It has been enjoyable for this car guy (well, mostly enjoyable) to look at cars over the years and file their looks in my brain “files.” Overall I like how most cars look. Oh, there are a few that I have difficulty finding words to properly describe them because I can’t fathom how an automaker’s board of directors could ever find a way to OK their production. I’m talking vehicles that are really ugly. Yes, before you send me an email, I know evaluating car styling is subjective and each of us have our own opinion. It can be said that if you think today’s politics are polarizing, you should sit in on a gathering of car buffs debating the beauty of a car in question. It can get nasty.
That said, there are a few automobiles that have come down the pike that seem to find favor from just about everyone, and I’ve mentioned a few in the past that are on my list. The 1961 Jaguar XK-E comes to mind as a perfect example. Not only were they appreciated when they first appeared in dealerships, but their inherent goodness has kept them for decades at the top of everyone’s best-styled-cars-ever list. Another car that fits this description and is the subject of today’s column is designer Gordon Buehrig’s epic 1936-1937 Cord 810/812 automobile. Surprisingly, I didn’t discover the goodness of this Cord until the mid-1990s. Perhaps because the ’50s was the decade I discovered my love of cars and their aesthetic appeal and I didn’t pay too much attention to pre-war American cars. Also, my interest in foreign cars didn’t pique until the VW Beetle made itself known in a big way when sales started to surge in the late 1950s and its success poked the behinds of the Big Three and forced them to bring out the Falcon, Corvair and Valiant.
I’m guessing that I discovered Gordon Buehrig’s genius as a designer sometime in the late ’90s, probably after I had started writing my weekly car column. I had read that the local Southwestern Michigan Car Club was holding a car show at the Berrien County Youth Fairgrounds and decided to attend. I took my camera with me and snapped away. One of the cars that really captured my attention was a beauty that stopped me in my tracks. It had a name I never heard of before: the Graham Hollywood. The area of the car that most captured my attention was the car’s pontoon fenders, especially the front units, and I took a number of photos. As an art major, and briefly a GM clay modeler, I was blown away by the pure beauty of those elegant pieces of sculpture.
My interest in the car must have caught the attention of its owner, Berrien Center’s Mike Heminger, and he struck up a conversation with me. It was at this time, thanks to Mike’s deep interest in and knowledge of the vehicle, that I became thoroughly acquainted with Gordon Buehrig, Graham Hollywood and also the Cord 810/812. What, you ask, does the Graham Hollywood have to do with the said Cord? A whole lot, and it is an interesting story that I’ve shared many years back in this column, but it bears repeating very briefly again.
The innovative Cord 810/812 was introduced in the middle of the Great Depression and a host of issues like high price and rush-to-production reliability issues, to name two, did in the wonderful auto. The mid-sized car cost as much as a Cadillac and word quickly got around that early buyers became test drivers for the company. By the time bugs were worked out it was too late. Orders dried up and it caused Cord to falter and fail after two calendar years. Happily, the production pieces necessary to continue building the Cord were acquired by an entrepreneur and arrangements were made in 1939-40 with once successful but now struggling automakers Graham-Paige and Hupmobile to offer a re-configured Cord 810/812 for sale through their dealers. This tale is similar to the Studebaker Avanti “died and came back” story in the 1960s.
The Cord’s front-wheel drive feature was changed to rear-wheel drive, the front hood and grille were revised (eliminating the so-called “coffin” grille found on the Cord) and the Graham Hollywood and Hup Skylark were born. Graham assembled the sedans, and altogether less than 2,400 of the vehicles were produced and sold in 1940-1941. The 1940 Hollywood and Skylark (identical with exception of some minor painted trim) were a last-ditch but failed effort by both small automakers to make a comeback.
Mike shared his interesting story of how he and his parents had acquired the Graham. It seems Mike and parents Eleanor and the late Allen Heminger traveled to Syracuse, Ind., in 1994 to check out a 1954 Willys Aero sedan that was advertised and they were interested in purchasing it. Eleanor wasn’t that keen on the Willys but she noticed a tarp-covered vehicle in the same building and asked what was underneath. The owner pulled off the cover and revealed the Graham Hollywood. For Eleanor, it was love at first sight. Happily, it was for sale and the Hemingers took the Graham home to join their vintage 1927 Elcar.
Four years after acquiring the Hollywood, the Hemingers decided they wanted a Cord 810. They got in touch with a Cord expert in South Bend and was directed to a guy in Fort Wayne with a Cord for sale. A partial restoration effort about half finished was underway on the car. The Hemingers liked it, and a nice 1936 Cord 810 Westchester four-door sedan joined the Elcar and the Graham Hollywood in the family collection. Says Mike of the Cord, “the car’s design has such a streamlined look. The Cord was so far ahead of others at that time. Other cars were boxy but the Cord looked like a spaceship.”
What is it about Gordon Buehrig’s Cord that makes it so special to the Hemingers and to many others like me? Plenty. With the 1936 Cord, Buehrig abandoned convention left and right. A few of the Buehrig first-time styling features on the Cord included hidden headlights, a gas cap under a flap in the body for a clean, uncluttered surface, concealed door, hood and deck hinges, a horn ring was used instead of a button, the hood opened like a clamshell rather than from the side, and the running board was eliminated. The Cord also had innovative engineering with features like front-wheel drive, independent front suspension, unit-body construction and a V-8 designed by Lycoming.
The Hemingers exhibited several times at the Lake Bluff Concours, both the Hollywood and his Cord. It also should be noted that the Hemingers ended up adding a front-drive 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado to their collection. Mike mentioned that the Toro “took styling cues from the Cord” and he noted that the Cord and the Toro shared several styling similarities, including similar looking wheels, super long hood, short rear deck and hidden headlights. The Olds Toro was the first domestic brand to offer front-wheel drive since the demise of the Cord. Although Mike’s father has passed, he and his family still exhibit the cars from their collection. At the inaugural Copshaholm Concours at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend last year, Mike shared the Cord. As luck would have it, he and I drove to South Bend at the same time. On that foggy day early in the morning, as I passed an on-ramp to the freeway heading south, out of the corner of my eye I spotted Mike’s dreamy cream-colored 810. With his foot on the accelerator to achieve freeway speed and the hidden headlights in the open position, it was a sight to behold. My eyes saw in a foggy blur an elegant automobile on a journey to a fabulous car show. It was a special gift for a car guy and I’ll remember it forever.
* Trivia Answer: No surprise, 1929. Want to learn more about E. L. Cord and his front drive cars? Google “history of Cord.”
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Q: What year was the Cord L-29 introduced?