By John Gunnell
The Cord Front Drive car that debuted for 1929 was promoted as being safer and easier to drive than any other new vehicle that year. Manufactured by the Auburn Automobile Co. of Auburn, Ind., the front-wheel-drive 1929 Cord L-29 — America’s first such mass-produced car — was said to have “exclusive advantages” over its more conventional rear-wheel-drive competitors. Those advantages ranged from the claim that “pulling is better than pushing,” to the fact that the Cord L-29’s low center of gravity gave it safer handling.
Push versus Pull
One sales catalog illustration showed a prancing horse pushing a Cord next to a drawing of a galloping horse pulling a Cord. The idea behind the two images was that front-drive cars were speedier than conventional rear drive cars.
This concept was repeated again in another illustration that depicted two aircraft. The first plane was a very early, kite-like “pusher type” with its propeller at the rear. “But (an) imperative need in aeronautics was utmost efficiency that soon forced aeronautical engineers to adopt the ‘tractor type’ of plane with (the) propeller in front to pull the plane through the air,” said the sales copy above a drawing of a then-modern 1929 plane.
A stronger frame
Other illustrations in the small eight-panel sales folder pointed out that the Front Drive Cord had a stronger frame that was reinforced with cross bracing. The front-drive car could also use a frame with straighter side rails because it was not necessary to have a frame kick-up over the rear axle. This also added strength to the Cord’s frame.
The safer Cord
As for safety, the Cord Front Drive was quieter, smoother and more vibration-free because the operating mechanisms such as the clutch, transmission, battery, propeller shaft, differential and rear axle did not sit below the passengers. All moving parts on the Cord were under the hood rather than under the body.
The Cord’s lower center of gravity was a benefit of the car’s lower-than-normal overall height. This was achievable because the frame didn’t kick upwards at the rear. A lightweight rear axle and the straighter frame also contributed to the model’s low-slung body work. A catalog illustration compared it to a contemporary sedan noting that the Cord was about 20 percent lower.
Another drawing in the sales literature showed two cars — one with front drive and one with rear drive — stuck in ruts on a dirt road. On both cars, the front wheels were turned to the right in order to drive out of the ruts. The front wheels of the front-drive car were shown to pull the Cord out of the ruts, even when turned to one side. In contrast, the rear wheels of the other car push the angled front wheels straight ahead, farther into the rut.
The same basic concept underlies an illustration of front- and rear-drive cars trying to gain purchase (traction) in mud or sand or on ice. The copywriters pointed out that a front-drive car has “over 1,000 percent more purchase for traction possibility” than a rear-drive car. In other words, the front-drive Cord wins again.
Other noted advantages of an L-29 Cord included an over-sized ring-and-pinion gear in the differential; bridge-like construction with 7/32-inch channel stock and 7-inch-deep frame side rails with 3-inch flange; an inline eight-cylinder engine (straight-eight) with 3-1/4 x 41/2-inch bore and stroke and 123 actual horsepower; a double universal joint that permitted steering up to 42 degrees (and went 8,000 miles on one oiling); double quarter elliptic front springs with rubber shackles; and a body and flatter floor that allowed passengers to “sit in the car, rather than on it,” according to the catalog.
E.L. Cord weighs in
“The Cord Front Drive car is pulled not pushed,” said E.L. Cord, who felt so strongly about the front-drive car that he put his name on it. “This difference makes possible better transportation; safer control; easier handling; finer road-ability; and greater comfort.” He added, “We offer the latest automotive development — its exclusive advantages can better be understood by actually driving a Cord.”
Cord in practice
So what was driving a Cord Front Drive like, and did it live up to its promises?
It’s impossible to fault the styling of a 1929 Cord, or any of the nearly identically styled Cords that were built into 1931. Europeans who normally snubbed American cars frequently bestowed “best in show” awards upon the Cord at concours d’elegance events there. However, the car was not known for speed, and some owners found the car to be front-heavy when driving around town.
Regardless of its few shortcomings, America’s first mass-produced, front-wheel-drive car began a significant chapter in automotive history and started a trend that remains strong to this day.