July 20, 1894 – Transportation baron E.L. Cord is born

Yesterday we discussed an invention that revolutionized automotive design, pop up headlights that were first featured on the 1936 Cord 810. Today, we’re talking about the man who gave that car its name. Errett Lobban Cord, born on this day in 1894, was a race car driver, mechanic and car salesman — and a transportation baron, entertainment executive and state law maker.

Above: Admiring the Cord 810
Top: 1929 Cord L-29. By Jim Evans – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Born in Missouri, Cord grew to be a jack of all trades. Aside from working on, racing and selling cars, he ventured into numerous other areas of business. At one point or another in his early career, Cord hauled ore, sold real estate, fixed electronics, and even drove a bus. None of these jobs shook out quite how he wanted, and he eventually ended up back on the used car lot. He learned he could sell a lemon for a brick of gold, with a little elbow grease.

Above: Late 1930s Cords at a dealership

His sales record earned him enough money to purchase part of the Moon Motor Car dealership he worked at. His methods of moving cars also earned him a meeting with executives at the failing Auburn Automobile Company in 1924. He soon negotiated a deal that gave him complete decision making control of the company, 20 percent of any profits and the opportunity to purchase Auburn outright — if he could save it from going under.

By February of the next year he was president of AAC and obtained full control after buying out the owners. While the company was yet to be profitable, he used it as base to purchase a number of other businesses. Over the next few years he snatched up Duesenberg, Checker Cab, Lycoming Engines, Stinson Aircraft Company, New York Shipbuilding and many other companies, most in the transportation sector. In 1929 E.L. Cord founded the Cord Corporation as a holding company for his many interests. That same year the first Cord automobile, the L-29, came to market. It was a revolutionary vehicle and remains an icon for being the first mass produced, front wheel drive American car.

As 1931 rolled around and the Great Depression unwilling to relinquish its grip on the US, Cord found comfort in the fact that he had indeed saved Auburn. The luxurious automaker grew to the 13th largest seller of automobiles in the US at a time when most could hardly afford bread. His success allowed him to build a Beverly Hills mansion in 1933, but he wouldn’t stick around long enough to enjoy it. Cord moved to the UK the next year amid threats of kidnapping, though some speculate the change in scenery had to do with tax issues.

Upon his return to the US in 1936 he came under investigation by the IRS and Securities and Exchange Commission for his dealings in Checker Cab stock. What he supposedly practiced then would today be referred to as insider trading. It seems to be the case that nothing illicit occurred. In any case, 1936 was a landmark year for another reason, Cord introduced the Cord 810, once again inspiring automobile design and engineering for years to come.

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The next year, 1937, Cord sold his interests in the Cord Corporation, which now held some 150 businesses. Though he retired from the automobile industry, he did not slow down. He lived out his life as a successful realtor, as well as the owner of multiple television and radio channels, among the first in California and Nevada. In the 1940s he filled in for a Nevada state legislator who passed away during his term. He maintained that role for some time, gaining significant fame as a politician. Cord passed away in 1974 at the age of 79 after succumbing to cancer, leaving behind a wife and four children.

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