Purists cry out in despair when custom cars are made from desirable models, but in this case the builder told me he had found four Cord Westchester bodies in a Texas wrecking yard and used "the worst of the four"
{vsig}2004-10_1423{/vsig} This all-steel, all-real 1937 Cord Westchester 812 started life as a four-door sedan but has now been transformed into one of the best looking street rods ever made. Hemmings described it as the "Coolest Street Rod Ever," the only car to be on its cover for eight months. Boyd Coddington called it his "Pro's Pick" at Goodguys 2004. Documented from the day it was picked out of a junkyard six years ago, this car features a Jaguar front and rear suspension, a 350-ci Chevy LT1 V8, a 350 Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission, power steering, four-wheel power disc brakes, telescopic steering column, power and heated leather seats, AM/FM/CD stereo, Autometer gauges, remote doors, and power windows.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1937 Cord 812 Westchester Street Rod

This Westchester Street Rod sold for $97,200, including buyer’s premium, at the Barrett-Jackson auction held January 22-25, 2004, in Scottsdale, AZ.
I first saw this radical Cord custom coupe at the 2003 SEMA show, where Barrett-Jackson had it displayed to promote its Scottsdale auction. It’s an eye-catcher, to be sure, with Bugatti-inspired front fenders and bright, blood orange finish. It’s also something of an enigma, as the 1936-1937 Cord 810/812 is one of the handsomest cars of its era. To gild this particular lily might be construed as a sacrilege.
The “coffin-nosed” Cord was named for company owner, Errett Lobban Cord, and designed by Gordon Buehrig. Although development was done somewhat hastily, and on a strict, Depression-limited budget, the shape was well ahead of its time.
Its streamlined styling, pontoon fenders, pop-up headlights, chiseled alligator-style hood, and then-radical powertrain-a Lycoming-built, 288.6-ci V8 making 125 hp, fed through a four-speed transaxle with front-wheel drive-made it a standout among its upright and boxy rivals. A Bendix electrically operated “Finger-Tip Gear Control” unit was used to shift gears, using a small selector mounted on the steering column. (Hudson offered a similar setup called “The Electric Hand.”) The Cord’s instrument panel was a work of art with large analog gauges including a tachometer, backed by an engine-turned insert.
An Art Deco masterpiece, the Cord 810 was introduced at the 1935 New York auto show. The cars were slow to reach volume production and early models suffered from oiling and overheating problems. Cord management sent out handsome bronze Cord model cars (now a treasured piece of automobilia) to placate the first 100 “early adopters,” many of whom waited six months for their deliveries.
Once production was underway, the cars were offered in several open and closed body styles, including a roadster, a convertible (known as the Phaeton), and a brace of sedans-the five-passenger Westchester and the four-passenger Beverly. Prices ranged from $2,070 for the Westchester to $2,270 for the Phaeton.
Cord did not offer a coupe, but using an existing roadster chassis and parts from a leftover show body, the factory custom-built one hardtop coupe for a Mr. Billy Connors of Marion, IN. It’s reliably believed that at least two more such coupes were subsequently constructed.
A few minor changes in 1937 caused Cord to change the model designation to 812. Some 812s were just unsold and renumbered 810s, adding to subsequent confusion on production numbers. The 812 featured an optional Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger that added $415 to the selling price, and boosted output to an advertised 170 hp. Some 688 812s were sold with superchargers, and as many as 730 superchargers were built. Most supercharged 812s featured Alex Temulis-designed external exhaust pipes running from the hood sides into the fenders.
There was arguably no faster car in America than a supercharged Cord. One famous advertisement showed a distinguished-looking man driving his Sportsman with the headline, “A Champion Never Pushes People Around.” The copy went on to say that this particular gent was so secure driving “the King of the Highway” that “any driver that passes the Super-Charged Cord does so only with the Cord driver’s permission.”
Just under 3,000 810s and 812s were produced before Cord ceased production in 1937; estimates range from 2,972 to 2,999 units. Truly ahead of its time, the Cord enjoys an enthusiastic following today with the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club and its impressive museum in Auburn, IN.
As a measure of the Cord’s desirability, at the same 2004 Barrett-Jackson sale, a supercharged 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton sold for a record-high $324,000, and a 1936 810 Sportsman roadster brought $201,960. These were both exceptional restorations, to be sure, but proof that Cords are still appreciating in value.
Which brings us to the custom Westchester Street Rod pictured here, which brought “only” $97k. This at a sale where a Lincoln Zephyr customized by Mike Shiflett fetched $432,000 (see American Profile, June 2004), leaving some observers wondering why the custom Cord did not follow suit.
A bit of research turned up Mike Norton, who built the custom Cord by himself, in his small, two-car home garage in Evansville, IN. Purists often decry custom cars made from desirable models, but in this case, we have nothing to fear, as Norton told me he had found four Cord Westchester bodies in a rural wrecking yard in Texas. He used this one, because “it was the worst of the four,” and he knew he’d be carving it up considerably to achieve the look he wanted. The bodies had reportedly been in the junkyard since the 1950s.
Norton has owned nine Cords; seven were restorations and two have been customized. He said that he wanted to build a Cord coupe “in the spirit of Gordon Buehrig’s original design.” Although the old Cord body was to be chopped and shortened, a formidable task in itself, Norton said that his biggest challenge was designing the enclosed fenders that turn with the front wheels.
The hood and side panels remain essentially stock Cord, though Norton adapted a set of Auburn reproduction Speedster rear fenders for the new fronts. Fully skirted, using ’39 Ford fender skirts, they are mounted independently from the suspension with spring-tensioned bronze sliders. The swivel-jointed fenders turn with the Jaguar 15-inch front wheels, but they are isolated from the control arms, so they don’t rise and fall with suspension movement. Norton custom-fabricated the turning mechanisms, fitting a control arm on each side that links the fender to the front spindles.
To convert the four-door Westchester sedan to a two-door necessitated cutting seven inches from the body and chopping the roof by three. Norton reshaped the look of the roof based on his personal interpretation of a LeBaron coachwork design.
The front and rear coil-over suspension is fully independent, constructed with front and rear subframes adapted from a Jaguar XJ 6 sedan; Norton also used Jaguar rack and pinion power steering. Disc brakes are fitted all around, with inboard units in the rear
Norton worked to retain the look of the original Cord. He cleverly modernized the hidden headlight setup by adapting the pop-up mechanism from a Mazda Miata. The rear fenders were skirted and the taillamps, while deeply tunneled, retain the appearance of the stock Cord items.
When he completed the car, Norton sold it to a buyer from Florida, and he believes that buyer took the Cord to sell at Barrett-Jackson. The Westchester Street Rod is clearly a piece of skilled workmanship and very clever engineering. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider it was done by just one man, in a home workshop.
Driveability, thanks to the contemporary Chevy engine and Jaguar independent suspension, should be more than acceptable. The car certainly attracts attention, and it would be welcome at numerous NSRA and Goodguys events. Perhaps the only downside here is its garish orange color, although this shade was hardly any less attractive than the two-tone copper and bronze that adorned the $432,000 Shiflett Zephyr.
So how do we explain a market that values this Cord at less than a quarter of that custom Lincoln Zephyr, when both cars were offered in prime time at the same auction, and each car had a similar amount of pre-sale hype? A disappointed Mike Norton thinks that it’s because “Scrape,” Terry Cook’s custom Zephyr “cranked up the price of Zephyrs” when it sold for $275,000 at RM’s Monterey auction in 2000. “There are ‘Hot Wheels’ models of that car,” he insists. “It pumped every Zephyr up.”
I don’t disagree, but I think each custom, especially ones that represent a redo of a genuine icon like a Lincoln Zephyr or a Cord, must be considered on its own merits. This radically modified 812 simply has a much narrower appeal than the Shiflett Zephyr. Not only that, but the builders of the $432,000 Zephyr astutely retained a souped-up Lincoln V12, which added to its desirability. That said, it’s been argued that the Shiflett Zephyr, while indeed attractive, was more than fully priced.
While both the Zephyr and the Westchester were customs, it may be that Norton’s Cord was just “too much” of a custom to get bidders in a lather. Perhaps if it had been fitted with an original supercharged engine, the car would have done better, but we’ll never know for sure.
In any event, it’s safe to say that this Cord is one extremely cool hot rod that could not be duplicated for the $97,200 selling price, so there’s no question that the buyer got a bargain.
(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company, Josh Malks’ Cord 810/812: The Timeless Classic, Hemmings Rod & Performance magazine, Goodguys Rod and Custom Association, and other references from the author’s collection of books and magazines.)-Ken Gross

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