We all have our favorite car: One where all of the design lines meet in the right places, the sound of the door closing puts a smile on our faces, and we don't just hear the engine; we feel it! For me, this car is a 1937 Packard Super 8. Before I introduce this car to you, a brief look at the Packard Motor Car Company's early years is in order.
Packard began building straight 8 engines in 1924. They had already established themselves as one of the best luxury car builders in the world, with their venerable six and twin six (V12) cars. In 1924, the twin six had just been dropped from the line, and a new inline 8, 357.8 cid, 9 main bearing L-head engine added. The straight 8 would define Packard's place in history as the greatest of straight 8 engine builders, and they would continue to build them through 1954.
By 1929, Packard had added another straight 8: the 319.2 cid (or 320). The former was called the Super 8 and the latter 320 was the Standard 8. It is amazing to consider all of the different cars Packard offered during the Depression years. The "classic" years of car building, 1929-1942, were some of the worst years financially our country has ever known, yet some of the best automobiles were built, and with the quality that survives to this day as engineering marvels. Packard had a strong sales year in 1929 before the stock market crash in October. After the crash, they pushed straight ahead with new innovative cars, including custom cars by Raymond Dietrich, "Dutch" Darrin, LeBaron and others. These designers' ideas carried into regular production cars, and gave Packard the design edge during the classic period. Marque identification began in 1929 with Packard crests being added to the car's radiator. The radiator caps were next adorned with the "goddess of speed", and by 1932, the famous cormorant (or pelican) was added. Buyers came to love the cormorant, and insisted that it stay on the cars into the 1950s.
By the early '30s, it was becoming obvious even to Packard that a lower-priced car was needed to be the bread and butter income of the company. The luxury market was drying up, so in 1932, Packard introduced the new Light 8 900 series. Combined with the Super, Standard 8 and new V-12 series, Packard felt that they had a car for the medium to upper levels of the car-buying public. The small 8 (900) was sporty, with a "shovel-nosed" grill, and was designed to appeal to the younger buyer.
Unfortunately, that buying group didn't have the money to buy the car in the numbers that Packard needed to survive. By 1935, Packard had dropped the 900 and set up a two-series company: The Senior series that included the V-12s and Super and Standard Eights, and the Junior series that included the new-for'35 120 small eight and the new-for-'37 6 cylinder, with prices starting at $945, going well over $7000 for the Senior series cars. 1937 would be the best year for Packard until 1949.
The new 1935 120 straight 8 not only was important to the company financially, but also engineering-wise as well. The 120's independent suspension, hydraulic brakes and fan-belt-driven generator were incorporated into the new '37 Packard Super 8s and Senior series cars.
In 1937, Packard dropped its big engine that was now up to 384 cid and replaced it with the 320 in the Super 8 cars, dropping the Standard 8 series altogether. That left only one Senior series 8: The Super 8 (320). The '37 cars were considered the best-handling cars Packard ever made to date. The new Safe-T-Flex frames and suspension eliminated the need for the previous years' Vibration Weighted bumpers used on the Senior cars, Ride Control and Bijur lubrication systems, which were dropped in favor of new sealed bearings and grease fittings. With all of these innovations, the cars retained their classic look, keeping the reflector headlights, thermostatically controlled operational grill shutters, running boards and long hoods. Styling was conservative, with some streamlining, although not as evident as on the GM cars of the period.
The radiator shell had a 35-degree slant, and there was a matching slant backwards at the windshield. The fenders were enclosed, and there was a bustle trunk integrated into the body on the Touring Sedans. With ta trunk rack and trunk available, the entire car was becoming much more curvilinear in form. The Senior Series bodies were still partially handmade, and still used metal and hardwood in their construction. This was thought to give a quieter ride. To give an example of the time it took to construct the Senior cars vs. the Junior cars: 122,593 Packards left the factory in 1937. 7093 were Seniors and 115,500 were Juniors! Profitability clearly rested on the Juniors, but the status was owned by the Senior cars. Even with this small number of Senior cars to compete in the luxury class, Packard held 50.3% of 1937's luxury market, and would continue to be a style leader through the '41-'47 Clipper series.
About our car:
I bought my '37 in 1997, and was fortunate enough to find a low-mileage (50,000) completely original car. The car is not restored, but was chauffeur-maintained until the early 1950s, then was bought and maintained by a Packard collector and mechanic. It is the 1500 series 127" wheelbase, 5-passenger Touring Sedan, well-optioned with dual side mounts, radio, heater and trunk. The exterior is Indian Maroon nitrocellulose lacquer, and its original broadcloth interior is still in beautiful condition, surmounted by a banjo steering wheel. The dash, window frames and door escutcheons are wood grained, and the trunk rack holds a felt-lined trunk. Radio reception is assisted by a "built in" roof antenna.
About the engine:
It is of three-piece construction, with aluminum crankcase, cast iron block and cast iron head (optional). This head enabled the engine to produce 135 hp, 5 hp above the standard aluminum head. This is truly one engine that is so quiet, you can barely feel, and almost can't hear running. It is relatively easy to work on, and parts are still readily available. We have done a valve job and resurfaced the intake and exhaust manifolds (porcelain), and replaced the thermostat. We will do a future article on these repairs, and what we learned in doing them. The engine is linked to a 3-speed floor shift transmission and conventional drive line.
The car sits up tall, and is easy to steer, staying steady in the road as you sight down the long hood over the cormorant. There is almost no road noise or car noise as you shift silently through the gears. With no overdrive, the high speed rear end gears (we added these) make 70+ mph interstate speeds no problem. It's the kind of car that you want to drive, giving a feeling of reserve power and comfortable ride that only pre-war chassis can offer. The dash board has a large oval with 4 large gauges clustered in it. They are precision instruments, well-calibrated and easy to read. The oil pressure runs at 40 lbs and the temp never goes above 185 on a hot summer day. The 12" drum hydraulic brakes stop with amazing control, and very little pedal pressure. The cabin gives riders a cozy, personal feel in the front, which is just large enough for two. The rear passengers enjoy a spacious compartment complete with curtains, foot rest and a robe rail (to hang your monogrammed motoring robe on!).
If you enjoy an instantly-starting car that is known as the "soft-spoken boss of the road," this is the car for you. It certainly is for me! I wouldn't change a thing. Keep 'em driving!