The Rearview Mirror: Hidden Headlights and a Design Classic

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It is a car that’s revered today, not only for its sensational design, but also for its innovative engineering. It’s the Cord 810. And this week in 1934, Harold Ames, vice president for Cord Corp., filed a patent for its most widely copied feature: the hidden headlamp.

An Indiana auto empire is born

E.L. Cord

It’s 1924 and 30-year-old Errett Lobban Cord is appointed general manager of the struggling Auburn Automobile Co. in Auburn, Indiana, with the option to purchase a controlling interest in the business if he turns it around. He does, doubling sales in each of the following three years.

By then, Cord controls the company and begins building his corporate empire, buying such companies as Lycoming Manufacturing Co. of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and luxury automaker Duesenberg Motors of Indianapolis, among many others.

But Cord needs a car to fill the gap between the mainstream Auburn and the ultra-luxury Duesenberg. Enamored of front-wheel drive pioneered by race car driver Harry Miller. Cord buys the patent rights from Miller, who helps Cord developed the company’s new car in his Los Angeles race car shop.

The resulting car is long and low, sitting a foot lower than other cars thanks to its front-wheel drive. Dubbed the 1930 Cord L-29, the front-wheel-drive car powered by a 125-horsepower 4.9-liter L-head right-cylinder engine. But the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression ends the car’s production by 1932 after 5,010 units are built. A planned L-30 is never produced.

Cadillac provides an inspiration

Harold T. Ames, vice president of Cord Corp.

If the Cord L-29 hadn’t proven that successful during challenging economic times, one car had: General Motors LaSalle. It had caught the attention of Cord Corporation vice president Harold Ames, as it gave Cadillac a lower priced model to sell during the Depression. Brilliantly conceived, it placed Fleetwood coachwork, then used strictly for Cadillac, atop an Oldsmobile chassis. Ames wanted something similar — a smaller, less expensive Duesenberg. 

Designer Gordon Buehrig, who had worked for Duesenberg since 1929 but had left for General Motors in 1933, was brought back to Cord that same year to head the project. He was 29 years old. 

The result was a prototype built on a modified Auburn chassis engineered by Augie Duesenberg. The design came from one he had drawn for a General Motors design competition during his time there. Harley Earl despised it, placing it last.

When Buehrig left GM, the design went with him, providing the basis for the baby Duesenberg. Yet it was never produced, as falling Auburn sales required whatever funding Cord Corp. had. Once they were, attention returned to the baby Duesenberg was revived.

The birth of the Cord 810

The 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet sat a foot lower than most contemporary cars thanks to front-wheel drive. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

With the revival of the project, the decision was made to redesign it as a Cord with front-wheel drive and a V-8 engine. Like the Cord L-29, the transmission was placed ahead of the engine, which would be a 125-horsepower Lycoming V-8 rather than the L-29’s L-head eight. This shortened the dash-to-axle ratio by 22 inches compared to the L-29. 

It was decided to go with unit-body construction. “It enabled me to use a ‘step-down’ floor design, which was a feature ‘invented’ with much fanfare by Hudson 12 years later,” Buehrig later remembered.

Other engineering firsts included the first front-wheel-drive car with an independent front suspension as well as the use of the “Bendix Electric Hand.” Also known as a pre-selector gearbox, it had a two-inch long lever sprouting from an h-gate mounted on the end of a steering wheel stalk.

The driver could use a finger to change gears without removing their hand from the wheel. The driver first selects second gear, then a vacuum-powered clutch servo would engage the next gear once the driver operated the clutch. The design also had another benefit: it allowed three people to sit up front.

A design as innovative as its engineering

The body design proved equally revolutionary and filled with firsts, like the lack of running boards, radical horizontal grille, hidden door hinges and the first full wheel covers. Even the radio antenna was hidden underneath the car to keep the design clean.

1936 Cord 810 Beverly sedan. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

“The impact of some innovations on the Cord are lost to people today,” said Buehrig, who wanted the car to be easily recognized at night. 

So instead of mounting a single rear light above the license plate on the rear fender, as was common then, he mounted two red lights at the bottom on either side of the trunk lid. And the license plate was moved to the center of the trunk lid and illuminated by a light. “When you came upon a Cord at night, you knew it. Within two years, this type of rear end illumination became standard on most cars,” Buehrig said.

In an effort to save money, left rear door and right front door were made from the same tooling as were the other two doors. Interior hardware, such as the steering wheel and window cranks, were sourced from existing designs to save tooling expense. 

1936 Cord 810 Phaeton. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

But the biggest innovation was the Cord 810’s hidden headlamps. An idea taken from Stinson Aircraft, also owned by Cord Corp., they were an industry first, and operated by cranks at either end of the Cord’s instrument panel. Electric power was considered, but considered too costly to develop.

And this week in 1934, Cord’s VP Harold Ames filed a patent for their retractable headlight.

By the end of 1934, the 810’s design was complete. But the following month, January 1935, the program was killed due to lack of funding. 

A change of heart

The interior of the Cord 810 is just as innovative as its exterior. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

Then, on July 7, 1935, the Board of Directors decided to revive the program, with the intention of having the car ready for the New York Auto Show on Nov. 2. That gave the company three months and 26 days to test the prototype and get the car into production, as the company had to build at least 100 cars to be eligible to display the car at the show.

It proved to be a sensation, and the 810 became the 812 for 1937 with the addition of a supercharger, which boosted horsepower to 170. But after 2,830 cars were built, production halted on Aug. 7, 1937. 

Cord’s empire was collapsing, and Cord had sold out the day before. The Cord 812 proved to be last car his company produced.

Yet its design would prove so profound, it provides the inspiration for the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, whch features a V-8, front-wheel drive and hidden headlamps.

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