to his impropriety none that he could prosper from.
Winding Down: Perhaps the only important part of the Cord L-29 we haven't touched upon is the most glaring aspect—where did front-wheel drive come from? The answer is generally regarded as a matter of vogue, that at the time front-wheel was a hot topic, and therefore was a satisfying fit for E. L. Cord's egoistic ideas for his new car. We have Harry Miller to thank for this trend, surely, and in the end can feel nothing but admiration for the L-29 itself, if not for the perturbations happening behind the curtain at the Cord Corporation.
Automobile Quarterly's World of Cars, Automobile Quarterly, Inc., New York, New York, 1971, "Cord L-29, A Magnificent and All But Forgotten Classic," pages 51-57; adapted from The Forgotten Cord by Beverly Rae Kimes, Volume VI, Number 4
Information on the SEC and Erret Lobban Cord from Time Magazine, Monday, January 10, 1938, available online.
Information on the strange dealings of the Checker Cab Co. from the incomparable Coachbuilt.com.
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