Car Restoration Projects
The long journey of a sensational Cord 810
This 1936 Cord 810, serial number 1586 A, is owned by avowed Cord devotee, Terry C. He has done much detective work in researching its North American owner history and has done a brilliant restoration job on this magnificent vehicle.
Terry C is not only a great vehicle restorer, but he’s also a great story-teller. We won’t try to improve on his prose:
“Early in 2007 I started looking for a Classic American car and rediscovered the iconic Cord,” Terry told Historic Vehicles.
“Way back in 1960, at the age of nine, I had seen one in Footscray, Melbourne, when I had gone along with my elder brothers and cousin who was interested in buying it.
“There was no sale that day, as the car was found to be in pretty rough condition.”
The Cord in question was one of the few RHD models sold in Australia. Later, as a teenager, Terry saw pictures of Cords and was able to read more about them. Little did he know that eventually one would come his way.
When the 810 Cord was first exhibited at car shows across the USA in November 1935 it was a sensation, actually it was The Sensation of the shows.
It was literally the most modern car in the world. The iconic Art Deco body was the first unit-construction body built in America and also the first US body with a step-down floor. It’s low entry height meant it didn’t need running boards.
The mechanical features included front wheel drive, with a four speed preselect gearbox mounted in front of a Lycoming flathead V8 engine.
Gears were selected by a fingertip-controlled switch without the need to move hands from the steering wheel. The switch operated through solenoid valves to control vacuum cylinders that performed the actual gear change, when the clutch was depressed.
Other features included the world’s first pop-up headlights, aircraft-inspired dashboard, independent front suspension, sumptuous interiors in contrasting colours to the exterior and full wheel-cover hub caps.
Shortly after Terry shipped his Cord to Australia, back in 2007, he contacted the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club. Cord 810/812 historian, Ron Irwin, who has a huge archive of material, responded from California with background information.
He provided a short list of previous owners names, mentioning that one in particular, George Van Nostrand, was still an active member of the ACD Club. Terry wrote to George and introduced himself, explaining that his old Cord was now in Australia. George was delighted to hear that the car still existed.
George had bought it in 1958 and used it as his daily driver as well as for attending ACD Club Meets, eventually selling it in 1966. George explained that he had bought the car from a fellow Canadian by the name of William Horning, who had passed away a number of years ago.
Following this positive response, Terry C decided to see how far he could go in uncovering any information on the early history of ownership.
Amos Mason with his new Cord in 1936
Ron Irwin’s archive revealed that the first owner was a man by the name of A. Mason, who lived in Acton, Ontario and the second owner was Lee Merrill, who lived in Hamilton, Ontario.
George Van Nostrand had retained the Cord’s Factory Workshop Manual that came with the car. The book had Lee Merrill’s name in it, along with the fact that he worked for International Harvester, in Hamilton.
Terry’s search on the internet revealed that Acton was a pretty quiet town located about 60 miles south west of Toronto. There were two types of people in Acton: Actonians, who had lived there all their lives and Actonites, who were newcomers. Leather production was the town’s largest industry.
The next step was made at the local library. With the two names Terry provided, the librarian helped him conduct a search. Mr L Merrill was indeed listed as living in Hamilton and he had also been a member and branch president of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada (UELAC).
“After finding that the organisation still existed I contacted it for some help,“ Terry said. “I was allowed to place an advertisement in the UELAC Newsletter with a picture of the car, requesting information about Lee Merrill, who had lived in the Hamilton area. In the advertisement I mentioned that the car was originally owned by A. Mason of Acton.
“A couple of weeks later I received two replies,” said Terry C. “The first was from Jim Dills, who lived in Acton and whose parents had been close friends of the Masons – Amos and Cordelia.
“Amos owned and operated a woollen knitting mill making children’s underwear; the Masons’ old house still existed in Bower Avenue and a current picture of the house arrived in due course.
“The second reply came from Jane McFerrin in Georgia, the granddaughter of Lee Merrill and she was delighted to hear the Cord was still in existence,” said Terry. “She remembered riding in it many times as a child.
“Incredibly she had in her possession the actual original Cord Hand Book that came with the car, plus a factory-produced Salesman’s Book from the Toronto dealership, O’Donnell Mackie.
“Her grandfather had kept the books when he sold the car in 1954.
“How lucky can you be?” Terry exclaimed.
Terry’s replica photo, of himself with the Cord in 2020
He reckoned he was the luckiest person in the world, to receive those two replies. Thanks to the American War of Independence and the UELAC he was able to begin to uncover the early history of ownership of his Cord – in much greater detail than he had imagined possible.
Jim Dills recalled an almost forgotten story about the night when his parents were travelling in the Cord with the Masons, on the way back from Toronto and the lights stopped working. (Jim was only about five years old, but remembers his parents talking about it.)
There had already been some reliability issues with the Cord, so for Amos Mason this was the last straw. Early production Cords were plagued with troubles that the company was sorting out, but businessman Amos had enough and sold it. He had owned it for around 12 months.
After hearing this story, Terry opted to call the car, The Actonite Cord and his research efforts continued.
“Working through a family website, I was able to make contact with Judith Manthus the surviving granddaughter of the Masons,” Terry said. “She had never seen the car, as she was born in 1947, but knew her grandfather had a Cord – because she had a picture of him with it.
“Once again luck was with me and Judith sent me a copy of the picture that’s an absolute treasure, because not many Cord owners have a picture taken when their car was new or with the original owner.
“Senior members of the ACD Club have told me it is very rare for Cord owners to have any history on their cars prior to the 1950s,” Terry C said.
Cordelia Mason with the Cord in 1936
From the same family website Terry made contact with Joan McKenna, a niece of Masons. Incredibly, she too had a picture of the car, with her aunt Cordelia.
During 1936 the Masons had driven over 500 miles to Worcester, Massachusetts, to visit Joan and her parents. Joan was six years old in 1936 and was recovering from scarlet fever, when her aunt and uncle arrived in their sparkling new car.
Joan vividly remembered the colour as “silvery blue” and was fascinated by the way the novel headlights operated. She couldn’t positively say if she rode in the car, but was fairly certain she did. At the time of this posting on the Historic Vehicles website Joan was 93 years old, living in Reston, Virginia and had taken a keen interest in the restoration of the car.
“I had arranged a ride for her 90th birthday in another Cord,” said Terry. “But the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus put an end to that.”
Jane Mc Ferrin remembered riding in the car with her grandparents, the Merrills, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Lee Merrill was in tune with the car’s required maintenance and drove it extensively during his 17 years of ownership. Jane mentioned that the Cord was driven across Canada coast to coast, with separate trips east and west.
Edmonton Antique Car Club Newsletter
“In early 2016, friends in Ontario let me know about a remarkable article in the Hamilton Spectator, featuring a picture of a young lady standing next to a grey Cord sedan with dark blue fenders,” said Terry.
“I was aware that the car had acquired this two-tone paint scheme, but didn’t know when.
“The newspaper had done the article as a Mother’s Day tribute to centenarian, Trudy Weaver.
“Eventually I made contact with Trudy, who explained that the car belonged to her next door neighbour, Lee Merrill and that her brother took the picture in 1939, before he left for active war service as a pilot and was unfortunately killed in action.
“Trudy was 24 years old when the picture was taken and kept the picture as a cherished memory of her brother.”
Terry and Trudy became great pen pals and he has a wonderful collection of hand written letters from her. The picture survived a house fire when almost everything else was lost.
In 2018 Terry and his wife went to America for the ACD Classic Car Festival, which is held in Auburn, Indiana. The first festival was held in 1956 and was actually called The Reunion, as key engineers as well as workers, who designed and built the cars, were present. Incredibly, Terry’s Cord was there and can be seen in the historic 1956 film of the event.
1586A with Gordon Buehrig – Auburn in 1957
Just as incredibly, the Auburn Automobile Company’s famous body designer Gordon Buehrig was there as ‘just one of the guys’. He was photographed with Terry’s Cord on two occasions.
Terry C found three films on You Tube that show his Cord on the move as well as parked:
Prior to the 2018 Festival, Terry and his wife arrived in Detroit and took a hire car across to Canada. They visited Acton and had morning tea in the Mason’s old home with the current owners. They also met Jim Dills and his family and had a wonderful evening with them. Eventually they arrived in Hamilton and visited Trudy, who had achieved the incredible age of 103, along with all of her family.
Later they visited the Merrills’ old home and had afternoon tea with the current owners. Terry left framed pictures of the Cord with the people they visited, as a memento of their historic visit.
Unfortunately, Jim Dills and Trudy Weaver have since passed away.
“I have come to the conclusion that my Cord must be connected with Ley Lines,” Terry said. “Because so many discoveries have come out of the Ether that I thought I had emptied, but no, more material just seems to find its way to me.
“The Actonite Cord seems to be a very special car that has threaded its way through so many lives and continues to do so.”
Terry C pointed out to Historic Vehicles that the foregoing is a condensed version of the events that have come to light, covering up to 1958. The amount of additional material he has is astonishing.
“I have been so fortunate to have made contact with so many people at a critical time,” Terry said. “But, in parallel with uncovering the history of ownership, work on the car has been continuous, since it arrived in Australia.
“Mechanically it was very run down, although the engine had good oil pressure and ran sweetly.
“First and reverse gears were found to be in a very bad way and needed to be replaced.
“It took around two and a half years to sort out he mechanicals, before the car could be made reliable.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve and thanks to emails was made a lot easier with access to specialists in America and Canada,” Terry said.
During the next five years the Cord covered around 10,000 miles on trips in all directions, including two round trips from Newcastle to Melbourne – 500 miles being the longest distance covered in a day.
Terry said the car would cruise all day at 60mph with the engine ticking over at 1800rpm in overdrive.
“Eventually I decided to completely restore the car,” said Terry C. “As there were some rust issues and it still had the original, decaying, wiring looms.
“I planned to finish the job in under four years, but it took eight!
“A local smash repair shop was selected to do the body work, as they were confident of handling what was required and being close by I could easily be involved.”
Restoring a rare Classic American car like the Cord in Australia turned out to be a real challenge. Terry had to lead every step of the way, because almost nobody had experience with such machinery.
Nothing is readily available for them in Australia, apart from basic stuff like insulating material and body deadener.
The woollen broadcloth for the interior came from a mill in Yorkshire and wiring looms made exactly like the originals came from Rhode Island Wiring Services in the USA. Other necessary parts came from all over the USA. Nothing could be rushed and everything took its own sweet time, but eventually it started to come back together.
Most Cords had a radio fitted when originally sold and Terry’s had the speaker which is fitted in the roof above the windscreens, but the original radio was missing. At some stage a radio had been fitted to the Cord, along with a telescopic aerial.
Terry was able to find a correct Cord radio in Canada and bought it, in readiness to fit it during the restoration.
Cord aerials were factory-mounted under the floor, but Terry could not find any holes for the aerial mounting brackets. Eventually he realised his Cord was one of the very rare cars not originally fitted with a radio, so the required holes had never been drilled in the cross members – a secret the car had hidden for all those years.
Terry’s restoration was as faithful as he could possibly make it, but he incorporated some very subtle improvements that pass almost unnoticed. On of these is a thin panel, sandwiched between the ashtray and the bottom of the dashboard. This panel has tiny green LEDs, each one indicating that a selected gear has been engaged.
Terry took this step, because of the pre-sector transmission behaviour.
“When driving a Cord, occasionally first or reverse gear can give a slight crunch, simply because the driver doesn’t know if the selected gear has fully engaged before letting the clutch out,” said Terry. “The teeth can sit against each other and then be pulled into engagement.
“To stop this happening and protect the gears, I set up micro-switches on the gearbox, connected to a set of LED lights and, as each gear is engaged, the corresponding micro-switch is activated, turning the corresponding gear light on.”
We reckoned that move was unobtrusive and clever, without detracting from the design of the iconic dash board that was cutting edge technology, back in 1936.
Engine oil and radiator filler caps under a cowl flap
Terry C was dedicated to replicating the original Cord Factory colour palette and he was aided in that pursuit when he found a small patch of the original paint under the rear number plate light. When cleaned, it sparkled in the daylight and research revealed that ground-up fish scales had been added to give the grey paint a ‘pearl’ essence.
The paint patch was analysed and a sample sent to the USA for comment. It was given the thumbs up. Eventually, when the body was repainted, there was a blue tinge where the panels changed direction. Incredibly, Joan’s memory of the colour being ‘silvery blue’ was absolutely correct!
Lockable fuel filler – the first car to have one
To contrast with the exterior, the interior was originally done in dark blue woollen broadcloth, with grey piping. A local motor trimmer, John Viles, did the interior, faithfully following guidelines from the ACD Club in America and did a wonderful job. The broadcloth was sourced from a mill in the UK and dyed to match the original dark blue colour.
Terry knew that lining the tiny boot (trunk) would be a very labour-intensive exercise, so to reduce expenditure he did the boot lining himself. The original material had been overprinted with parallel black lines, so Terry used plain base material in the original colour and hand-drew all the black lines.
Originally, a complete pre-shaped lining was put into the boot and tacked in place around the perimeter. Terry’s handiwork was done in separate panels that were glued to thin carpet, to hold the required shape and carefully fitted in place.
The boot was also fitted with a reproduction bumper jack base and screw-cut lifting-shaft, strapped in place as in the original layout. Original jacks are extremely rare as they usually deformed the bumper bars, so owners threw them away and replaced them with screw jacks.
Terry’s meticulous approach was aimed at ending up with a properly restored car that could be preserved well into the future. He’s critical of people talking about being custodians when in fact they are only using their cars in the present, rather than looking after them for future generations.
“Owning, driving and restoring the Cord has been wonderful, but uncovering the car’s unique history of ownership has taken my love of it to a greater level,” Terry C said.
“Cord owners in the USA are considered to be a passionate group, dedicated to their cars and I reckon I’m also part of that group.” (At Historic Vehicles, we certainly reckon you are, Terry.)
On the road
We spent a blissful couple of hours with Terry and his beloved Cord 810, photographing it and whizzing around the NSW Central Coast hinterland.
Like most cars of this era the accommodation is somewhat cramped, by modern-car standards. However, entry and exit is easier, thanks to ‘suicide’ front doors and very low sill level.
The V8 fired up after a little cranking and we climbed aboard, along with Terry’s granddaughter, Zoey. She’s a Cord lover, as well.
While Terry stirred the pre-selector box through the gears, activating each change with clutch action, we marvelled at how this 90-year-old car hummed along the secondary bitumen. It handled, rode and braked like a 1980s sporting sedan.
Seat comfort and leg room were great and the only disconcerting issue was the proximity of the door pillars to our heads, given there were no seat belts in 1936. Speaking of the doors, the pressings are mirror images, with mudguard cutouts in the rear doors done on a second press.
There were no squeaks or rattles and Terry pointed out one reason why: no fewer than three striker plates on the front doors, with individual adjustment screws.
Fresh air ventilation was first class, thanks to hinged windscreen frames that wound open at the bottom. The headlights also wound up and down, via beautifully made hand cranks at the ends of the dashboard.
Terry’s custom-made, but period correct mirror bracket
There’s not a lot of space inside the Cord 810, if you have four people on board and the boot barely holds two overnight bags. Later models were given an extended boot lid, but, while practical, it resulted in overall appearance that was not as desirable as the slick Fast Back design.
The 812 model was launched a year after Terry’s 810 was made and this model had an optional supercharger fitted. Part of that package was a set of external exhaust pipes, curving down from the bonnet sides. The blower made the little car quite potent, but we like the graceful bonnet and mudguard lines of the naturally aspirated version, without the chrome pipe intrusions.
Terry C had a family event to attend – in the Cord – so we made ourselves scarce, after noticing the time on his wristwatch – a genuine 1930s Art Deco, Swiss-made, Cord-branded timepiece, of course.
Cords are quirky, but Terry C is full-bottle on the correct maintenance procedures, so The Actonite Cord seems destined for many more happy touring trips.
“I would love to be able to take my Cord on an extended touring holiday in the USA and Canada, to visit all of the places connected with it,” Terry told HV.
“If only!” he said, wistfully.