|Often, we find ourselves bemoaning the "how comes" of restored cars. How come, we wonder, too little glory (often not even a casual mention) falls to the people who have spent precious blood, sweat and tears restoring a particular car. We can cite dozens of publications in support of our case. But, of course, we live on the restorer’s side of the tracks and the bitter taste of sour grapes lingers long in our craw.
A perfect candidate for our stump speeches is a reproduction 1931 Cord L-29 LeGrande Speedster that was reconstructed from scratch using original sketches and photos for inspiration and as many original components as possible.
Body sketches that stylist Phil Wright penned during the Great Depression with the intention of landing a job at the Auburn Automobile Co., Auburn, Indiana played a big roll in the fabrication of the original car as well as the reproduction.
Having been warned that his job at Walter J. Murphy, a Pasadena, California-based coachbuilder was in jeopardy due to the strangulation hold of the Great Depression, Wright packed his bags and left California and headed for Detroit in search of work. Stopping by the sleepy hamlet of Auburn, Indiana, Wright landed an interview with Auburn Automobile Co. President Roy Faulkner who found Wright’s sketches of a proposed Cord L-29 exciting --- but due to the economics at the time didn’t put Wright on the payroll.
Soon after, Faulkner authorized the building of a speedster based on Wright’s sketches. Cord’s stylist Al Leamy was called in to rework the designs to reflect E.L. Cord’s insistence that the front end not hide the front-wheel-drive setup. The look from the front is very similar to the production models.
There was only one 1931 Cord L-29 LeGrande Speedster ever built and its eventual fate remains a mystery.
A top attraction at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum is a reproduction of the original. Its strikingly garish red and yellow paint job and flowing lines have made it a favorite of visitors and members of the museum staff.
Writer Lee Beck’s recounting of the original car, Wright’s sketches and vintage photos of the finished LeGrande validate its existence. Beck’s story appeared in the June ’95 issue of Car Collector magazine. As Beck states, it was the only L-29 custom-built speedster by Cord and the name LeGrande was used only when a coachbuilt vehicle was built in-house. Stylists say Phil Wright’s sketches have a European look.
Other published articles about the reproduction L-29 Cord Speedster have appeared, yet little mention and yet few, if any, photos were shown to document the forming of the body skins. With your approval, we will attempt to begin filling the missing gaps. We should mention that several other copies of the original speedster have been built since the building of the one shown in this article.
In a phone conversation, Stan Gilliland, a noted ACD restorer and historian who was involved in the reproduction effort, fielded our questions with an enthusiasm for the project that hasn’t waned over the 20 years since it began.
The following quotes by Gilliland are from our April 2009 conversation.
“Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg members have always been interested in the original Cord L-29 LeGrande Speedster.”
“Only after Dr. Fay Culbreth, an orthodontist from Charlotte, NC, stepped forward with the financing did the reproduction project take off.”
“Looking back, I don’t know how we did it. There have been other attempts since, but ours was the best.”
“The “L” denotes the chassis while “29” denotes the year when the project was started. “Although the car carries the L-29, a prototype was built in 1927. The finished car was first shown in the New York Auto Show in 1931.”
“Years ago, I bought two small copies of Phil Wright’s sketches, a series of factory photos and some published works on the car.”
“Originally, my involvement with the project was only to produce drawings and station bucks using the sketches and photos as reference. Using known dimensions, ie. wheelbase, tire size, etc., I enlisted Richard Teneyck Design to produce working drawings for the bucks.”
“The original sketches are 11’’ x 42”.”
Regarding the flashy red and yellow colors used on the original ...
“Years ago, Auto Body (a magazine that catered to the automakers) mentioned the red and yellow colors. Once I started work on the repro car, word got out and Dave Holls, a GM employee, contacted me to tell me that GM used the same sketches for in-house training sessions and had color standards for all of those years.”
“Somehow, by using computer analysis at GM (with Chuck Jordan’s permission) they were able to weigh out the colors by scanning the black and white photos. They were even able to pull out some detail of the extra lumps under the fenders.”
“Later, I heard that Jordan felt too much time had been spent doing the analysis and had decided to justify the cost. Although I’ve never looked into it, I’ve heard that the colors were available on Chevy and GMC trucks in ’96 -’97.”
Regarding actress Jean Harlow part in the original story ...
“Paul Bern, Harlow’s husband, an executive at MGM, was twice her age. They saw the car at the New York Auto Show and purchased it, then had it shipped to Europe for their honeymoon.”
“They were both eccentric in their own ways. While there, they evidently had a spat and returned to the States leaving the car in France. They had agreed (when buying the car in NY) that it would be shown in the Paris Auto Show.”
Regarding whether the car was ever returned the the States ...
“Soon after returning to the States, Bern committed suicide and Harlow took up with actor William Powell. Then by 1937, Harlow was gone and now there’s no one left to settle the debate.”
“I’ve looked into European license plates. They never change and stay with the car. I wrote to the French Minister of Transportation and he found nothing at all except that the last taxes were paid in 1932. With World War II just around the corner and aluminum such a precious commodity, it probably ended up in the war effort. The hood and body were made of aluminum. Even pots and pans were sought after.”
“In addition, another actress of lesser fame, Suzy Vernon was photographed with the car wearing stylish clothing. Back then, all concours d’ elegance events included a fashion show for women.”
Author: Conjecture abounds as to whether the L-29 was ever returned to the States. Some say yes! Others say no! The rumors continue, but to this day, a definitive answer remains afield.
Gilliland continued ...
“We tracked down three people in Auburn who were shown in photos with the original. One lady was 16 years old at the time of the photos. Then in her 80s, she remembered her husband delivering the car to New York. There he met the Bern couple and had dinner with them. She related how he had felt very uncomfortable in the restaurant. Being a rural farm boy, it was a “Which fork do I use thing.”
Regarding original photos showing the car fitted with Woodlite headlamps in one and Marchals in another ...
“There are photos of the car with both Marchal headlamps and Woodlites. The Woodlites were fitted at the factory. French law, possibly to this day, requires yellow headlamps. That’s why the Marchal lamps (round ones) were fitted when the car was taken to France.”
Gilliland’s further involvement in the reproduction project ...
“My involvement changed when the project blew up in our faces. The company hired to do the metalshaping wasn’t performing very well, so I took a leap of faith and suggested that Mr. Culbreth and I go to Mark Kennison and give him a chance to finish the metalshaping and do the final assembly. Fortunately, it turned out well. Mark had done work for Joe Follidori and came highly recommended.”
End of interview.
In retrospect, Mark Kennison, D&D partner/owner considers the Cord L-29 LeGrande reproduction project as a pivotal point in his metalshaping career. He would like to take this opportunity to personally thank his friend Stan Gilliland for the vote of confidence in directing the LeGrande project to his shop.
Still in his early 20s at the time, Kennison had spent a number of years gearing up for the opportunity the Cord L-29 project presented ---- an opportunity to demonstrate his metalworking skills, get his name out there and land equally interesting work.
Years spent in England shaping metal with Chris Lawrence, CRL Panels and the experience of operating a metalshaping business in Indiana had left him with a confidence that no matter what the demands of a job were, somehow, with persistence and hard work he could he could get the job done using basic hand tools. Yet, there was a desire to purchase metalworking equipment (read that as big ticket items) that could speed-up production and increase accuracy levels.
The answer came when Stan Gilliland suggested that Dr. Culbreth pull the metalshaping part of the job from the shop contracted to do the work and deliver it to Kennison for completion of the unfinished metalshaping requirements. And the final assembly.
With the job came an advance that permitted Kennison to purchase one of those expensive metalshaping tools --- an Eckhold Kraftforming machine which is still in use at D&D Classic on a daily basis.
Today, almost 20 years later, as the reproduction 1931 Cord L-29 LeGrande Speedster resides in a prominent display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, Indiana, Stan is very glad to have been part of the project --- so is Kennison.
“Thanks Stan!” --- MK