80 years ago, movie cowboy Tom Mix rode into the sunset in his beloved 1937 Cord
Long before Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang their way to Hollywood stardom, Tom Mix became a heroic cowboy by letting his actions speak louder than words … mostly because they had to.
Mix had already made hundreds of silent films by the time “talkies” came along in the late 1920s, and like many silent movie stars, he struggled to make the transition to sound and dialogue. According to the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, Mix made 336 feature films from 1909–35, beginning with The Cowboy Millionaire October 21, 1909, and only nine were talkies.
At one point, Mix was Hollywood’s highest paid actor, but he ultimately left the movies for life on the road, touring the country in Wild West shows. He was working for one of those shows when he was killed in a car accident on October 12, 1940.
Mix, serving as an advance agent for another famous cowboy, Ken Maynard, was speeding along an unpaved section of highway between Tucson and Phoenix when he realized too late that a bridge was out. Authorities determined that when Mix hit the brakes of his yellow 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton, he was fatally struck in the back of the head by a heavy suitcase hurled forward from the backseat. The supercharged Cord rolled over into a dry creek bed—now called the Tom Mix Wash—near Florence, Arizona.
There were no witnesses to the crash, but the two men who found the car recognized it immediately. They told police that Mix had passed them on the road, stopped for gas, and then passed them again. They recalled that the second time Mix passed, “he sounded a siren.” That was typical; the siren was a Mix trademark.
Arizona collector Bob White purchased the Cord in 2010. It had previously sold for $155,500 at the 2009 Bonhams Quail Lodge auction (a sale that included a life-size wax sculpture of Mix), and White put nearly four times that into restoring it to its original glory. A.J. Baime, esteemed author of Go Like Hell, shared White’s story in a 2014 Facebook post:
“I grew up in Kansas near a ranch where, in the early 20th century, a wild west show was staged. A lot of famous cowboys came off that ranch. Tom Mix was one of them,” White said at the time. “Mix became a star of Hollywood’s silent-movie era, and he owned his own circus. In 1937, he bought a Cord 812 (the color was called “cigarette cream”) and turned it into an embodiment of his persona. It had a gun holster, a siren, and flags on the bumper with his circus logo. Even the gas pedal was branded ‘TM,’ and was specially fitted for his boot …
“Mix had medallions, given to him by the King of Denmark, on the car’s hood; we found them in an Oklahoma museum and recast them. We found the siren in a 90-year-old man’s attic in California. You can picture Tom Mix driving with his flags and guns, siren wailing. The car’s quite a spectacle coming down the road.”
White told a similar story in a YouTube video in 2016.
The front-wheel-drive Cord, powered by a supercharged 288.6-cubic-inch Lycoming V-8 engine rated at 170 horsepower, was one of three Cord 812 phaeton models to include a factory-installed rear tire mount. Coincidentally, the other two were also owned by movie stars: Barbara Stanwyck, whose first movie role was in the 1927 silent film Broadway Nights, and Al Jolson, who appeared in the very first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, also released in 1927.
Mix’s car not only featured a siren, medals, flags, and a holstered Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver that he often used to shoot at small animals on the side of the road. According to Hemmings, Mix added a spotlight, bumper guards, and grille protector up front, hand-tooled leather stone guards fitted to the rear fenders, and his initials in chrome on each side of the car.
The Cord has won numerous awards at concours around the country since White restored it, but 80 years ago it nearly met its end along with its famous owner.
Visitors to the site of the accident will find an iron statue of a riderless horse and a plaque that reads: “In memory of Tom Mix, whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterization and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the Old West in the minds of living men.”