I have always known which cars I wanted in my collection. They are the cars that make my heart pound, get me excited and make me smile when I look at them. When you feel that way about a car, working on it is fun, and you don't begrudge the inevitable expenses that it will incur from time to time. This is the way I feel about Packards--especially the 1936-42 Super 8's and the 1940's Customs. Packard-built in those years meant some of the most beautiful and best-driving cars in the world, their custom cars designed by Dietrich, LeBaron, Darrin, Rollson, Derham, Brunn and others, under the supervision of Packards Edward Macauley. Their production cars rivaled the custom cars, leading to a very loyal following of repeat business from the car-buying public, including such Hollywood movie stars as Clark Gable, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, and many more. Our salon car has an interesting, albeit undocumented, history with Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable. The data plate shows delivery in Beverly Hills, California in February of 1936. Ms. Lombard reputedly owned it until around 1939, when a Navy Captain bought it and transported it to Pearl Harbor where he was stationed, placing the car there during the bombing on December 7, 1941. There is still a weathered Hawaiian Islands bumper sticker on the rear bumper. Whether or not this provenance could ever be proven, the '36 is undoubtedly an important part of automotive history, and a wonderful car to own and drive.
Before we look at the car, let's talk about the Packard Motor Car Company of the 1930's. It is important to establish the types of cars they were building. By 1935, they had a Senior Line: the Standard 8, Super 8 and V-12. They also had a Junior Line in their 120 Series (small 8), a car designed to sell for a fraction of the cost of the Senior Line, and sell in high volumes, similar to what Cadillac did with their LaSalle. The Senior Line was the prestige line, and no expense was spared to build them. To perform at their best on America's improving roads, the new cars would have to be faster and capable of being driven longer distances. To build such a car, Packard began testing new mechanical innovations at the Packard Proving Grounds, where the cars were pushed to their limits on a track, a sand trap, gravel roads, a steep incline dubbed the Hump, railroad tracks, and any number of other hazards that would emulate extreme conditions that cars might have to endure in everyday driving. New aluminum heads and pistons were developed, increasing compression and adding horse power, which in turn created a need for tougher engine bearings. Up until then, the rod bearings had been poured babbit. The new ones created in '35 were copper-lead with a steel backing. These would hold up better at high speeds and would be easier to replace. When these were installed in an early 1936 Sedan, the car was tested on the track for 15,000+ miles, stopping only for gas, oil and driver changes, with no failure. The 1936's saw a culmination of all the tested improvements of the previous years, including the Bijur Lubrication System, designed to lubricate the suspension and throw out bearing by sending lubricant via vacuum from a reservoir under the hood to the appropriate places; Ride Control, activated by a chrome knob under the dash that was pushed or pulled to give a soft or firm ride; Mechanical Vacuum Power Assist Brakes; Oil Cooler and Oil Filter. The '36 Senior Lines, Standard 8, Super 8 and V-12, would all share the same body, the only apparent differences being the hood louvers, hub caps, and the hood of the Super 8's and V-12's which were 5" longer than that of the Standard 8. The bodies were made of wood, and steel, to allow greater flex and quietness of ride. (It really makes a difference!)
The '36 Senior Line included Sedans, Coupes, Cabriolets, Phaetons, Roadsters, Town Cars, Limousines and Convertible production models, as well as customs. Quite a lineup in the middle of a depression! Our Salon car is the Standard 8 Series 1401, 2-4 passenger Rumble Seat Coupe in Packard Cream. It is a car that makes the driver one with the car. Inside, the top encompasses the driver with its absence of rear quarter windows. The windshield is low and framed in wood grain, as are the door glasses. The small, real wooden-framed, oval rear window can be rolled up and down on those rare occasions when passengers are allowed in the rumble seat. The release lever for opening the rumble seat is found in a private, hatched compartment behind the passenger seat.
I always smile as I face the wood grained dash, with its large, center oval, displaying four circular instruments, and glove boxes on either side. The Ride Control knob is under the dash on the left and the ignition switch and starter button is lower center in the dash. With the key 'In,' let's go for a ride!
The accelerator pedal is pressed down to set the automatic choke, then you turn the key to the right, push the starter button, and the 320, 9-main-bearing engine starts instantly. Releasing the hand brake on the left, and using a light touch of the finger on the three-speed floor shifter, the car glides into motion. The engine is so quiet, that it's possible you might be tempted to try to re-start it as it idles at a stop sign. As it warms up, the thermostatically controlled radiator shutters open to help keep it cool. Going through the gears, you are amazed at how tight the car feels. The gauges and controls are there for your convenience and the cormorant at the end of the hood leads the way as the car floats down the highway.
As you head back into the driveway, the 14-inch drum, power-assisted mechanical brakes bring you to an effortless stop. Driving this car is an experience unlike any other I have driven--a step back in time, where fit, finish and craftsmanship were the order of the day. I will do more on this car in future issues. To read more about the restoration we have done on this '36, visit our Archives pages at southernwheels.com. See you next month. Keep 'em driving!