Prestigious Packard rode out Great Depression

I'm not sure how true the story is, but by father once told me that his uncle, a well-to-do businessman during the time of the Great Depression, would order a new Packard automobile every three years or so.

Family legend has it that each of his specially tailored motor carriages would undergo a thorough shake-down at various speeds and road conditions. Following this, the engine would be completely disassembled to uncover any signs of undue stress or damage to its various internal pieces. After ensuring that all components were working as they should, the motor was buttoned up and the well-tested Packard shipped off to said uncle, who would be assured of trouble-free ownership until his next purchase.

Even if my uncle had never even laid eyes on a Packard, the story sounds plausible when you consider that these cars were once considered the cream of the automotive crop. Cars bearing the distinctive Motometer radiator cap (later to be replaced by a graceful cormorant mascot) became symbols of power and affluence. But they also represented much more. Packards hold a number of important "firsts" in the history of the automobile, including the first "H-pattern" gearshift, steering wheel (replacing the tiller), hydraulic shocks, air conditioning and power windows. As well, a Packard was the first car to break the mile-a-minute barrier (60 mph) in 1903.

The beginnings of Packard date back to 1899 when Warren, Ohio-based James Ward Packard, with the help of his brother, made his first single-cylinder horseless carriage. This led to the formation of the Ohio Automobile Co. Packard's creation became an instant success with sales (and outside financial investment) quickly increasing. Following the relocation of the business to Detroit in 1903, Packards became even more popular, although the company was, for the most part, controlled by wealthy entrepreneur industrialists.

As the fortunes of Packard increased -- the company made more than $1 million in profit in 1907 -- so did the size of the car's powerplants, with four- and six-cylinder engines employed until 1915. But the car that solidified the company's position as a leading-edge automaker was the introduction of the Twin-Six that year. This was the first V-12 engine used in a passenger car, vastly outpowering Cadillac's V-8. With 85 horsepower at 2,600 revs per minute, the nearly seven-liter engine became the preferred drivetrain upon which Packard's well-heeled customers would install their preferred custom coachwork.

From its inception until the final Twin-Six rolled off the production line in 1923, more than 35,000 vehicles had been manufactured. This was followed by the adoption of L-head eight-cylinder engine that was not only cheaper to produce, but actually had more horsepower than the V-12.

These Packards managed to carry the company through its uncertain depression-era period in fine style. While many high-end auto manufacturers met their doom during the 1930s, Packard sales remained relatively strong by comparison. Initially, the 320-cubic-inch inline-eight generated 90-110 horsepower (depending on the year). This was followed by a significantly larger 385-cubic-inch engine that was rated at up to 145 horsepower.

During this time, Packard body styles, whether built by the company or an outside supplier, ran the gamut from sedans and coupes to roadsters and phaetons (four-door convertibles).

A plan to develop a V-12 front-wheel-drive model was abandoned, but the completely redesigned engine that resulted from that project saw its way into production from 1932-'39. Two different sizes of the V-12 were built during this period, with horsepower ratings of between 160 and 175. These cars didn't come cheap, with prices topping out at just over $8,500. However, for the money, there was no quieter running or more reliable automobile to be found anywhere. The company's sideline business of developing powerplants for aviation and marine applications was obviously put to good use in the manufacture of these superior motors.

The classic Packards of the 1930s and early 1940s eventually gave way to more conventionally styled mass-produced products that followed the end of World War II. These cars, including such names as the Clipper, Custom Eight, Super Eight, Caribbean and Patrician would all retain the aging original straight-eight design.

The first conventional V-8 Packards appeared in 1955. By then, however, the company was in dire financial circumstances and was swallowed up in the merger with Studebaker a year later.

The last Packard-branded car -- in reality a Studebaker with slightly different trim -- left the factory floor in June of 1958.

For true Packard followers, those classic hand-crafted cars from the 1920s and 1930s represent the best of the marque. The oft-used advertising tag line, "Ask the man who owns one" was not a pompous slogan, but a reflection of the company's dedication and pride that was poured into each and every vehicle.

For my great uncle, Packard ownership came at a price, but returned a level of style and satisfaction that no amount of money could buy.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.


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