Mod Culture

How sacred is originality?


I first became aware of the Cord 810 / 812 in the mid 60s. The Author James Leasor owned one and made it the car of Jason Love, the hero of a series of spy novels. His own car even featured in a film of one of the books, ‘Where The Spies Are’, starring David Niven. Introduced in 1936, the 810 was fitted with a V8 Lycoming engine with a gearbox ahead of the engine driving the front wheels. Apart from the engineering, the car had a Gordon Buehrig designed body that made it stand out from anything else at the time, and it still does.

An improved version introduced the following year, the 812, also offered supercharging which is recognised by the dramatic exhaust pipes coming out the side of the bonnet. Combined with the ‘coffin nose’ and the pop up headlamps (which I had assumed that Colin Chapman had invented) the car was a revelation to me. It is a mass of fine details, such as the machine polished dashboard and control switches.

Of course the fact that The US industry continued turning out live-axled anachronisms until .. er … last year will tell you that the Cord was not the runaway, influential success it might have been. Expensive, it suffered just the teething problems you might expect and, after less than 2,500 cars, two years later it was dead.

James Leasor's Cord
James Leasor’s Cord

Look for an 810 or 812 Cord advertised today and you might be surprised at first glance how easy they are to find. Look again and weed out the replicas, such as the 8/10 Sportsman (80% scale, get it?) Corvair powered, Gordon Buehrig sanctioned version from the Sixties (in itself no bad thing). Then look closely and weed out the versions that employ a salvaged Cord body fitted onto some sort of rear drive chassis with a home made dashboard. Even then, there are still quite a few original Cords around, but the problems that plagued them back then never really go away.

Cord RearTherefore you might understand why Chuck Thornton is having a 1937 sedan ‘restored’ by the highly respected Roy Brizio Street Rods of San Francisco. The very name of the company chosen might suggest that mechanical originality and a Pebble Beach prize is not the point of the project but this is no case of popping in an oversized V8 and huge slicks on a basic rear axle and painting the whole thing Candyapple Puce.

The idea is to respect the original concept and, as such, a Chevrolet LS1 engine has been mated to a Porsche Tiptronic gearbox to maintain drive to the front wheels. Rear suspension comes from a 1993 Cadillac. Although the project is still underway at the time of writing, looking at Brizio’s project page suggests that, despite what is underneath, the end result in a deep cream, will look as original as possible. This should be the essence of a true Restomod.

But, even if the result looks original from the outside, is this a good thing? There are obviously the purists who believe that, if cars are restored at all, they should respect the original as closely as possible, even what is not immediately visible. To them, the Brizio/Thornton Cord is probably like throwing away a Dickens first edition and replacing it with a Kindle. In this case I’m not sure I agree. Enough Cords were made to ensure that near original ones will remain for posterity and, in any case, it’s unlikely that the Brizio donor car was a complete runner.

But my attitude is ambivalent. To me it is certainly interesting to consider how a car could be if today’s technology could be applied to it. Naturally, a 21st century Cord successor would be nothing like this, but if Errett Cord could have got hold of a more powerful V8 and a bulletproof gearbox in 1936, he surely would have. Possibly the 350 hp of the LS1 might be more than is needed, since there’s more to cars than speed, but I do see why Chuck Thornton is doing this. The idea of removing the vehicle’s character entirely though would be wrong and it’s crucial to this project’s appeal that this Cord is remaining front driven.

What if it handled too?
What if it handled too?

Long before I’d heard the terms restomod or resto-rod, I started thinking about what could be achieved by tinkering beneath the bodies of good looking cars. One of my first ideas was thinking that an early 60s Ford Thunderbird that actually handled and stopped would be a rather fine thing. My notion would have been to fit twin coil Jaguar rear suspension, a rodders favourite from the sixties. Back then I also thought that an Italian V12, probably from a front driven Lamborghini would have been good, but I know now that would have been a very poor idea. It wanted a wafting V8, whatever other changes were made.

I had similar ambitions when I bought a derelict Citroen Light 15 at an auction 35 years ago. My ambition was not matched by my finances or by my diary – I had neither the spare time to do the job myself, nor the money to pay someone else to. This was fortunate, since my ideas were pretty crackpot. Recreating a 6 cylinder with a BMW engine might have been possible, and even producing a vague clone of the elusive V8 Traction that never saw production by fitting a Rover unit could have worked, but would have cost a fortune to develop to the point that it became a practical driving proposition. rather than just a pub talking point.

Moving on with Citroens, I’ve also thought about the feasibility of putting a flat 6 engine into a Citroen DS, as was the original intention, though to do that correctly would involve a complete and speculative restructuring of the front of the car which, of course, is why the market isn’t full of them. If it isn’t going to be just a rolling engine display that you fire up in your front drive to irritate your neighbours, a restomod needs a lot of investment.

Another idea, though not strictly restomod, comes from the fact that the Alfieri V6 fitted to the Citroen SM and Maserati Merak is underappreciated and the idea of fitting it to a rear driven roadster has long appealed. I thought that one could use a Mazda MX5 base for expediency’s sake, clothing it with suitable period (late 60s / early 70s) looking bodywork.

Beacham V8 Mk2
Beacham V8 Mk2

The P6 Rover when fitted with a V8 was always presented as a rather soft car, rather than a proto M car. I’d like to rectify that. Quite a lot of people have squeezed 5.0 litre V8s into W123 Mercedes to produce something whose attractions need no explanation. Companies like Beacham in New Zealand have been producing updated Jaguars for years, such as their Mk2 that is a 4.0 litre supercharged XJR beneath the skin.

Hoyle IRS for MGB
Hoyle IRS for MGB

On a more modest scale, the Morris Minor, as Eoin pointed out recently, has been modernised in all sorts of ways, with disc brakes and twin-cam engines and there is an independent suspension conversion for the MGB, derived from a Ford Sierra or Granada, which is also often complemented by a Toyota engine transplant into a new Heritage bodyshell, which surely becomes a case of My Grandfather’s Axe.

The longevity of the Alfa Twin Cam means that a lot of Giulias have been fitted with twin spark engines, and some with V6s.  Many of the saloons get lowered to give something that provides track-day thrills, but none of the everyday usability of the everyday, practical sports saloon that the Alfa was in its time.

Today, if given the finances, my ultimate sacrilege might be a 1952 R Type Bentley Continental sitting on Turbo R underpinnings. This would be an extensive undertaking and one that would surely get the Bentley Owners Club up in arms, although Bentley owners do have historical form in the modification department.

5.6 V8 in a W123 Estate
5.6 V8 in a W123 Estate

Fortunately, people more committed though sensible than I have actually achieved what I only dream about, but the other side of the coin is that, as is predictably the case with most resourceful ‘improvements’ that get carried out, the primary goal is usually increased performance. This sometimes detracts from the pleasures of driving old machinery, the direct connection with the road, and a certain degree of physicality.

There are, of course, negative restomods. Whilst these might be the result of pragmatism, the neglected Cord that has been grafted onto a generic old-school rear driven platform is dispiriting in the way that those conversions of NSU Ro80s to take Ford engines were back in the Seventies. Sure, what were you meant to do when the third set of rotor seals failed after 1,500 miles, but the NSU was far too good a car to ever deserve the dire Essex V4.

And the thing about both the MGB and the Morris Minor is that, much as though they were hampered by BMC’s disinclination to invest in decent engine development, their characters are now largely defined by their wheezy A and B Series engines. The effortless progress of my notional Bentley Continental would probably end up giving me little of the sensation that driving the 6 cylinder original, with its unpowered steering, would.

Beacham Mk2 Interior
Beacham Mk2 Interior

The Beacham Jaguars are great bits of engineering, but shouldn’t a Mark 2 have a straight 6, however much it’s modified – unless of course it’s a Daimler? And then customers need power windows and a multi function wheel and power adjusted seats, so that the driving environment becomes almost unrecognisable.

But in the end, as I’ve said before, cars are just disposables. History asks for a couple of examples of a mass produced object to be maintained in their original state, but the rest don’t really matter, so it’s not really my business what owners do with them. It’s not like asking Banksy to improve the Sistine Chapel – unless of course you’ve always promised yourself an original Mk 2 Jaguar and it gets to the point there are none left.

But, more likely, the restomod of tomorrow will be one of expediency. I sense that today’s younger generations won’t be nearly as tolerant of the internal combustion engine as has been the case until recently, and that the leeway granted to the custody of old cars will disappear. Then, the only restomods that will be permitted will be dropping black box monitored 85hp electric motors into the backs of Lamborghini Countachs.

Too far? Leif Tuvesson's P1800 with Volvo V8.
Too far? Leif Tuvesson’s P1800 with Volvo V8.

16 thoughts on “Mod Culture”

  1. I’m fine with restomods, although I prefer it if the donor parts come from the same manufacturer – so a Beachem Jaguar is fine, but I get tired of expedient use of Chevy small-block V8 crate motors (hang your head in shame, Jensen Interceptor R). If the Cord restomod wasn’t also retaining the front-drive layout then I’d be disappointed. Wheel and tyre mods if done tastefully can not only improve roadholding,ride and handling but also make it easier to buy decent tyres.

    As I mentioned in a previous comment about a parts bin special Cube, the Honda crowd are big on engine swaps for the later type-r spec VTEC engines and transmissions. The oft-cited reason is that Americans never got the majority of high-performance variants sold in the Japanese domestic market (JDM, yo) and therefore resourceful enthusiasts imported the engines for workaday Civic, CRX or Accord project cars. Between that and the usual boy racer prediliction for aftermarket wheels, suspension and other mods, it can make it a bit of a mission to find an unmodified old sporting Honda with its original engine and trim. I had to settle for mildly-modded with bolt-on parts, then scour the online auctions and wrecking yards for stock replacement pieces. The inevitable pod filter and wannabe cold air intake pipe are coming off, but the aftermarket exhaust hasn’t worn out its welcome yet.

    I’m fine with bodywork mods too but as Ian Callum found out with his restomod Jag Mk 2 there’s a high likelihood that very few people will admire your tinkering with a beloved ‘stock’ bodyshell. On the other hand, there are probably way more people looking for an early-50s Mercury saloon to turn into a lead sled than lovingly restore or preserve in original form.

    1. Yes, I see your point about the Chevys being a bit of a cliche. Brizio’s detail work to the Cord looks fantastic but, with their roots in rodding culture, I guess that a OHV US V8 is a given. But maybe a Porsche V8 might have been a more interesting choice – my own expectation of the Cord is that it should have a refined purr, not a Vette-ish burble.

    2. In terms of cutting edge technology true to the spirit of the original car it should probably have two in-wheel electric motors and a rotary range extender engine or something similarly outlandish. I should probably be more annoyed about it but it’s not like they’re slathering the poor thing in metal-flake paint and flames, or painting it matte black and sticking ratfink decals on the doors.Maybe because it’s a saloon instead of a roadster I’m a bit less angry. A Chevy repowered Type 35 Bugatti would be grounds for dismissal though, even if I respected the customiser.

    3. Such as this, Mark?

      My attitude is pragmatic. As you say, the roadsters are a bit more precious but, when you look at the expedient rear driven ‘restorations’ that you find out there where the owners seem to only see the Art Deco shape of the Cord and don’t care about its groundbreaking advanced engineering, the Brizio conversion with original looking hubcaps and a restored dash, seems pretty sensitive.

      There is one Westchester sedan modded by a guy in Africa, who points out that he had little choice in view of the impossibility and cost of importing parts. And that does remind me that I, with my admitted lousy track record of delivering on my ambitions, need to be careful when I criticise those who actually do devote time and money into a labour of love which, even if it doesn’t exactly please me, pleases them.

    1. I can’t deny that it has an attraction, but if you can’t get enough excitement from driving the original you’re probably ….. The Sultan of Brunei, who apparently had 5 of these converted, then another 6 were done by AMG for “qualified customers” – I assume the qualification involved the ability to write a cheque with enough noughts on the end. So that’s 11 potentially original SLs taken out of circulation. I think this is almost approaching the Banksy getting his spray cans out in the Sistine Chapel level.

      As said, the wheels are disappointing. Even more so on the Volvo above. Low profile tyres do not suit old style wheelarches in the least.

  2. Such projects will always have a hold on any petrol head with a sense of possibility. As you point out, this does not just concern classics. I often wonder what my RenaultSport Clio would be like with a Civic Type R engine shoehorned under the bonnet. Ditto dropping the latest 1-litre engine from Ford into a Lotus Elise. Oh, the possibilities…

    I am immediately reminded of John Barker’s V8 Capri saga that played out over the pages of Evo for the best part of 10 years. In reality the development of the car never ended, only ever managing double figure mileages before something else required attention. All well and good if you have both the time and the budget, or are handy with a spanner. But who does?

  3. Not really relevant to this piece but, further to my meandering about fitting a Maserati V6 to an MX5, now that I no longer get a regular contemporary car magazine, or browse suitable websites, I’ve only just caught up with the new MX5 based Fiat 124. As I’ve spouted on myself in the past, rebodying generic underpinnings is likely to become more and more common, but it is a sad thing to see Fiat doing this.

    1. Despite the (original) 124 cues, it is still recognisably a MX5. A Japanese car with an Italian engine – shades of Alfa Arna. That is, of course, unfair, the Fiat is much more desirable, but then so is the Mazda.

  4. I’m rather an originalist. My current GS restoration is intended to even get rid of a non-original later type engine and too modern-looking paint.

    But if I’d attempt a retro-mod, it would be a much refined CX. Suspension, steering and brakes should stay exactly as they are, but I’d love a much smoother engine – why not an electric drive? And the interior would be rebuilt with original shapes, but in much nicer and more durable materials. The exterior would be cleaned of all later additions to Opron’s pure lines. I’d allow myself some indulgence with colour, but this might not even be necessary, seeing the original colour palette from the ’70s.

    1. I think essential to any decent restomod is the question, would the original team have approved? Based on that, if someone had come along with a decent alternative engine for the CX, the originators would have been very happy. Has anyone ever fitted a Mazda Wankel to a CX? In view of the engine location, that would be a big undertaking but enthusiasts (especially Dutch ones) are pretty resourceful.

    2. Very true about the original team, Sean.

      Regarding the Wankel engine, I remember that the GS Birotor had a similar subframe as the CX and there were CX engines (especially diesel) fitted to it. So why shouldn’t it work the other way round, but with a Mazda instead of the GS Wankel? It’s certainly not easy, though.

    1. Yes, a good example for a car that you keep your whole life and just get upgrades for it from time to time.

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