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July 19, 1934 – Patent filed for retractable headlights for Cord

A 1936 Cord 810 Westchester sedan, one of about 125 classic automobiles displayed at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Painted in an original Cadet Grey color, this Cord was owned by Josh Malks, who showed it off in travels around the world. Malks nicknamed it “Moonshadow.” With a V-8 Lycoming engine that produced 125 horsepower, the Cord had a top speed of about 80 mph.

There are few automobiles that feature such innovation as the 1936/7Cord 810/812. Designed by a host of industry superstars, including Gordon M. Buehrig and Alex Tremulis, who would later offer his skills to the 1948 Tucker, the Cord 810 combined luxury, speed and futurism, and ultimately, failure. The car is said to have been originally conceived as a Duesenberg, which was also owned by Cord’s parent, Auburn Automobile Company. These automakers, and about 147 other companies, were under the control of E.L. Cord, a transportation giant in the early and middle of the 20th century.

Cord had a rich history in the auto industry before becoming manager of Auburn in 1924. His resume included race car driver, mechanic and a car salesman. His multifaceted background drove a desire for greatness in every aspect of his growing business empire. This of course meant doing things nobody else had ever done on a car before, such as using retractable headlights. The patent for the Cord headlight design was filed on this day in 1934 by Harold T. Ames, a Cord VP with an engineering background. The design used Stinson aircraft landing lights and configurations, of course E.L Cord owned a majority share of Stinson. In the original patent drawings, shown below, the lights were to retract into the inner fenders. Production models saw the lights moved to the front of the fenders.

Original patent drawings for the Cord’s retractable headlights.

The headlights are among the many unique features of the Cord 810, which was first delivered to consumers in February 1936, months behind schedule. The delays had much to do with the car’s semi-automatic transmission not being production ready. Among the challenges were the engineering efforts to produce a reliable front wheel drive system. While it was not the first mass produced FWD car, the Citroen Traction Avant and Cord L-29 both preceded it, the Cord was the first American FWD car with independent front suspension.

cord 810
Above: 1936 Cord 810 with headlights open at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. (LOC)
Top: 1936 Cord 810 with headlights closed at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. (LOC)

In addition to its semi-auto trans, in which you select the gear first on the dash and then press in the clutch to initiate a the semi-auto shift, its front wheel drive setup and of course its hidden headlights, the Cord featured several other components and features of note. Thanks to the transmission being in front of its Lycoming V8, there was no need for a transmission tunnel. This allowed for the car to ride so low that no running boards were needed, a staple on most other vehicles of the period. The Cord also had hidden door hinges, offering exceptionally smooth body lines.

While Cord has hoped to produce 1,000 of the cars per month, only 1,174 810s were manufactured in its first year. As things fell behind, some 1936 models were renumbered and sold as 1937 812s. By the end of the production run in 1937, approximately 3,000 of the cars had been built, including a single 1938 prototype. The “Coffin Nose” Cord, as it became known, may have been the first car to feature hidden headlights, but it was certainly not the last. In fact, the next mass produced American front wheel drive cars after the Cord, the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado of the 1960s, each had hidden headlights. Unfortunately, safety regulations ultimately turned out the lights on retractable lamps. Among the last mass produced cars to have this feature was the 2004 Chevrolet Corvette.

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