The most innovative car you’ve never heard of

The last subject I would normally *ever* write about is cars (as my funny dedication at the end of this post explains).

But this particular car is the central character of one of the most unlikely serendipitous discoveries I’ve ever made. And the owner’s coincidental identity, revealed much later in this story, was even more surprising to me.

The focus of this post was to show some of the beautiful and surprising things you see while slowly and mindfully exploring Portland’s beautiful public stairways. While that’s still “the moral of the story,” I never imagined that a particular discovery would take over nearly my entire post.

I can’t get enough of Portland’s stunning network of public stairs. This one feels like an endless emerald green ascent whose invisible end is a brightly backlit tree tunnel. I often stop to marvel at such stairway scenes that probably go unnoticed far too often.

For years I’ve been a huge fan of Laura Foster, who has written seven books about gorgeous hill walks throughout Portland and Seattle; I’ve taken nearly all of them and have probably visited every public staircase in both cities. I even chose where to live largely so that I’d be a short walk from many public stairways near the campus of Portland State University.

I’ll eventually create several posts on stairways and other public passageways, but they’ll all have a totally new perspective, as this one does.

This is a close-up of a historic home’s wall; it’s composed of Belgian block, of which Portland’s streets were paved in the late 19th century. For scale, the worm is less than two inches long. Normally I’d pass right by the wall, but close up, it looked like a scene straight out of the cliffs of Ireland (the full-size image turned out pretty well). There’s so much beauty if we slow down and take it in.

OK, I’m about to launch into a long story about a car, so if you get bored, you can skip to the stunning nature scenes at the end, and I won’t be offended. 🙂


So, about this car…

This was an area through which I had walked, biked and driven many times since 1997. Most of the homes in the neighborhood, including that belonging to the owner of the car pictured below, are on the National Historic Register, and nearly all had panoramic views of the 1905 World’s Fair that marked the centennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

But until this day, I had never paid enough attention when passing by this house to notice–at the end of a long driveway that’s partly obscured by over a century of lush understory–a rather unusual-looking car.

I’m halfway up the driveway, getting a better look at the car; the owner invited me to go right up to the car.

I love the irony: had I been in a car, I never would noticed (and later researched for many hours) what is possibly the most revolutionary car ever unveiled. Yet its existence is known to very few, even within a few blocks. And since this blog largely focuses on great places and discoveries that are rarely found online–or even by those living 1000 feet away–I thought it made a perfect fit.

This car had many world firsts. Can you guess a few of them from the image? Do you know what the car is?

Photo attribution: User:NZ Car Freak, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45394926

As luck (or perhaps being “in the flow” or “fully in the present,” as some say) would have it, I had the great fortune of meeting Rodger and Janet Eddy, the owners of the car at the end of the driveway. Rodger is restoring it for the third time; the car was severely damaged ten years ago when parked next to a building that caught on fire. I’ll surely be back to see it when it’s restored!

Rodger has owned the car for 66 years! I don’t know how old that makes him, but he has abundant energy. I remember reading that a key to living a really long life (other than luck and good genes) is having a deep passion for something, along with a never-ending curiosity to learn more. I could feel that passion from Mr. Eddy.


OK, OK, so…What IS this car?

The car is a Cord 810, and it was a total sensation when it came out in 1936. It was the first-ever American car designed and built with front wheel drive. In fact, the next U.S. car with front-wheel drive (the Oldsmobile Toronado) wouldn’t be built for another 30 years.

Cord 810 at the Auburn Auto Museum. Photo attribution: Au890, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3813334

Even more astounding are these features of the Cord 810 that were all *world firsts*:

  • Independent front suspension
  • Hidden headlights (notice in the pictures)
  • Flush tail lights
  • Alligator hood
  • No running boards
  • Lateral louvers in place of a traditional upright radiator
  • Hidden door hinges
  • Pre-selector pneumatic steering
  • Hidden radio antenna
  • A decades-ahead-of-its-time transmission
  • The most complete dashboard instrumentation yet achieved
  • A louvered wrap-around grille (nicknamed the “coffin nose”)

Even the U-joint, which was based on test designs for cars later used in the Indy 500,  was a first in the world. The pre-selector pneumatic steering, hidden radio antenna and optional supercharging may have also been firsts. Most of its mechanical features wouldn’t be seen for 50 years. Its aerodynamic styling and unit body construction were highly unusual for the time. And, of course, the rear-hinged hood (taken for granted today) was new at the time.


The Cord 810 made literally all other cars ever built suddenly look primitive.

In addition to its numerous flashy new features, the biggest visible difference was that it sat much lower than any car previously built.

Since it had both front wheel drive and a highly advanced transmission system that extended in front of the engine, the design no longer needed either a driveshaft or a transmission tunnel. Thus, the car required no running boards. Until this car came out, all others ever built sat on top of a frame, making them awkwardly high–and hence looking instantly dated next to the Cord 810.

Mr. Eddy’s car awaits its final restoration following a devastating fire.

No other car ever built had such an overnight impact on design or drew crowds more quickly at the New York Car Show. People stood on other cars’ bumpers just to see this model, which was awarded more first-place votes than the next two cars combined.

And this *particular* car pictured above is yet another first! It’s the first convertible Cord ever made–not the first model, but the *actual* first one, as proved by the serial number. It was owned by E.L. Cord himself! Cord was so wealthy and unusual that even Howard Hughes has nothing on this guy (more on E.L. Cord later).

This 1908 home just up the hill from Mr. Eddy’s house is the only existing Albert Doyle-designed house that’s on the National Historic Register. I’ve passed by it many times before exploring the amazing network of public stairways in the West Hills. But in the spirit of this day, I stopped to take a closer look.

The reason you’ve never heard of the Cord

You’ve certainly heard of a Duesenberg, which is almost universally recognized as “the most gorgeous achievement in American automotive history.” A Duesenberg was the first classic car to sell for over $1 million; it’s the brand associated most with American automotive luxury. “It’s a Dusey,” after all.

The Duesenberg brothers actually have E.L. Cord to thank for giving their company its reputation; he bought their namesake company  in 1926. Oddly, E.L. Cord may have also been responsible for Duesenberg’s demise; he had to fold that part of his empire in 1937.

Cord envisioned creating a far more advanced car than any in existence, and he hired America’s best automotive designer, Gordon Buehrig, to get the job done. Given that it was the 1930s, Cord also aimed to get the 810’s sales price to be roughly half that of a Dusey.

A calamity of mishaps (most of which I’ll spare you of here) quickly befell Cord’s greatest masterpiece. First of all he couldn’t keep up with the overnight demand; the car’s production was enormously time-consuming. No car remotely as complicated had ever gone into mass production. The headlights alone proved to be quite a “headache” for the designer. He also changed the car’s brand name from Duesenberg to his own name at the last minute, which was not smart.

But the one mistake that probably sank the Cord 810 was attempting a first-ever electrically selected semi-automatic four-speed transmission. Ongoing gear-slipping problems delayed production for months. Being the very heart of the Great Depression, it was the worst possible time for costly errors and delays, and Cord soon ran out of finances to overcome the design issues.

Photo attribution: Mr.choppers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35497915

The Cord’s place in automotive annals

Most Americans aren’t aware of the Cord, but it’s still a legend like no other to serious car historians. The Cord 810 was the first car to be placed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which recognized it as one of the 10 most significant cars ever produced and “an icon of American design.”

American Heritage called it “The Single Most Beautiful Car.” And interestingly, the “Classic Cord” is still one of the most valuable Hot Wheels toy cars–as long as it’s unopened, of course. 🙂

Neither my dad nor I are car guys in the slightest, but his light blue 1958 Ford Thunderbird was greatly beloved by my dad and by everyone who got to ride in it!

The legendary Errett Lobban (“E.L.”) Cord

I could go on for many pages about E. L. Cord; there was never an American business executive quite like him. He controlled over 150 companies, mostly in transportation. In 1934, he was the subject of an utterly bizarre kidnapping story that somehow also involved—I kid you not—an up-and-coming singer named Bing Crosby.

So, Cord fled to England and lived on his yacht for a year. He then returned to the U.S., where, despite getting in trouble for insider trading, he ended up making more money in real estate than he ever made in the transportation industry. In fact, much of what we recognize as Beverly Hills was developed by E.L. Cord in the 1940s.

 

This beautiful stair-filled mid-block passageway a block southwest of the Eddys’ house is semi-hidden in a dead-end street, but the stairs allow you to access the next street. Gems like this are probably known only to people living within two blocks–and to Laura Foster and me. 🙂

Cord also owned several of California’s first radio and TV stations. And here’s a *really* little-known fact: the “AC” in the seminal Los Angeles radio station KFAC stands for “Fuller Auburn Cord.” Auburn Automobile Company was the first company owned by Cord, and Auburn cars were sold at Fuller Motors in Los Angeles.

For decades, KFAC had a greater influence on classical music lovers in southern California than even the LA Philharmonic; it’s considered one of the greatest classical radio stations of all time. It broadcast about 50 years until 1989.

Only at a walking speed can you notice all the great details of beautiful lush greenery in historic Belgian block stairs. For decades starting in 1880, nearly every street in Portland was paved using abundant locally mined basalt  and formed into unique “Belgian block” shapes. Today, Belgian block remnants are preserved in parks and around street trees throughout the city. 

Another crazy coincidence with the car and the owner–and now you’ll see another big reason for all the pictures of stairways

Rodger Eddy is taking his beloved car in for one final restoration, and there’s only one man alive capable of doing the job. The world’s most famous restorer of both Duesenbergs and Cords, Joe Kaufman, worked right up until his heart attack in 2012 at age 90. Joe’s son, Paul, having spent his entire life working with his dad, has taken over the mantle, and he looks forward to working on Rodger’s car.

The restoration will take place in, of all places, Manitowoc, Wisconsin (very close to a couple relatives in my old home state).

But the far bigger coincidence is that Rodger is great friends with the father of Laura O. Foster, the wonderful author whose “Portland Stairs Book” was THE reason I was even there in the first place!

I can never get enough of the old European-feeling beauty that you only capture up-close through walking these public stairways. I often silently thank Laura Foster for detailing the locations and charms of scores of fairly hidden stairways in the Pacific Northwest.

Laura wrote several of my favorite books about walking through some of the most beautiful hilly areas to be found in a major city, and in her honor, I’ve explored every public staircase found in both Portland and Seattle.

The real joy is that Laura won’t know about *any* of this until now. 🙂 Rodger and Evan (Laura’s dad) went to school together and were neighbors in the Laurelhurst neighborhood. In fact, Evan officiated at the  funeral service for Rodger’s brother. Rodger told me to say HI to Laura, and I’ll be honored to! 🙂

This house, which is across the street from Rodger & Janet Eddy’s house, is one of many homes on the National Historic Register found throughout the Alphabet Historic District.

The power of experiencing cities at walking speed

In the end, this post is really is about my original intent to convey: A neighborhood’s greatest little details can only be experienced at a slow pace and by being one with your surroundings. When you walk, you experience a city entirely differently and much more intimately than you do by any other mode of transport.

This requires venturing outside and putting aside all social media, which is a refreshing break, given these days of anonymous trolling and our increasingly crazy political climate.

Several homeowners living alongside public stairways create fun little oddities and pieces of art for people walking up and down the stairs to enjoy.

Even the scent when walking is far different–and smell is the most powerful memory trigger of all the senses.

Walking allows you to be off the road (usually). You’re much closer to the places people call home; you’re literally at the threshold of each property. Even biking can’t provide nearly this level of intimacy with the neighborhood, especially knowing that you’re sharing the road with fast-moving vehicles that outweigh your bike 100-fold.

Walking is how humans have always connected with both cities and their neighbors. Our current suburban- and car-dominated way of life has only been a 70-year-long experiment thus far. Only 1% of Americans were on Facebook a decade ago. Walking has “stood” the test of time as a way to connect; will driving fare as well?


OK, I’ve ripped on cars long enough, especially after describing the coolest car I’ll ever know. So…

More beautiful pictures that could only be captured at a slow pace near the home of Rodger Eddy and his amazing car

A nice man saw that I was taking pictures of this house, and he actually came outside to move his car so that I could get a better shot!
I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of the sun filtering through lush tree branches and creating fractal-like patterns.
I actually waited in front of this house for several minutes for the big, puffy cloud to reach *just* the right spot for it to look like the house was boiling. It was admittedly a lot more dramatic in person. 🙂 This, by the way, is the library of the Portland Theosophical Society.
I didn’t realize until I was about four feet away from it that I was moving slowly and quietly enough to not disturb a hummingbird. It just sat on this branch for a full minute.
Ribes sanguineum (red-flowering currant). The tiny flowers burst in bright red and pink in February. The species is unique to the Pacific Northwest.
This rather elaborate treehouse is very nearly hidden from the public stairway. Only a tiny opening in the trees and brush reveals its existence.
Occasionally I’ll even stop to admire private stairs, especially when they’re lined with classic Northwest landscaping.
This lush sidewalk scene across the street from Rodger and Janet Eddy’s house typifies the streetscape of the Northwest Portland’s Alphabet Historic District and Kings Heights
Hike high enough, even in March, and you might encounter snow within Portland city limits.
And if something in your heightened awareness makes you turn around on the way back down, you might spot a 12-foot-wide spider descending a branch.

A final ode to a car: my humorous dedication to brothers Brad and Greg

I couldn’t help cracking up for many reasons while writing about a car, of all topics. First of all, I know nothing about cars. Secondly, I rarely drive mine within city limits. Also, a car is the *last* thing I’d want to promote. In fact, a major theme of my blog is that cities are for *people* rather than cars.

“This is a song about a car”
But what really kept me amused was that I kept being reminded of a song by the rock group Rush that my brothers and I loved in the 1980s. I still remember every beat of Neil Peart’s 3-plus-minute-long drum solo in the song “YYZ.”

Anyway, Brad went to Rush concerts three consecutive years, and in every one of them they’d announce, “This is a song about a car” before playing “Red Barchetta.” Thinking of those funny memories (and playing this song) helped get me through the long process of researching and writing this post. Thanks, Brad, Greg and Rush! 🙂

The image says it all. Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/wix1LOWHU2U/maxresdefault.jpg

By the way, the members of Rush grew up in Willowdale, which was once a Toronto suburb. It was totally car-oriented area when the band formed in the late 1960s, but it’s getting increasingly urban and hip these days.

Car lovers as they were (as was nearly everyone else those days), Rush wrote a song (described in more detail here) “about a young man living in a dystopian future where cars have been outlawed.” He would regularly sneak outside the fences surrounding the city to an abandoned farmhouse where his uncle had illegally preserved a red Barchetta sports car.

By the way, and “barchetta” is Italian for “little boat.” And with that final detail, I’ve now managed to write way more about cars and even the Red Barchetta than you’ll ever want to know. 🙂

Happy walking and exploring!

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