To say that Errett Lobban Cord and I shared some early career experiences wouldn’t be a stretch. Errett Lobban, better known as E.L., at various times was a mechanic, car salesman and race car driver. He hauled ore, drove a bus and even operated the Cord Auto Washing Co. for a while. That’s mostly where E.L. and I part ways.
Born on a farm in Missouri in 1894, he dropped out of school at an early age. After following these various pursuits, E.L ended up back on the used car lot where he embraced his natural ability to sell. Soon he had enough money to buy into the Moon Motor Car dealership where he worked and his rise through the ranks earned him a meeting with executives at the Auburn Automobile Co. of Auburn, Ind.
Started by the Eckhart family in 1903, by 1923, the company was under the control of a group of Chicago investors, including William Wrigley Jr. and unsold cars were stacking up. Cord believed he could move the inventory while turning a profit. And by the following year he had bought out the investors and become president of AAC at the age of 32,.
Though the company still wasn’t profitable he leveraged its value to expand, buying the high end Duesenberg Automobile Co.
In 1928, Cord partnered with the Duesenberg brothers to manufacture the Duesenberg Model J, one of the most expensive cars of its time. An instant status symbol, Model J's were snapped up by the likes of Clark Gable, Mae West and even mobster Al Capone.
By 1929, E.L. Cord formed the Cord Corp., a holding company, and introduced the Cord L-29 automobile, a long, low roadster and the first mass-produced, front-wheel-drive American car.
Although the Great Depression didn’t do the L-29 any favors, it did eventually lead to the Cord 810 in 1936. The 810 was a marvel of engineering, featuring independent front suspension, a unique “coffin nose” style, hideaway headlights and gear “pre-selector” — a type of clutchless manual transmission. In 1937, the Model 812 offered all this with longer wheelbases, optional supercharger and chrome side exhaust.
The portfolio of the Cord Corp. contained more than 60 companies by 1932 valued at over $125 million, including such diverse companies as Checker Cab, New York Shipbuilding and American Airways, in addition to Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg. Time magazine spotlighted E.L.Cord on its cover the same year.
In Beverly Hills, Calif., he hired architect Paul R. Williams over more prominent white architects doing business in Los Angeles to design his estate, Cordhaven. Built at a cost of over $2 million, the opulent 32,000-square-foot Southern Colonial-style, red brick mansion featured 16 bedrooms, 22 bathrooms, a ballroom, a billiard room with leather-covered walls, solarium, shooting gallery, underground wine cellar with a bank vault door, Olympic-sized pool, stables, kennels and an aviary spread across 18 acres.
With the success of Cordhaven, Williams gained the notoriety of Hollywood celebrities and went on to design homes for Frank Sinatra, Lon Chaney and Barbara Stanwyck.
Cord didn’t stay at his mansion long, moving to England in 1934. Likely, he was avoiding the tax man. In 1936, he moved back to the U.S. and an investigation by the IRS and SEC brought allegations for his dealings with Checker Cab stock that today would be considered insider trading. But the charges were dropped under existing laws at the time.
Still, after the passing of his first wife in 1930 and pressure from the SEC, E.L. Cord sold all his interests in the Cord Corp. in 1937, which then consisted of 150 businesses.
But he didn’t ride quietly into the sunset. He moved West where he invested in real estate, owned multiple television and radio stations including the first in California (KFAC for Auburn Cord) and Nevada (KCRL for Circle L), and eventually was elected to the U.S. Senate for the state of Nevada in the 1940s.
Cord lived out his days at his 3,400-acre Circle L ranch in Nevada. Its home, also designed by Williams, still exists. The disused Cordhaven was demolished in 1963 and the land divided into separate parcels.
The Auburn Automobile factory still stands as a National Historic Landmark and houses the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.
Errett Lobban Cord died of cancer on Jan. 2, 1974, at age 79.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 26 Portland St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.