There were a couple of 1937 Cord 812s* for sale at RM Auctions’ sale held in conjunction with the 2014 edition of the Concours of America at St. John’s, the Detroit area’s member of the triumvirate of top-shelf car shows in North America (along with the Pebble Beach and Amelia Island shows). One was a restored four seat Phaeton that caught my eye because the exhaust pipes coming out of the engine compartment indicated that it was a supercharged model. While I was trying to get photos of the blower, mounted on top of the engine, between the cylinder heads, just below the carburetor, a consultant was pointing out to his clients all of the incorrect things about the restoration, from engine compartment parts that shouldn’t have been polished or chrome plated to the wrong radiator cap. Over on the other side of the tent was another ’37 Cord, this one a two passenger cabriolet, normally aspirated.
As soon as I got close, I realized it was a survivor car, not a show car. Evidence of wear was noticeable, with the current black paint wearing away to reveal the original maroon. The odometer showed 58,519 miles, well driven, though not driven into the ground. It looked well used, a bit worn, but not really worse for the wear. The definition of patina. I hadn’t read the catalog description before the auction preview so I really knew nothing about the car. Still, something about it seemed special. It turns out I was correct.
Though successful Ontario engineer Harold Allsop wasn’t the original owner of the cabriolet, he did own the car for 66 years and it’s impossible to separate the story of his Cord from Allsop and his family. He had other interesting automobiles including a Jaguar Mark V and a JAP powered Morgan three wheeler, but the Cord was his car. He was known to drive it everywhere, including to personally deliver restoration parts he’d machined for other collectors. He was proud that as long as he owned the car, it was never on a trailer. He regularly drove it across Canada and the United States to events of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club, of which he was a founding member in 1952 (and a great resource to enthusiasts and collectors of those great American cars).
The car was originally delivered new to a member of the family that owned the Brights Winery in Queenston, Ontario, the only 812 two seat cabriolet sold new in Canada. After a few years at the family estate the car was sold to a Toronto garage, which is where Allsop spotted it in 1947, after combat service as a pilot in China and in the Pacific theater during World War II. He fell in love with the car. Less so the Cord’s known mechanical problems. Gifted engineer that he was, Allsop started to modify things. Since he understood the Cord’s historical significance and did not want to damage its status as an artifact, parts he repaired were painted in red, to keep track of what was still original and whenever he made a modification, he removed the original part and saved it so the vehicle could be returned to how it had been when it left E.L. Cord’s factory in Auburn, Indiana.
The most notable changes that Allsop made to his Cord were to upgrade to a 12 volt electrical system and he replaced the 812′s less-than-reliable factory installed vacuum operated shifter for the Cord’s preselector transmission with a device he designed himself. Based on a Hudson unit, it’s been described as “masterpiece of functional engineering”, with the gearbox’s vacuum shift cylinder moving synchronously with the shifter lever on the steering column. Though I doubt one could say that he was ever completely done fiddling with it, when he finished most of his work on the Cord it was one of the most reliable cars of that make still on the road. Allsop last drove the car in 2011 at the age of 90, passing away just last year.
The Cord has been a member of the Allsop family even before there was an Allsop family. When Marion Allsop was asked what attracted her to her future husband, she would say, “His car, of course.” They honeymooned in the Cord and later took their two children on road trips and vacations. The fact that it was a two seater didn’t stop them. The kids rode in the trunk, with flashlights for reading and playing games. Drivers would be surprised to see their heads pop up when the car would stop. Marion had her own role in the Cord’s history, its current maroon leather interior being a gift from her to her husband and to the car.
Harold Allsop started two successful businesses but mostly he was known as a brilliant, kind and funny man to his friends and to the family that he loved. Cars weren’t his only hobby. He continued to fly after his military service, even building his own airplane, which he flew for decades.
As their children grew, Marion and Harold found the need for a family car. In 1959, Harold bought a Jaguar Mark V 3.5 liter Drophead Coupe for that purpose and started to restore it, but found that it took time away from his beloved Cord so he put aside that project. When he retired at 70, he started putting “every cent of his old age pension” into a meticulous body-off restoration of the Mk V, according to his daughter Heather. In addition to having the the chassis, body, and all of the mechanical and electrical components restored, Harold Allsop fabricated all new period-correct door frames from ash wood himself, and drew patterns for the canvas top and leather upholstery. He was within days of finishing the Jaguar when he got sick in 2011, so the Allsops’ son Peter finished the project.
Following Harold Allsop’s passing, the family decided to let another family make the Cord a part of theirs, which is how I came to see it at the auction preview, on display with the family’s Jaguar Mk V, also for sale. The Cord is still in driving condition, as Harold left it. One of his unfinished projects was to add a supercharger to the car. He’d already installed a different engine block, machined to accept a blower, and that block is in the car. The original block is still in good condition and was part of the sales package, along with 13 crates of new old stock and used parts as well as documentation and memorabilia.
Cars are about the only collectibles where restoring something doesn’t degrade its value. As a matter of fact, perfectly “restored” cars often fetch significantly higher prices than all but pristine, original condition survivors. The Allsop’s Cord is hardly pristine and it’s hardly original, what with Harold’s improvements, but perhaps it’s a sign that automobile collectors are starting to reappraise how they appraise survivor cars that in the auction, the Allsops’ Cord sold for $143,000, while the restored, supercharged Cord sold for slightly less, $132,000. My guess is that at least part of the difference in price has to be the value of the Allsops’ story.
* It’s a bit redundant to say “1937 Cord 812″. “812″ was the model designation for 1937. The 1936 Cord was called the 810.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS