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Cord is still a magic name for car lovers

May 23, 2004|By JASON STEIN

They make the trek every year, some down Interstate 69 from southern Michigan, others from the long and winding toll road on I-80 across Illinois or Ohio, and yet others from parts in between and unknown.

They pack the grass fields with recreational vehicles, lined barbecue to barbecue, near the overwhelming brown building where the eBay Motors sign hangs and auto auction house Kruse International's neon lights flicker.

They come every year to Errett Lobban Cord's playground in sleepy Auburn, Ind., to pay their respects and pay their auction prices - even if most have no idea who E.L. Cord was, or what he stood for.

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum still holds his name and they still hold an auction each Labor Day in his honor. It's a tribute that has become a rite of fall and a rite of passage for every car nut who ever wanted to own a Chevy, a Ford, or even a Cord.

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How did this town of barely 10,000 become the center of the auto universe each September? Try the man whose name hangs from the museum at 1600 South Wayne Street.

Who was E.L. Cord?

He was known on Wall Street as well as he was on Auburn's downtown Main Street.

He loved creations. He loathed conventional thinking. And his vehicles, some of the most visually striking and most mechanically advanced of their day, never made it out of the 1930s. But he never stopped trying.

Born in July of 1894 in Warrensburg, Mo., Cord left school when he was just 15. He took his first job as a used-car salesman and then became a mechanic after his family moved to Joliet, Ill., and then Los Angeles, Calif.

At an early age, Cord was fascinated with automobiles and an industry that was bursting at the seams. Cord would tinker with his own Model T Fords in the shop after hours, stripping them of their bodies and adding his own performance touches. The T-Speedsters, as they became known, were incredibly popular with race fans at the dirt and wooden board tracks where Cord raced them.

Quickly, he discovered the more he modified the vehicles, the more vehicles he could sell . . . and Cord loved to sell cars.

After moving to the Midwest in his late 20s, Cord became the head of a car-distribution company, selling automobiles and learning the intricacies of high finance and promotions.

By 1924, after numerous successes and countless sales, he was on his way to real wealth and sought out a car company to buy.

Nestled in the corner of northeast Indiana, Auburn was home to the Auburn Automobile Company, a faltering independent factory with a mounting inventory of unsold vehicles. A group of Chicago venture capitalists hoping to cash in on the car craze wanted a new direction and offered Cord a top management position. He wanted more.

To run the plant, the 29-year-old boldly rejected a salary, instead demanding complete control over the decision-making process as well as 20 percent of profits and a guaranteed option to buy the company once Cord had turned it around.

He ordered new designs, better models, fresh paint jobs and sale prices on all the old models. He wanted to dazzle, not just sell.

The company was given a second life. Within a short time, Auburn cars were among the sportiest prestige vehicles on the highway. Profits soared and one year after taking over, he exercised his option and bought out the other owners.

Not content with automotive success, Cord began to build a transportation empire, at one point amassing a holding company with 60 subsidiaries, including aviation, cab companies and a New York shipyard.

Within three years he owned Duesenberg's auto plants and an amazingly diverse portfolio on Wall Street.

In the automotive world, he lured top designers and engineers, producing the Cord, North America's first front-drive automobile, as well as the Duesenberg Model J, the most luxurious car of its time. His Cord vehicles came with wrap-around grilles and manually operated headlights concealed in the fenders.

But Cord fell as fast as he grew.

The federal government began to closely monitor and investigate stock trading and Cord became a target. The economic collapse of the late 1920s that led to the Great Depression, the high cost of his vehicles and mechanical problems didn't help.

When he sold his auto empire in the summer of 1937, Cord piled into his Lincoln and headed to Nevada. That same year, automotive production ceased in Auburn.

Cord wasn't done, he was just finished in the automotive business.

Ever the industrialist, he would live another 37 years, making his fortune in real estate, oil wells, livestock and mining. He even considered running for governor in Nevada.

On the day after New Year's, 1974, Cord died, the victim of cancer at age 74.

He would leave behind a legacy of automotive know-how and business sense that would carry on in other ways. General Motors would copy his headlight invention and other companies would mimic his luxurious style. But there was only one Cord.

The legacy would carry on in the technology of his vehicles, the entrepreneurial spirit of his business and the museum in that small town that would wear his name.

There may not be an Auburn automobile on the streets anymore, but there is an Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum on Wayne street in Auburn, Indiana.

For that, every year, the purists say thanks.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbase.ws.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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