Sometimes making a car exactly the way you want it can be costly and time consuming, but occasionally, it can be as easy as a pair of fender skirts and a new set of tires! When I bought my 1946 Packard Custom Clipper a few years ago, I was fortunate to find a low mileage car with everything in good original shape, except that it had been repainted. The paint was the original black and looked good, so the car was really ready to drive and enjoy. It was almost perfect for me, but the 350s-style white walls and lack of fender skirts kept the car from being exactly what I wanted. The '41-'47 Clipper has always been one of my favorite 40s designs, having been created by custom car designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin who was commissioned by the Packard Motor Car Company. It was to go head-to-head with the newly-styled Buicks and Cadillacs coming from GM in the early '40s. The gothic style of the '30s with its high, classic grills, running boards and sidemounts, was sadly on its way out. As the story goes, Darrin was given only ten days to go from concept to clay model, but he made the deadline and submitted his design on time. Except for a few small changes, the car went into production. Darrin's new "Clipper" design featured flow-through fenders which ended mid-front door, and no running boards, but corporate wanted the running boards retained. A compromise resulted in the lower edge of the doors having a flare to give the illusion of concealed running boards meant to appease their conservative buyers. It also had Darrin's trademark blind rear quarters and a short, notchback, Bentley-styled trunk with a long hood, creating a very long and sleek automobile. The original finished clay model showed the car with fender skirts, as did some of the original photographs. With them, the body lines were uninterrupted, giving the car a feeling of motion while it was standing still. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, they were aerodynamic, allowing the air to flow over the body instead of being trapped in the wheel wells creating drag.
Generally, the beginning of the use of fender skirts in America started shortly after the advent of fender valances in the early '30s. The new fender design shielded the cars undercarriage. When the fender skirts, or wheel shields, were created, they enclosed the rear wheels, giving the flowing, streamlined styling the designers were going for, and the public was beginning to ask for. Some of the first cars on which they were seen, were the '33 Pierce Silver Arrow, designed for the '34 Worlds Fair, the '34 Packard 1106 Sport Coupe, and the '34 Airflow, among others. Some car designers tried skirting the front fenders, such as Amos Northrup did on the '38 Sharknose Graham, but steering problems developed, and they were dropped before going to production.
To check the authenticity of the skirts and their placement for my car, I checked factory photos and a photo of Darrins finished clay model. The model and most early photos had fender skirts on the cars. I believe that Darrin designed the car to have them, although they were optional when the car went into production.
I had a set of aftermarket skirts on the shelf for a few years, which were pretty much ready to go on the car. The first thing to do was to fit them to the car. To do this, we put masking tape on the back side of the skirt around the wheel opening edge, to prevent scratching the paint, then carefully put the skirt in place and found that it fit fine. The skirt matched the photos perfectly! The problem came in the lock down rod that runs up through the center brace and locks the skirt down to the fender. The brace was welded at the bottom, but not at the top of the skirt, so when the lock down rod was turned to pull the skirt in to the fender, the top part of the brace pulled away instead of pulling the skirt in. When we removed the skirt, we could see that if we made two top brace-to-skirt tack welds, our problem would be solved. (You wouldn't want to weld the brace all the way down, because it would pull a deformity into the skirt about 3-4" down, that would be visible when the skirt is locked down.)
With the welds done, we put the skirt on the car, locked down the rod and attached the metal lock-down tabs at each end of the skirt. This made a good, secure fit, so we were ready to paint the skirts. We wanted to match the texture of the cars paint, which appeared to be lacquer. I say this because the finish is deep and glossy with a texture that is typical of a lacquer finish. A build sheet or a restoration log would really have been helpful in this situation. Why car builders sometimes fail to include them when they sell a car is beyond me. It sure would help the buyer. I knew I could match the finish with lacquer, so I used lacquer primer to be sure the paint would be compatible. Then I did some minor filling on a few dings, block sanded, primed and repeated until the panels were good and straight. I finish-sanded with 600, wiped off with Acryliclean (wax remover), then mixed the black lacquer at proportions of 33% paint to 67% thinner, using PPG's 105 slow drying thinner for temperatures over 85 degrees. Setting the pressure at 35 lbs at the gun, I sprayed three coats of color, with passes about 8" from the panel, then sanded and sprayed another three coats of color, repeating until I had nine coats of color. After that was completely dry, I color-sanded with 600 wet, then hand-rubbed with coarse compound. Finally, I finish-rubbed, then power-buffed with glaze and a wool pad. With the paint dry and buffed, it was time to put on the fender welt. I chose a 1/4" black welting, available in a vinyl or original black patent leather. I laid the skirt face-down on a piece of soft flannel, measured the wheel well edge. then cut the welt to length. In order to allow the welt to easily bend around the wheel well curve, I cut notches in the flat part of the welt, about 2" apart, all the way to the bead. I ran a bead of waterproof metal/vinyl adhesive about 1/4" back from the skirts edge, then pushed the welt down into the adhesive, flushing the edge of the welting with the edge of the skirt. This way, you can't see the bead when you look straight at the skirt. I used squeeze clamps to hold the welt down, first putting cardboard on the front side to keep them from making an imprint into the paint. When the adhesive set up in about 4 hours, the skirts were ready to put on the car. (Any adhesive residue can be removed with Acryliclean.) Even with the cardboard to protect the paint, the clamps made a few faint imprints, but they were easily removed with 600 wet and another buffing. The skirts look great, and paired with a new set of '40s-style Firestone 4" wide white walls from Coker Tire, the Clipper now looks the way I had envisioned it from the first. Sometimes minor changes can produce the exact look you want, as well as add value to the car, and be fun in the process! See you next month. Keep 'em driving!