Speedster Gone: The Case of the Disappeared Cord Speedster

Last episode covered the Auburn and Duesenberg speedsters, both of which were produced in some numbers. To continue the fanfare regarding the newly-introduced 1929 Cord L-29, a special model had been made for the salons, shows, and concours: the Cord L-29 Speedster. The speedster was constructed in 1930, shown in New York and Paris, and then mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is its story.

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster after NY Auto Show Jan 1931.  photo courtesy ACDA Museum

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster after NY Auto Show Jan 1931. photo courtesy ACDA Museum

Long Shot

E.L. Cord was a man who took the long odds. He had rescued Auburn from a slow death spiral and made it a sales behemoth. Cord had purchased Duesenberg shortly before it was headed into receivership and would remake it into an over-the-top luxury car, the best and the fastest, thus securing its place among the world’s greatest cars.

1930 Dealer ad.  courtesy HCFI.org

1930 Dealer ad. courtesy HCFI.org

Like Duesenberg, the Cord automobile would also push the design envelope in both engineering and aesthetics far beyond what others had dared. But, not without cost…

Design Excellence

The Cord L-29’s major breakthrough was in its front-wheel drive (fwd) system, a concept pioneered in 1906 by J. Walter Christie in both racing and street speedsters. Continued development by Harry Miller and others had further developed the system, but as a mechanical technology it was still in its infancy. And understandably, the Cord development team, whose chief members were Cornelius van Ranst, Harry Weaver, and a young designer named Alan Leamy, were beset with myriad challenges. Design flaws and engineering shortfalls produced reliability problems that were eventually worked out but may have ultimately affected sales. The L-29 series retired after only four sales seasons.

Despite the challenges of rolling out a revolutionary concept during (surprise!) the advent of a major economic downturn, 5010 L-29 Cords were produced from 1929 through 1932. Included in the 5010 units produced were 62 chassis that were sold to coachbuilding firms, chief among them being Murphy of Pasedena. And five chassis were retained by Cord for special projects.

1929 Cord magazine ad.  courtesy HCFI.org

1929 Cord magazine ad. courtesy HCFI.org

From an engineering perspective, the Cord fwd system provided

· a drivetrain concentrated in the front, thus increasing cockpit space

· lower unsprung weight

· lower overall height and thus center of gravity

· better overall handling

The fwd implementation problems that Cord wrestled with were perfected 30 years later in the form of the 1959 BMC Mini, designed by Sir Alex Issigonis, whose transverse mounted engine and front-wheel drive solution gave rise to the modern compact car. In this regard, the Cord L-29 had paved the way for the modern fwd street automobile.

The L-29 Speedster

The Cord L-29 Speedster was a one-off design made to broadcast the news about the Cord L-29. It was probably produced using one of the chassis that had been set aside for projects and was constructed at Union City Body in Connersville, where the Auburn Speedsters were being made. Union Body was one of three in-house body manufacturers for Auburn and Cord, and so the L-29 Speedster was given a “LaGrande” nameplate to signify that it was a Cord custom body.

From where did this design originate? A young body stylist named Phil Wright had sketched a balloon-fender Cord speedster while at his first job, working for the Walter Murphy Company. In 1930 Wright left Murphy for Detroit, and while visiting a friend in Chicago, his car was stolen. Out of money and wheels, Wright happened upon a Cord sales agency while looking for a job. He presented his portfolio to the staff there and news of his work soon made it to Roy Faulkner, then president of the Cord Corporation.

Faulkner was besotted with the design and immediately hired Wright to develop the body. Staff stylist Al Leamy was also assigned to the projected and re-drew the Wright rendering into an action scene, perhaps even putting a bit of Leamy magic in it.

Cord L-29 Speedster sketch, by Alan H. Leamy, displayed at ACDA Museum

Cord L-29 Speedster sketch, by Alan H. Leamy, displayed at ACDA Museum

Leamy then re-shaped the front end to resemble “the L-29 look.”

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at ACDA Museum, 2018

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at ACDA Museum, 2018

The LaGrande L-29 Speedster in bright red over yellow was, naturally, a hit at the January 1931 New York Auto Show, and after that it was returned to Auburn and prepped for shipment to Paris for promotional purposes. It was shown in June at the 1931 Concours D’Elegance en Automobile, at which it won a first prize.

At the concours, the designated driver for this car was a Mademoiselle Berne. Often repeated by mistake is the myth that Mlle Berne was none other than movie actress Jean Harlow, who had married a Paul Bern in 1932. As a matter of fact, in 1931 Harlow was not then married, nor was she even in Paris at the time of the concours! So much for oft-repeated myths…

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at the Paris Concours, June 1931.  photo courtesy ACDA Museum

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at the Paris Concours, June 1931. photo courtesy ACDA Museum

Here is how the mystery disappearance transpired:

After the Paris show, the LaGrande Speedster was shipped to Canada and photographed there sometime in August. It was then returned to Auburn in November, where it was again photographed on Thanksgiving Day 1931 with a family.

And then it vanished. Gone. Forever…

Legacy

No barn in Auburn or anywhere else has since revealed the lost LaGrande-bodied L-29 Speedster. Of the 5010 Cord L-29s produced, only 150 or so examples escaped the relentless needs of wartime scrap drives; perhaps this vehicle met a similar fate?

This design, however, was just too spectacular to consign its fate to mere drawings and photos. Two copies of the 1930 L-29 Speedster were made that are faithful recreations of the fabled speedster. One example, painted in the original shades of red over yellow, has been repeatedly displayed at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Indiana.

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at ACDA Museum, 2017

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster at ACDA Museum, 2017

It sweeping curves and audacious design elements introduced aerodynamic aesthetics to 1930s design that can be found on other bold creations of the 1930s, from the 1933 Packard “Brown Bomber” to the 1938 Talbot Lago Teardrop Coupe.

1933 Packard “Brown Bomber” Speedster Prototype.  courtesy Skillman Library Automotive Collection, DPL

1933 Packard “Brown Bomber” Speedster Prototype. courtesy Skillman Library Automotive Collection, DPL

Both European and American examples display a mix of aerodynamic styling.

1938 Talbot-Lago at NCMA, Raleigh NC 2016

1938 Talbot-Lago at NCMA, Raleigh NC 2016

While whole nations of everyday people toiled throughout the Threadbare Thirties to rebuild their savings and livelihoods after the Great Depression had stripped them of it, art and style nevertheless moved relentlessly onward, creating masterpieces in painting, haute couture clothing, automobiles, and whatnot. The L-29 Cord was one outcome of this new movement, a long, low, and stylish boulevardier made for the era.

The L-29 LaGrande Speedster was one of Cord’s finest expressions!

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster door, ACDA Museum 2018

1931 Cord L-29 Speedster door, ACDA Museum 2018

Many thanks to those historians and members of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club, whose diligent research and forensic efforts to preserve the A-C-D story make work like this possible.

Next Post: Speedsters occupy a sizable slice of automotive history, especially in the pre-WWI years. Things went dead for all car production during WWII, but soon ramped up after the end of formal hostilities. Our next post will cover that post-war era, and how it sowed the seeds for some interesting developments that are still evolving today, in the 21st century. See you soon!