A ‘Car Guy’s’ Cord

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By John Gunnell

The one-of-a-kind, black-and-cream?L-29 Cord
speedsteronce owned by Brooks Stevens is now fully
restored to the way it was when the designer customized
it in the mid-1930s. The Cord is now a part of the
Schoenthaler Collection.

Six years ago, when the Milwaukee (Wis.) Art Museum featured an exhibition spotlighting the work of industrial designer Brooks Stevens, one of the cars in the show was a beautiful 1930 Cord L-29 that Stevens had personalized for himself long ago. Stevens often told me this vehicle was a personal favorite among the many interesting vehicles he displayed in his museum in Mequon, Wis.

Stevens’ product designs went from the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to the wide-mouthed peanut butter jar. He even designed the AMF Roadmaster bicycle that I rode as a kid in the early ’50s, and I have always kicked myself for not buying the mint example I found about 20 years ago. Ed Schoenthaler, of Downers Grove, Ill., did not repeat my mistake. Given the opportunity to buy Stevens’ L-29 speedster in 1997, he and his wife, Judy, did exactly that.

Stevens was born in Milwaukee and studied architecture at Cornell Universityin New York from 1929-’33. His influence on transportation design included the design of motorcycles, trains and cars. While he didn’t design the famous front-wheel-drive production car, he owned an L-29 Cord and had it restyled by the Cord Corp.s’ Limousine Body Co.

Stevens was a car enthusiast from an early age. Over the years, he helped design cars of more than 50 brands. He was still a teenager when he went to a wedding in the early ’30s. At that wedding, a Cord was given to the bride and groom. Stevens was impressed by the car and wanted to own one. Stevens’ father was a successful engineer and he helped his son buy an L-29 Cord cabriolet in 1931, when it was about a two-year-old car.

From its beginning, the Cord L-29 was an innovative automobile. It was manufactured by a branch of the Cord Corp. that was named after founder E.L. Cord. The L-29 was introduced in 1929 as a 1930 model. The “L” part of the L-29 name originated in the Auburn Automobile Co.’s name for the front-wheel drive project while it was in its infancy (According to the book “Auburn & Cord,” Auburn-Cord historian Stan Gilliland believes the “L” prefix was used for chassis orders). According to Ed Schoenthaler, the “29” stood for 1929. Race car builder Harry Miller, who built many front-wheel-drive race cars, consulted on the project’s design work and offered his patents and manufacturing rights for a royalty for each car built. Miller worked with Cord Corp. engineer Cornelius Willett Van Ranst. John Oswald was the body engineer and worked under chief designer Al Leamy.

This is how the Hoffman X-8 looked back in the 1980s
when on display in the Brooks Stevens Automotive
Museum in Mequon, Wis. Both the front and rear doors
are hinged at the center pillar.

The L-29 Cord hit the market 30 days before the Ruxton, another front-wheel-drive car. Many changes had to be made in the original design before production actually started. A 298.6-cid Lycoming side-valve eight was used which, in stock format, developed 125 hp. Brooks Stevens loved to talk about the modifications he made to get the output of his up to about 150 hp. Attached to the engine was a three-speed manual transmission. The Cord did 0-to-60 mph in 20 seconds.

As a design student, Stevens became fascinated with the Cord’s technology and performance, the latter being quite strong for the day. About the time he graduated from Cornell in 1936, he decided to restyle the car. He patterned its appearance after that of the new Auburn speedster. His modifications included narrowing the body slightly and lowering the cowl line. At the rear, he discarded the stock rumble seat, smoothed the deck lid panel and added an airplane-like fin. He used a V-shaped windshield and raked it back for a sportier look.

Stevens redesigned the front fenders in a heavily valanced style that reflected the streamlining trend of the day. The Cord’s six-wheel equipment was removed to eliminate the side-mounted spare tires. Mesh screens were used on the hood sides in a functional change that also helped cool the engine. The designer favored narrow Woodlites for headlamps and finished the car in a black-and-cream duo-tone that became a Stevens trademark over the ensuing years.

Inside the car, Stevens designed a new engine-turned instrument panel and worked in a luggage compartment beneath the rear deck panel. Storage access was by hinged seat backs. Since Stevens did not have facilities to build the car, he took his renderings to Limousine Body Co. and had them “factory customize” it.

Stevens’ engine hop-ups included a dual-carb intake manifold and a special exhaust system. The rear axle gear ratios were changed. The Cord was finished in 1936 or 1937 and Stevens proceeded to drive it more than 140,000 miles until his death in 1995. The car was driven frequently and driven hard. It was even entered in numerous road races.

Many people were interested in the car when the Schoenthalers arranged to purchase it from the Stevens family in 1997. The Stevens family wanted the car to be kept as he designed it and hoped to see it at concours events, such as those in Pebble Beach, Calif.; Auburn, Ind.; and at Meadow Brook Hall in Michigan. “We took it to all three concours,” Schoenthaler once said. “Now, we’re trying to decide whether we should enter it in road races and competitive events.”

Schoenthaler said the Cord was a “good 20-footer” when he bought it, because Stevens had made quick fixes anytime the car was bruised. The Schoenthalers had a nut-and-bolt restoration done, but made certain that everything was fixed exactly the way Brooks Stevens had it. Schoenthaler said that cars like the Stevens Cord are found by “Keeping your eyes and ears open; we get all the hobby publications and belong to dozens of clubs.”

 Although most of the cars formerly in the Brooks Stevens Automotive Museum are now privately owned, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) kept the designer’s personal archives. It was donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1997. The archives include original sketches, renderings, models and photos. The museum has made many of the objects from the archives available for viewing online at www.mam.org/brooksstevens.

 


 

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