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A Date with an American Beauty

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Gordon Buehrig‘s early design for the Cord 810 won last place in a design contest sponsored by General Motors to motivate artists during the Depression years. But through perseverance and despite setbacks, his conception was to win the title of “the single most beautiful American car” and the hearts of many.

I knew nothing about the car, or for that matter about cars in general. The phase that most kids go through of nurturing a fascination for automobiles had passed me by. It wasn't until I was in my 40's that a car, namely, the 1936 Cord 810, stirred my love.

The way it happened was unusual. I was working in Virginia Beach, Virginia when I met Bailey Parker, a local who had known my late grandfather when he was a Norfolk cop. We shared stories about the area's past, including his defunct Cadillac dealership and his properties — including one of the houses I grew up in.

Bailey treated me to a car show on the front lawn of the store where I worked. Each week for a month, he pulled up in a different vintage car. First came the tan 1930 Model A Ford and then the army green 1940 Buick. In the third week came the 1962 Convertible Corvette, cream with red interior. None of these compared to the grand finale: the 1936 Cord Westchester 810 sedan. Sporting pontoon-shaped front fenders, a coffin-nosed hood with horizontal louvers, and retractable headlights, it looked like something out of a Dick Tracy comic.

The Cord’s styling made it the hit of the 1935 New York Auto Show, where buyers lined up without even test-driving the car. The show cars didn’t have all the tooling installed, and yet they wooed even Hollywood folk. It wasn't the already introduced "suicide-doors" that open opposite directions from the center, the front-wheel drive transmissions pioneered by the car’s designer, or the powerful engine that took it over 100mph that made this car timeless. What made this car timeless was its radical streamlined shape, a departure from all other cars of the time, with their protruding headlights, radiators, and gas fillers.

Notwithstanding the body’s elegance, the car was beset by problems. There were production delays, lack of funding, and mechanical problems like vapor lock, excessive overheating, and an annoying shake while driving. These things and more contributed to a loss of customers. However, my experience of driving the “rolling sculpture” was a sheer pleasure. The most memorable was the day I snuck the Cord off to Azalea Gardens in Norfolk. I posed it under the architectural rafters of the garden's elegant information center for photos.

This Cord had enjoyed another, more renowned photo op at the 1976 ACD (Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg) club meeting in Auburn, Indiana. Buehrig, who has designed everything from boat tail Speedsters to the T-top for Corvettes, was asked to pose next to his favorite creation. He walked over to this very Cord 810 Westchester sedan. The photo become popular and graced many coffee tables since.

My efforts to sell the Cord at auction drew interest from locals, Europeans, and even authors. One author, Josh Malks, was a former owner of this very car and had written books about his experiences with a series of Cords. The grandson of Cord himself emailed me, supportive of my passion for the vehicle’s historic past, but explained that today’s collector generation is more interested in Corvettes than Cords. He sent me a picture of his grandfather, Everett Cord, posing with JFK next to one of Cord’s jets.

I eventually convinced Bailey to take the Cord to auction in Auburn, Indiana, the car's manufacturing home, for its 70th anniversary in 2006. There were only about 100 of these cars in this condition and it was a good time to sell it. Bailey invited me to go along, but, unfortunately, I had to work. However, a piece of me went with that car. Bailey asked me to write a description of the car for the auctioneer, which I did, with love.

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About Larry Estes