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IT is sad to have to use the famous Packard slogan in the past tense, I for at one time "Ask The Man Who Owns One" stood for one of the finest American automobiles. From 1899, when the firm began its life, it produced a continuing line of cars that represented the best quality possible.
The Packard had perhaps the most legendary beginning of any car. James Ward Packard, mechanical engineer, purchased a Winton in 1898. Alexander Winton made good cars and extremely fast cars, but the one he sold to Packard must have had many flaws because on its first road trip the new car balked, stalled, and finally quit.
Packard was not a man to take this lightly. Returning the car to its builder he engaged him in a furious argument. When the flying sparks and thunder of verbal battle had reached their height, Winton challenged Packard to build a better car. James Ward Packard not only accepted the challenge but went to work immediately. One year later he and his brother William Dowd Packard originated a new automobile company in Warren, Ohio, and released their first model, a singlecylinder buggy-type car. Bigger engines and advanced body designs followed rapidly.
The Packard brothers were after quality and dependability and they proved the worth of their machines by entering them in endurance tests. The Packard cars won many cross-country reliability runs, but their early fame was secured by an out and out racing model named the Gray Wolf. This machine was a four-cylinder speedster with an aluminum body and a total weight of only 1,300 pounds. It appeared in 1904 and set many records, but its greatest triumph was placing fourth in the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup race. Incidentally, the Gray Wolf, in full racing trim, was available in quantity to the public, a policy which made Packard one of the first American firms to sell a pure racing model.
By this time the cars of the Packard brothers had, for all practical purposes, completely eclipsed the earlier Wintons and the challenge that was taken up in 1898 was fulfilled. James Ward Packard had built a much finer car. But he did not stop there. He continued to develop his large limousines, exciting luxury cars which sold at comparatively high prices. Like Rolls-Royce the early Packards had a distinctive flat radiator which slowly evolved into a classic pointed shell.
In 1919 a Packard returned the Land Speed Record to America. It was the first time since the 1906 Stanley Steamer that an American car had traveled a measured mile faster than any other earth-bound vehicle. With Ralph De Palma, the hero of Indianapolis, sitting behind the powerful 12-cylinder engine, the big disc wheeled machine sped across the hard sands of Daytona beach at a speed of 149 mph.
But Packard did not continue to pursue speed. After this triumph the Packard corporation concentrated almost exclusively on expensive passenger machines and by the 1930's was producing some of the finest prestige cars. The big square bodies had a look of solid elegance, and the straight-eight engines were fast and dependable.
However, in the 1930's competition grew fiercer and the greater resources of General Motors slowly pushed Cadillac to the fore. Their V-16 engine proved a better sales point than Packard's V-12 and the public followed the trend of counting cylinders rather than judging performance. As the decade drew to a close Packard turned to the production of a smaller but still handsome machine the 120. This happy decision saved the firm, for now people of modest income could afford the status-building name of Packard, and sales increased. Then World War II intervened and ended all competition.
In the postwar period the Packard firm found itself in a predicament. The smaller cars had become just about as large as the Packard, and Cadillac was firmly entrenched as America's luxury machine. By the 1950's sales had dropped drastically and Packard was finally merged with the Studebaker corporation which continued the line for a short time. But the Studebaker people were caught in the same economic squeeze. They were forced to discontinue their own big car line, dropping even the beautiful Raymond Loewy-designed cars. Eventually Packard was dropped completely. The popular Studebaker Lark appeared some years later; and the huge, powerful, handsome Packard was gone.
It was a pioneering car. Packard was the first American production machine to use the H pattern for the gearshift; the mechanically practical hypoid bevel gear system in the rear end; two-tone paint jobs; and the greatest device of all, a steering wheel! Yet the Packard outlasted most of its early contemporaries, and left a host of classic cars for the collectors. To really savor the essence of this fine old car, it is now necessary to "Ask The Man Who Owned One."