If you think back on early American automobiles, what comes to mind? Ford? General Motors? Chrysler? If you are a car fanatic, you might know Auburn or Duesenberg. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, automobiles manufactured by the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Automobile Company (ACD) were considered not just among the top automobiles in the country, but also the world. This success was in large part due to Errett Lobban Cord, financial magnate, car salesman, and mechanic.
E. L. Cord was born on a farm in Warrensburg, Missouri. As a young man he was more interested in mechanics than schoolwork. He dropped out of school at an early age and picked up jobs selling and fixing cars. As a young man he repaired Model T race cars, drove them in races, and resold them for a profit. By age 25 Cord had sold cars in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Chicago. In 1924 he arrived in Auburn, Indiana, where he was offered the directorship of the Auburn Automobile Company, a business incorporated in 1903 by the Eckhart family who had manufactured horse-drawn carriages. The company, while successful, struggled to balance the cost of automobile production with the highly-competitive market that was making cars more affordable to the general public. By 1923, the company was producing just six automobiles per day under the leadership of a group of Chicago financiers including William Wrigley Jr. Freshly completed cars sat parked in Auburn waiting for buyers, who weren’t willing to pay what ACD charged for the car. Cord believed that he could sell the unsold cars quickly and make a profit while doing so. Moving from General Manager to Company President in just two years, Cord was able to purchase the Auburn Automobile Company as well as the famous Duesenberg Automobile Company that was headquartered in Indianapolis, IN. Cord then partnered with the Duesenberg brothers to design and produce the Duesenberg Model J, one of the most expensive cars of its time. Introduced in 1928, the model J was a status symbol for wealthy Americans including the actors Mae West, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper, and the notorious gangster Al Capone. By 1932, the Cord Corporation led by E.L. included a portfolio of more than 60 companies totalling more than $125 million in assets. His success placed him on the cover of TIME magazine, and allowed him to spend time in Chicago, New York, California, and Europe, which he much preferred to Auburn.
Following the death of his first wife Helen Frische in 1930, E.L. began to lose interest in running the automobile company, turning over much control to others. He sold the Cord Company for 2.5 million dollars in 1937. His later business acquisitions included the Stinson Aircraft Company, the New York Shipbuilding Company, the Checker Cab Company, and a Los Angeles radio station. He remarried a second time to Virginia Thorpe, and left Auburn, Indiana. He spent his time in a penthouse in Chicago and a fabulous 62-room mansion in Beverly Hills named “Cord Haven’. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission levied charges over his stock market dealings and forced him to close his company in 1937. Cord moved back out west to rebuild his life and career. He became a real estate investor and eventually ended up as a U.S. Senator for the state of Nevada, where he owned a 3,400 acre ranch and 30,000 acres of cattle.
The Cord Company has ceased operations forty years before as a result of the Great Depression and Cord’s disinterest. Cord passed away in 1974. The Auburn factory stands today as a National Historic Landmark that houses the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.