By on December 26, 2012


When you say the word Cord, most car enthusiasts think of the “coffin nose” 810/812 models, designed by Gordon Buehrig for the 1936 and 1937 model years. There was much about the ’36-’37 Cords that was revolutionary, or at the very least advanced for their day. Buehrig’s art deco masterpiece was E. L. Cord’s automotive swan song. His styling included hideaway headlights flush mounted in pontoon fenders, hidden door hinges, no running boards, and that distinctive one piece hood was hinged at the cowl and opened from the front, not from the sides as in most prewar cars. From a technical standpoint, what people remember about the ’36 Cord is that it had front wheel drive. Some mistakenly believe that the Cord 810 was the first front wheel drive American production car. Actually, the first front wheel drive Cord was the L-29, named for 1929, its year of introduction. The L-29 was not just the first Cord with front wheel drive, it was indeed the first American car with front wheel drive that was offered for sale to the public, beating the now obscure Ruxton to the market by a few months.

1929 Cord L-29. It sits lower than the 1940 Ford next to it. More photos here.

The Ruxton is best remembered for its stylish but ineffective Woodlight headlamps. Pretty much nobody then knew who Ruxton was (the company was named to entice a potential investor, who demurred but by then the name had ironically stuck) but by 1929 plenty of people knew who E.L. Cord was. Errett Loban Cord was a savvy businessman, a wheeler dealer, a pioneer in a variety of industries and the father of some of the greatest automobiles ever made.

A racecar driver and mechanic and then a successful car salesman, he was brought in by Auburn in 1924 to help turn the moribund company around. By 1928 he owned Auburn, part of a growing empire that eventually included Duesenberg, Lycoming Engines, Stinson Aircraft, radio stations, the predecessor of American Airlines, and for a while the Checker Cab and Checker Motor companies (which got him into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission).

For 1929, Cord decided to launch his self-named brand to slot in between the supremely patrician Duesenberg and the slightly more plebeian (but still not cheap) Auburns. Racing legend Harry Miller had already demonstrated the promise of front wheel drive on the racetrack. E.L. Cord realized that FWD had some advantages for road cars as well so he had Cornelius Van Ranst design a front drive layout based on Miller’s patents, using a straight eight Lycoming engine sitting behind the gearbox with a De Dion axle and inboard drum brakes up front.

Cornelius Van Ranst designed the Cord FWD layout based on Harry Miller’s patents. More pics here.

By eliminating the need for a driveshaft to the back axle, the engine and transmission could sit low in the chassis, allowing not just a lower center of gravity but also letting the body sit lower to the ground. The long drivetrain meant that stylist Alan Leamy could give the L-29 an exceptionally long hood. Leamy used the long hood and the low body to give the car a rakish and very sporting look, not unlike chopped and channeled hot rods.

The L-29 was not a huge success, having the misfortune of being introduced a few months before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression was triggered. It also was heavy, slow, and had some reliability issues, so only a few thousand were made and sold, ending production in 1932. Still, the L-29 remains the first American production car to offer front wheel drive and it continues to be a great looking car, timelessly rakish and sporting.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s L-29 in his signature Taliesin Orange color. More pics here.

To promote the then revolutionary layout, the Auburn Automobile Company published a 15 page brochure with technical drawings of the chassis, photos of the L-29 with various body styles in locations in what I believe was southern California, extensive technical specifications and about two pages of advertising copy, attributed to E. L. Cord himself, titled Why We Introduce A Front Drive Automobile.

It’s fun to watch Cord (or whoever wrote the text) try to tout FWD as the latest and greatest while insisting that the traditionally laid out Auburns and Duesenbergs were not being made obsolete by his company’s new brand. In many ways, the brochure isn’t that much different than what you’d see today, though a modern advertisement is not likely to start out with two pages of text from the company founder.

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 dig deeper and 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

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21 Comments on “Antique Auto Advertising: Why We Introduce A Front Drive Automobile by E. L. Cord...”

  • avatar
    el scotto Thanks Ronnie. It’s amazing that Indiana made some of the best cars in the world at one time. There’s Duesenberg building that is now an office building in Indianapolis. It’s only a few miles from the track.

  • avatar

    Someday, if you ever truly want to spend an afternoon in automotive nirvana, go to an Auburn-Cord-Dusenberg meet. As you’ll very rarely see a pre-1925 Auburn, you’re talking a car show with absolutely no mundanity out there. Nothing but classics.

    And if you’ve never seen an L-29 in the metal, be prepared to be amazed. Pictures do that car absolutely no justice.

    It’s a shame that a few styling gaffes on the 1934 Auburn models put the company into a final financial tailspin from which they never recovered. And having seen 1934 models, I’m still trying to figure out what about them didn’t go over with the buying public. It’s wasn’t just the Depression. 1932 Auburn sales were actually healthy (for the size of the company) compared to all the competition. Including GM.

  • avatar

    Yes the museum in Auburn Indiana (near Ft. Wayne) is a treasure and I highly recommend a visit for any enthusiast. If you visit on Labor Day weekend, there is a convocation of classic cars that is awesome.

  • avatar

    That was fascinating reading; thanks for including the literature.

    A few things jumped out at me:
    1. Oiling the U-joints was necessary ‘only’ every 8-10k miles.
    2. The rear frame had a section width of 7/32″!
    3. The passenger area is described as ‘commodious’.
    4. The toe-in spec is ‘nothing’.

    As an engineer, I found myself wanting to buy a Cord after reading the detailed literature (assuming I lived in 1929).

    The straight-8 and front leaf springs with FWD make an awesome combination.

    • 0 avatar

      Do you know if anyone else used two quarter-elliptical springs on each side like that? With full length half-ellipticals and the De Dion tube the front end might have looked ungainly. Using the quarter-ellipticals ended up making a very tidy looking front end. I think how Leamy and the team there at Auburn integrated the mechanical components into the overall look of the car is a great example of taking the hand you’re dealt and playing it well. The Miller FWD layout puts the differential right up front so Leamy made the facing of the differential housing part of the car’s styling.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not the end all on suspension design, but I was also just staring in fascination at those springs….

        Not only do the two half elliptics seem quite unusual, but also the way that they relate to both the frame and driving axis.

        To my admittedly limited knowledge, I don’t recall ever seeing a drive axis mounted at the end of a spring as, normally, the ends seem to be connected to a kind of swinging shackle at one end and a fixed pin at the other with the axle being mounted in the middle if the spring arc.

        So here we have, what to my limited knowledge may be unique amongst cars (although a dim memory suggests that this does not extend to locomotive nor tank suspensions), namely a pair of cantilever half-elliptical springs with the drive axis mounted on the free end.

        I’d be interested to hear if any other uses of such a set-up come to anybody’s mind.

        And btw, happy holidays to you all!

  • avatar

    Hey! At least they kept the engine behind the front axle. A mid-engine front wheel drive has to be better than current front-engine FWD configurations as far as vehicle dynamics are concerned.

    The coffin-nosed Cord is a true American classic.

  • avatar

    Great article, Ronnie, as usual…..

    …and, it has the added benefit of identifying the American culprit behind all this front-wheel drive nonsense….(^_^). Sorry, I get carried away sometimes…

    Yes, Cords were very elegant and innovative automobiles. In a sad way, the Cord reminds me of the “Tucker”, and brings back thoughts of one example I saw in Appleton WI, at a car show. It is indeed tragic that the “Big” American car companies kind of ganged up in that little fledgling company to do them in. Where would we have gone with rear engine/read drive technology if that car had survived? Corvair might have been quite different, and perhaps Ralph Nader might have had less to complain about…


  • avatar

    Hey Ronnie! Thanks for the article. Great info. I also liked the style of the ’29 propaganda. Trying to convince the customer on a rational basis instead of emotion. Seems all car ads today are selling an emotion, an association. The car is barely mentioned and sometimes not even shown. Pretty bad.

    World wide it was Citroën who introduced FWD. Perhaps with the 2cv? Or am I completely crazy?

    • 0 avatar

      At least in Europe, FWD was popularized by early 1930s DKWs and Citroen Traction Avant.

    • 0 avatar

      Citroen had 5 years to reverse engineer the 1929 Cord L29 in order to create their first FWD 1934 Traction Avant. Cord, like Alvis, copied the layout from Miller’s FWD Indy cars, with Ettore Bugatti buying two of the great Miller 91s from 1926 in order to reverse engineer their engines so he could create what became the Bugatti Type 51.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Gordon

        Alvis pre-dates Miller producing in producing FWD cars. Moreover Alvis’ set-up was totally different to Miller’s – and of course Miller’s layout was a De Dion layout which (strangely enough) saw service on FWD De Dion-Boutons many years before.

        The Alvis layout was more like a Corvette’s rear suspension or Triumph Herald, except that it used half-eliptic transverse springs rather than full length ones.

        Here is a fascinating series diagrams of the Alvis set-up:

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve recently been reading about Lucien Rosengart who built cars in the 1930s under his own brand name after supplying Citroen. According to one source:

      “In the early 1930s Lucien Rosengart became interested in front wheel drive cars, like many others at the time. Having no engineering staff to speak of he acquired the rights to the German Adler Trumpf Jupiter, one of the first popular front wheel drive cars in the world, modified it and introduced it in 1932 as the Rosengart LR500 Supertraction. This 4-door saloon beat the much more famous Citroen Traction Avant to the French market by two years, but never became successful. ”

      So it appears that both Adler and Rosengart sold FWD cars before Citroen. I don’t have the Josef Ganz biography just at hand but I’ll check it later because Ganz worked for Adler and I believe it mentions their FWD car.

      • 0 avatar

        Would love to hear about that Ronnie. I’m under the impression that most car people believe fwd was a Citroën first. Maybe because Citroën popularized the usage?

      • 0 avatar

        @Marcelo de Vasconcellos

        I believe the first “production” FWD car (although they only built about 155 units) was the imaginatively named Alvis Front Drive series produced in the UK between 1928 and 1930. They had five different models, the FA, FB,FC, FE,and FD in two wheelbases, with either 4 or 6 cylinder engines and a wide variety of body styles. The also British BSA motorcycle company sold a number of FWD 3-wheelers between 1929 and 1936, but gave up to focus on it’s 2-wheeler line.

        The US had both the Cord and Ruxton luxury cars launched in 1929.

        Ruxton was kind of an early “virtual” manufacturer, they did the design, engineering, and marketing, but the actual production was subcontracted out to two other automakers, Moon and Kissel. There were a number of production delays and the whole venture went belly-up in 1930 with only about 500 built. Cord beat Ruxton to official launch by a few months in 1929, and got their design into proper serial production earlier.

        Germany was the real center of front-drive innovation before WWII.

        The tiny company Stoewer built the FWD V5 model from 1931-1932, followed by the R140, R150, and R180 produced through 1935, when the company narrowed it’s focus to larger, RWD luxury cars.

        DKW launched their FWD F1 at about the same time as the Stoewer V5 in 1931, then built the successive F2, F3, F4, F5, F6, and F8 generations through 1942.

        Adler had their Trumpf, Trumpf Junior, and 2 Liter models built between 1932-1940.

        There was also the big 6-cylinder Audi Front built in small quantities between 1933-1939.

      • 0 avatar

        Hey ranwhenparked!

        Thanks for the info. Guess there was a lot of interest in the technology early on. The packaging advantages are obvious. For whatever reason though it only became more popular much later on. Any idea why?

        Also, DKW kept it up a long time. As they were one of the first here in Brazil, I wonder if their cars here were FWD. I’ll check up on that.

      • 0 avatar

        @Marcelo de Vasconcellos

        The Great Depression and World War II both slowed down development considerably. The Depression killed off two of the early innovators – Ruxton and Cord, while WWII took Stoewer and very nearly killed DKW/Audi. BSA abandoned car production in the ’30s, and Adler never resumed it after the war. The fact that the big giants of the global auto industry pretty much ignored the technology into the 1950s or 60s was a factor too, if Fiat or GM had embraced it sooner, you can bet the standard would have been set.

        Citroen was the only major automaker (unless you consider prewar Auto Union a truly major continental player) to go into FWD, and that company’s almost constant financial turmoil might have scared others away from the technology.

  • avatar

    Don’t forget about the transverse-engine front wheel drive racing cars built by J. Walter Christie between 1904 and 1908! Although Christie never sold them to the public, they were reasonably successful on the track, (having competed in the Vanderbilt Cup races and the 1907 French Grand Prix) and they were innovative to say the least. The August 5, 1909 issue of “Automobile” issue magazine has an article named, “Christie’s new 100 hp Racer” which describes his seventh design in detail. The article is online in Google Books.

  • avatar

    Great article, and so are the knowledgeable comments from TTAC readers filling in the blanks on FWD history.

  • avatar

    This excellent article is tangentially related:

    I had no idea that they were racing FWD (then AWD) cars into the 1960s.

    I still remember visiting the Indianapolis Raceway Museum and seeing one of the FWD Indy cars back in 1985. I had no idea that they had ever raced FWD vehicles before that. It’s remarkable that it took so long for the concept to become mainstream.

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