Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth
You never know what you’re going to see. I’ve been trying to get in the habit of taking the camera bag for my 3D rigs with me when I go out and about so that I don’t miss capturing the neat old vehicles that I happen across. Just last week there was an impossible-not-to-notice canary yellow 1972 Lincoln Continental that shoulda woulda coulda been posted here but the cameras were at home. So when I walked out of Durst Lumber after picking up a tripod nut for my video rig and saw a very clean, very black Buick Grand National, I was glad that I had the cameras in hand. That’s when I realized that as unique as the Grand National was in its malaise era day and as cool as it is today, there was something far more worthy of note just a few parking spaces away.
This originally equipped 1948 Packard Eight survivor is on only its third owner and has just 40,000 miles on the clock. Other than the tires, fluids, filters, belts and hoses, everything is original – nothing’s been rebuilt. All it takes is a walk around the stately exterior and a peak into the elegantly appointed interior and it’s easy to understand that while Cadillac may have been the standard of the world, Packard was America’s ultimate aspirational car. Packards were what truly wealthy people drove.
The original purchaser bought the car for his wife. She put 38,000 miles on the car, using it to go shopping or to the club. Her estate sold it to a collector who turned it into a trailer queen. The current owner, though, drives it regularly enough to keep it in good running condition. He’d just taken it out of storage and had used it to pick up some hardware. The exterior isn’t perfect, there are some touched up scratches in the original maroon paint, but the body is in remarkable shape for a car that has spent almost 60 years in Michigan. For a non show car, the body panels are very straight – a tribute to the quality of work that Packard demanded from Briggs, who supplied their bodies. Every piece of chrome glistened in the early spring sunlight. The interior is flawless, except for some frayed upholstery on the driver’s side near the bottom of the seat. My guess is that the wear is from the fine coat of the matron who originally drove this luxury automobile. The finish and quality of the wood trim inside the car would not look out of place in a modern British luxury car like Bentley or Aston Martin.
One of the ironies about Packard is their carriage trade customer base, then and now. Packard went broke selling cars to wealthy people. Rich folks drove Packards and after the marque’s demise in the late 1950s, rich folks continued to collect Packards. In particular, the prewar Packards today are among the most valuable classic American cars there are, with restored models easily fetching six and seven figure prices. The marque’s mystique continues. When respected Packard restorer Fran Roxas tried making his first custom with the Strother Macminn penned “Myth“, right out of the box it was a Ridler Award Great Eight finalist at the 2010 Detroit Autorama and last August it sold for $407,000 at auction.
So though the marque is defunct, Packard collectors have the means to keep their cars running and in good condition. They also have the means to preserve the marque’s history.
Albert Kahn’s 1907 facade of the factory that built this car. The Packard Museum now owns this architectural artifact.
Though the old Packard plant on East Grand Blvd is a clichéd symbol of Detroit’s ruin, the factory’s two famous limestone facades have been saved by Dayton’s Packard Museum and by the Packard Motor Car Foundation. The Museum paid $161,000 at auction for their remnant in 2008, and crews subsequently removed it for eventual reassembly in Ohio. The foundation plans on eventually displaying the other edifice at the Packard Proving Grounds, in suburban Detroit, which the foundation owns and is restoring.
The car’s current owner, Art, is an active member of the Packard owners club and the car is regularly driven to Packard meets. As a matter of fact, when I asked him if he’s planning on going to the spring open house at the Packard Proving Grounds on May 1, he offered me a ride there in this car.
It’s not the easiest car to drive. Today we measure luxury by the number and kinds of toys a car has. In 1948, luxury was more about quality construction. Though Packard had introduced air conditioning by the time this car was made, the only luxury equipment on this model was a heater, radio and vacuum operated windshield wipers. No power steering, no power brakes, not even an automatic transmission. Packard would not introduce the Ultramatic transmission for another year. This straight eight powered car has a “three on the tree”, a 3 speed shifter on the steering column, along with overdrive that is engaged by pressing on the clutch pedal at highway speeds.
It’s also a large car. It towered over all the other sedans in the parking lot and must stand at least 5 feet tall. No Ford GT40 for sure. It was about as tall as the Volvo XC90 SUV and even taller than the Dodge Dakota pickup parked near it.
The 1948 was the first true postwar Packard, though it was not a clean sheet design and it was based on the prewar Clipper. Designers tried to blend the Clipper’s 1930s style separate fenders into the hood and trunk for a more modern look, and while the results are not entirely unattractive, the “bathtub” Packards have a bloated look. They still had the Clipper’s 1930s vintage C pillar and they were significantly heavier than the Clipper. Trying to save money, Packard ended up spending as much developing the Twenty-Second Series Packard as they would have had they started from scratch. Still, the ’48 Packard had a new enough look to be a success, selling almost 100,000 units, about double Cadillac’s sales that year. It was to be a high water mark, never again to be reached. The ’48 Cadillac, introduced in the spring of 1948, was a landmark car, the car that started the tail fin era. Despite the restyling, the Packard’s prewar heritage was obvious and soon looked dated compared to the P-38 inspired Caddy. Cadillac would go on to go from strength to strength, introducing its OHV V8 in 1949, a move that the increasingly financially strapped Packard could not match until 1955. Soon Packard’s circumstances would be so reduced that they were forced to merge with Studebaker. Not much later the oldest luxury marque in America disappeared.
For more information on the postwar Packards, you can check out TTAC’s Curbside Classics on the 1946 and 1951 Packards, as well as Aaron Severson’s usual fine job at Ate Up With Motor covering the history of Packard’s declining years.
You can see a full gallery of photos in your choice of 3D formats or 2D at Cars In Depth, along with video I shot of the old Packard gliding smoothly down the street.