Rescued Elegance – Part 1

The automobile is, at its core, nothing more than a tool for personal transportation convenience. Our entire existence with self-propelled vehicles can attest to that. We buy them new—full of shiny gadgets and conveniences—drive them for several years, pass them along to another driver, and then another, until one day that car is put to pasture in some way. Nearly three decades later, the old steed has become a collectible antique.

Need examples? We’re betting that 25 years ago, few would have suspected a 1998 Mazda MX-5 would be on sports car collectors’ radars today, or that 55 years ago Buick’s 1968 Riviera—which helped redefine the personal luxury car market a second time—would still be alluring. A further 10 years down the road, nobody gazed into a crystal ball seeking the future desirability of the newly minted 1958 Chevy Impala. Admit it—they were transportation tools. They were eventually cast aside by owners. Which explains, in part, how the modern “barn find” came to be. Even extravagant luxury cars such as a 1930 Cord L-29 Brougham met this fate.

Unveiled by E.L. Cord in 1929, the Cord L-29 was intended to fill a price gap between his Auburn line and upscale Duesenberg Model J. It was offered in just four body styles—Sedan, Brougham, Phaeton, and Cabriolet—with prices ranging from $3,095 to $3,295. Cord tapped into his modest luxury car empire and chose his Lycoming company to motivate the new series with a smooth and reliable L-head straight-eight engine rated for 125 hp As conventional as the arrangement sounded, however, the L-29 was revolutionary for its front-wheel-drive system. A novelty in both Europe and the States prior to the first World War, the unusual drive system had found new favor with several Indianapolis 500 race car designers, most notably Harry Miller. Cord secured Miller as a consultant and was the first to bring front-wheel drive to market as a commercially viable mass-produced automobile (ahead of Archie Andrews and his Ruxton).

The Cord L-29 Brougham was sold as part of a liquidation auction “as-is, where is” – in the exact spot it had been pushed to when purchased by its third owner in 1975.

The unconventional arrangement, strapped to a substantial X-braced frame, in turn allowed for incredibly dramatic styling. With the entire drivetrain up front, a long, elegant hood flowed into a body with a low roofline, which provided the illusion of a radically lowered profile despite then-typical ground clearance. The combined mechanical and styling effort began to amass concours d’elegance awards across Europe’s finest shows, hinting at commercial success that was sure to follow—were it not for the stock market crash two months after the L-29’s debut.

Prices were reduced to entice sales, and plans for improvements that were to be unveiled on the future L-30 were instead administered, in part, to the last of the L-29 models built in 1931. The last 157 examples were titled as ’32 models. The L-30 was, in turn, nixed. In total, 5,010 L-29s were built, interestingly just 10 more than what Cord had anticipated selling. Today, it’s estimated that 175 remain; the rarest and arguably most elegant is the Brougham, of which 10 are believed to have survived.

“This 1930 Cord L-29 Brougham is one of those 10. Honestly, it was a bit of a known car, but it was still technically a ‘barn find’ in that few people had seen it for many decades,” Shawn Coady says. Shawn is primarily a resident of Champaign, Illinois, though he winters in Florida. He has become intimately familiar with this “Full Classic” thanks to a fortunate chain of events that began when the L-29 was still in production.

After rescuing the now-rare L-29 Brougham from a second tobacco barn, closer examination revealed nearly all the factory upholstery, and its elegant patterns, were intact.

“The best guess among marque experts is that the car was purchased new by a couple from an Iowa dealer in 1930. They didn’t own it very long, though. Apparently, the couple decided it would be a good idea to drive it from their home in the Midwest all the way to Florida a year later; as they approached Mayfield, Kentucky, the car broke down, at which point it was towed to J.T. Hail Cadillac in town. Cord didn’t produce a lot of extra parts, so after a day or two of looking at the L-29 the dealership mechanics told the owners they couldn’t fix it. So, the couple traded it in for a new Cadillac and went on their merry way,” Shawn says.

Unable to fix the Cord, mechanics pushed it onto the dealership’s back lot where the L-29 was soon spotted by local resident Galen Hargrove. Although his formal education concluded in fourth grade, Galen had earned a handyman reputation with a knack for fixing just about anything he crossed paths with. Galen inquired about the languishing, nearly new Brougham. The dealer staff made several attempts to dissuade him, but to no avail; they relented and sold the ailing car for a price somewhere between $25 and $60.

After securing the car, Galen returned on a bicycle with a toolbox in hand and went to work. Initially amused, the dealership staff was then dumbfounded when, 90 minutes later, Galen put his bicycle on the back seat of the Brougham, started the car, and drove off.

According to Shawn, “We know Galen drove the wheels off the car after he fixed it. The only known modification he did was swap the factory Schebler carburetor for a twin Ford Model A carburetor setup mounted to a cast-aluminum manifold that he fabricated. He would tell people the Ford system gave him about 8 more horsepower. He was also known to race the Cord between Murray and Paducah, Kentucky, on bar bets, boasting he could set all kinds of time records. Galen won all the time.”

Galen drove the L-29 until 1939, at which point he parked it in the tobacco barn on his Farmington, Kentucky, farm next to his private airstrip. It turned out Galen was also a private pilot. During World War II, Galen served the country as a military aircraft mechanics instructor, which left him stationed elsewhere. With the property unattended—and tire rations still strictly enforced— someone broke into the barn and removed the Cord’s two spares by sawing though the corresponding locking bars, which secured the spares to their fender-mounted positions.

After the war, the Cord remained stowed in Galen’s barn, untouched, until 1975. That’s when another local resident, Howard Brandon, approached with an offer to purchase the L-29, along with a few other cars and planes stowed on the property.

Read on