Washington auto enthusiast turns heads and wins awards with his prized 1936 Cord Phaeton
By Paul Duchene
Tall and silver-haired, with steady gaze and thoughtful conversation, Tom Armstrong has been a regular at the Forest Grove Concours d’Elegance for more than 30 years. He’s been an exhibitor, judge and, last year, served as senior judge at the vaunted classic-car competition held each July just outside Portland.
Armstrong, a retired shipping executive who lives in Issaquah Washington, has serious car cred. He has been a Pebble Beach judge, is the founding Chairman of the Kirkland Concours in 2003 and a life member of the Classic Car Club of America, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club and the Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts.
He and his wife Susan own a 1931 Model SJ Duesenberg Convertible Sedan, which won the Forest Grove Sweepstakes Award in 1983 and is featured in “The Allure of the Automobile”, an exhibit illustrating the stylistic development of automobiles, at the Portland Art Museum this summer.
Tom’s history has history. Back in 1977, the Armstrongs’ black 1936 Cord Phaeton won Best of Show at Forest Grove and returned last year – 33 years later – as the program cover car. He’s owned 98 collector cars – “I just can’t seem to hit 100” – but has trimmed his stable to 28 cars and motorcycles these days. Still, the black Cord has been his life’s work as a collector, from the day he found it in Dallas, Texas in the mid-1960s.
A “coffin-nosed” Cord 810/812 is a coveted prize in the car collecting world. Designed by Gordon Buehrig, only 2,830 were built by Erret Lobban Cord in 1936-37 in open and closed styles. A stunningly advanced design, with no running boards and no obvious grille, they also featured front-wheel drive and a pre-selector gearbox with a troublesome electric shift mechanism.
When the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg empire collapsed in 1938, the complicated Cord 810s and 812s were fairly new, but lacked any factory warranty. As a result, disappointed owners parked them in garages as they failed, and most survived.
“I had a 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible that got us into the classic car world,” Armstrong remembers. “I’d been transferred to Dallas, Sue and I were just married and we had no money – and a baby. I met this old man who had a Cord. It was locked up in a garage with swing-out doors that wouldn’t open because the driveway had been graveled. But I could pry open the doors and look inside.
“I talked to him for over a year, because I knew he loved my Lincoln. I said I’d let him park my Lincoln in his garage if he’d let me take the Cord, and one day I’d come back and buy my Lincoln back. He thought about it and said OK. I took my ’57 Chevy over there and towed the Cord home.
“Then I moved to Chicago but I couldn’t forget my old Lincoln. So I looked up my old friend and the Lincoln was still in his garage. He said, you pay this repair bill of mine and you can have your Lincoln back. The bill was only $236 – he basically gave me back my car.”
Meanwhile, Armstrong had stripped his Cord down to the last nut and bolt, and then returned to the Northwest, where he had the good fortune to hook up with two of the foremost Cord “hands-on” experts. Buzz O’Connor and Wayne Weyermiller were machinists at Hanford and longtime Cord owners. O’Connor had put 100,000 miles on a restored 1937 812 Supercharged Westchester sedan – “Old Blue” – converting it to use Oldsmobile Toronado constant velocity joints for the front-wheel drive, and Weyermiller owned a sweet-running red 1937 812 Phaeton.
“It was a lot of fun,” Armstrong recalls. “We restored the chassis on my car, rebuilt the engine and transmission and Buzz came over and we drove it around, sitting on wooden boxes.”
Once finished, the shiny black Cord Phaeton was campaigned on the show circuit in 1977, scoring the Gordon Buehrig Trophy for Best Cord at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg meet in Auburn, Indiana and a National First at the Antique Automobile Club of America meet in California. The Armstrongs and their Cord came to the Forest Grove Concours on a roll.
The all-day show is a major event for collectors and enthusiasts, drawing more than 100 classic cars from across the Pacific Northwest each summer, to the shaded ground of Pacific University in Forest Grove.
That year, the senior judge was an expert from Harrah’s Collection in Reno, Nevada. When the judges came down to the Best of Show – there was only one in those days – some of them fancied a locally owned 1937 Ford roadster.
But the senior judge was adamant, as Buzz O’Connor, the Cord expert who had worked on Armstrong’s car told me at the time. “He said ‘look, I’ve seen a lot of Cords, and this one is the best. If you’re not going to accept my opinion, why did you bring me here?'”
The senior judge prevailed, but while the wrangling went on, Charlie Anderson, (known as Flathead Charlie for his passion for V8 Fords) sidled up to me. “I looked under that Ford roadster,” he said. “It’s got a sedan frame. If you give me $20, I’ll tell the judges.”
When I recently recounted this exchange to Armstrong, he roared with laughter. “I’ve never heard that story,” he said.
Armstrong has shown a number of cars at Forest Grove through the years: the ’36 Cord Phaeton, ’31 Model SJ Duesenberg, ’69 Lola Can-Am, ’48 Ford Woody Wagon, ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, ’54 Nomad Custom, ’55 XK 140 Jaguar, and more recently, the ’48 Chrysler Town and Country Sedan (Post-War Best of Show) and a ’48 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet (Sweepstakes Award).
He and Susan have raced sports cars for 25 years – she runs a 1963 split window Z06 Corvette and he used to have one of the five ’63 Grand Sports. These days, Armstrong races a deafeningly loud 1977 Greenwood Corvette, like those clocked at 175 mph on the Mulsanne Straight in the Le Mans 24-hour race. “Sue and I are both 74 now,” said Armstrong. “She still races her Corvette. I don’t know how long we’ll do it. I guess we’ll race as long as fast cars don’t scare us.”
Armstrong has owned several racecars in the past, including a 1956 D-Type Jaguar that he used on classic rallies like the Colorado Grand. But “The One That Got Away” – collectors never forget those – is still the 1953 Cunningham C3 coupe he found in pieces in a body shop in Oklahoma.
“It was the prototype and prettier than the others, and it was going to be restored,” he said. “But the elderly man became house-ridden and it sat there in the corner for 12 years. My cousin knew the owner and we bought it. We piled it into a Hertz truck – we really had no idea how much was there. It turned out we got everything but a couple of emblems and the hood prop. I restored that car and took it to Pebble Beach, where it won its class. I sold it when Bud Lyon offered more money than he should have, but I wish I’d kept it.”
Buying the 1931 Duesenberg SJ, which will be in the Art Museum’s “Allure of the Automobile” show, turned out to be a struggle too. The convertible sedan belonged to eccentric Portland doctor Charlie Norris, who also had another Duesenberg convertible sedan and a Murphy-bodied roadster.
“He’d carry big dogs in the back – I hated to see what they did to the leather – lots of tools and a big gas can. I bugged him for years,” Armstrong recalls. “One day Charlie told me to butt out of his life. I told him I would if he’d call me when he wanted to sell the car. He finally did and Susan and I went to buy it.”
The two were still far apart on a price, even with Tom trading in his Wills-St. Claire roadster. Finally the Armstrongs had reached their limit.
“Charlie, that’s as far as I can go.” I told him. “Charlie named another number, and Susan said ‘We’ll take it.’ It’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve been on all three Duesenberg-only tours. You never see even one on a regular tour, but there were 17 Duesenbergs on our tour this year. We’d just take over a town.”
Paul Duchene is a 40-year automotive journalist, who has written for the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, The Oregonian and numerous magazines. He announces at the Portland and Monterey Historic races and is a judge and emcee at the Forest Grove Concours d’Elengance.