Gear Head Tuesday – The Man Who Loves Packards

Gear Head

The story of how Packard has always been part of my life.

'55 Packard Caribbean-MUH

One of only 500 built – 1955 Packard Caribbean in that oh-so-mid-’50s tri-tone paint, Code MUH – White Jade-Rose Quartz-Grey Pearl Metallic

On a hot summer day in 1959 I accompanied my mother to a King Soopers supermarket on North Federal Boulevard in Denver, Colorado. She parked next to a 1955 Packard Caribbean in the parking lot. I doubt that she even realized that she had parked next to this beautiful Packard. But even as a kid, I was a Gear Head, particularly a Packard Gear Head, and I IMMEDIATELY knew what we were parked next to.

King Soopers

The parking lot of King Soopers store where I saw my first Packard Caribbean looked much like the one in this photo from the 1960s.

I was awestruck. It was the first Caribbean I had ever seen. I knew that Packard had been building Caribbeans since 1953, but I had never actually seen one – until now.

We had recently moved to Denver from my hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock at the time was a town of only about 50,000 at the south end of the Texas “panhandle.” To the best of my knowledge none of the limited-production Caribbeans had made their way to Lubbock. But Denver, even in 1959, was a much larger city – and here, to my great delight, was a real Caribbean – not a photo of one in one of the car magazines I would look at even as a kid.

“Jewel Tones” was Packard’s nomenclature for their 1955 paint choices. This Caribbean was in the “White Jade,” “Rose Quartz” and “Grey Pearl Metallic” combination. If there ever was a paint combination on a car that represented the mid-’50s, it was this one!

I declined my mother’s invitation to join her in the air conditioned comfort of the King Soopers store. I preferred to stay outside in the heat so I could drool over this Packard. The owner had left the top down and I studied every detail of the car. The plush, pleated leather seats looked so comfortable. I so wanted to open the door, get in the car, and sit on those seats! (Even knowing the leather would be hot in that sun … ) I resisted that strong temptation – probably for the better – even though the owner did not return to the car while my mother was shopping.

'55 Caribbean MUH interior

The plush, pleated seats of the Caribbean looked very inviting to me.

My family says that from as early as age four, I could tell you the make – and often the year – of any car you pointed out to me. I can’t explain exactly why my favorite cars have always been Packards. You might think that it would make more sense if I HATED Packards – I was very nearly killed in one when I was two years old.

In 1949 Packard celebrated its Golden Anniversary – 50 years as an auto producer, I was two. Packard began the year with what it termed the 22nd Series cars which were identical to the previous year, the 1948 “bathtub” Packards. Mid-year, the 23rd Series was introduced commemorating Packard’s Golden Anniversary with a modest facelift over the 22nd Series, a batch of Anniversary Gold painted cars, and the introduction of Packard’s Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission.

Ultramatic Drive ad

Packard Golden Anniversary

Packard built some 2,000 Anniversary Gold cars for their Golden Anniversary. The cars were gathered at the Packard Proving Grounds where dealers came in to drive the cars away. Below, appropriately enough leading the parade of the Golden Anniversary cars out of the proving grounds is the first Packard ever built. Packard #1 survives to this day even if the company didn’t. 

Packard Golden Anniversary-Old_no._1

Whatever the unfathomable reason behind my love of Packards, my introduction to the marque was the Spruce Green Metallic 23rd Series Deluxe Eight my father bought new in 1949. While our Deluxe Eight was a “Junior” series Packard, it was not an inexpensive car. Packard president George Christopher had done a remarkable job of bastardizing the Packard brand, taking the company downmarket, but Packards were still expensive cars compared to Chevrolets, Fords or Plymouths. Buicks and Oldsmobiles were in the same price class as Packard. My father was then still a young man and lacked the type of job Packard buyers typically would have that would support the purchase of such a car. I’ve never understood how he pulled that purchase off, but there was the new Packard.

 

1949 Packard

Spruce Green Metallic 23rd Series 1949 Packard Deluxe Eight. My introduction to the marque came in a car like this.

With the family loaded into the Packard, my father drove to Tulia, Texas, 72 miles north of Lubbock, to show the car to my mother’s family. On the return trip to Lubbock, on an overpass on U.S. 87 just north of town, we were hit head-on by a drunk driving a truck fitted with a drilling rig.

This was the days before seat belts, child restraints, air bags and all of the safety devices we take for granted in cars today. I was standing in the front seat between my parents. In the impact, the hood was sheered off. I was thrown through the windshield. I landed in the engine compartment. Going through the windshield glass, my little two year-old body was almost severed in half by the glass just above my waist. It took some 600 stitches to put me back together. I have had a huge scar on my side most of my life from that, though now – at age 70, the scar on the right side of my body is at long last barely noticeable. I don’t recall anyone ever talking about it, but having landed in the engine compartment, I think I probably was burned by the engine. But given the severity of my lacerations from the glass, burns from the engine were the least of anyones’ concerns.

Most of the impact of the collision was on the passenger side of the car. Thus aside from me, my mother was the most injured with cuts and broken ribs. My younger sister Cynthia was an infant in a baby basket in the back seat of the car and was only shaken up. Aside from bruises mostly to his chest from being thrown against the steering wheel, my father (who had the dubious distinction of being The Biggest A$$høl∑ Ever To Walk The Face of the Earth) was unhurt. No one knew at the time that the distribution of the injuries in this collision would become symbolic of how our lives unfolded.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was my introduction to Packard.

From an early age, I had an eye for car design. In the early postwar years, some car stylists took the “envelope” body theme, where fenders were flush with the rest of the body, and tried to make cars look even more streamlined, resulting in the infamous “Upside Down Bathtub School of Styling”. This styling theme didn’t really take hold at GM, Ford or Chrysler, but four of the independent car makers took it and ran with it. Packard’s 22nd and 23rd Series cars, which came to be derisively known as “upside down bathtubs” or, worse yet, “pregnant elephants” had it. Hudson’s “Step Down” models had the look, though in Hudson’s case, it came off better than most. The ungainly first generation Kaisers and Frazers were infected with it. The absolute worst of the bunch, however, were the ’49-’51 Nash Airflytes. I thought they were ugly cars when I was a kid and the intervening years have not softened my opinion of those Nashes!

1948PackardSuper8

Above and below, compare and contrast. I have long been vociferous in my dislike of the design of the 22nd and 23rd Series Packards, but some perspective is in order here. Above is a ’48 22nd Series and below is a ’49 23rd Series like my father bought. In my opinion, the Hudsons and Packards, compared to the Kaisers and Frazers and especially the Nashes  of the same era, came off the best of the “bathtub” designs. The facelift on the 23rd Series Packards was without doubt an improvement over the 22nd Series. Adding the “sweep spear” down the middle of the sides, replacing the chrome strip at the bottom of the sides, made the cars less dumpy looking. The new shape, relocated taillights (not shown) on the 23rd Series was an improvement, too.

1949 Packard

1949 Nash

This is how you spell UGLY: Nash Airflyte

Nash_Airflyte

As an aside, below, Toyota stylists, clearly drug-impaired at the time, must have used the Nash Airflyte as inspiration for this horrible Toyota Echo design:

Toyota_Echo_Coupe

In 1951 I was four years old. We were living in Plainview, Texas that year. One day I accompanied my father to Kiker’s, the Packard dealer in Plainview. I don’t remember the reason we went there – our wrecked ’49 Packard had been replaced by a navy blue ’48 Plymouth which we were still driving in 1951. My father took me into the shop at the back of the dealership. I was fascinated by the mechanics pits the shop had (instead of hydraulic lifts) for servicing the cars. I distinctly remember seeing both Packard Clippers there and the newer “bathtub” models and thinking the earlier design was the more beautiful of the two. I was allowed to go down into one of the mechanics pits and see the underside of Packard.

Clipper

A 21st Series Packard Clipper – better looking than the “upside down bathtub” 22nd and 23rd Series models that replaced it.

We moved back to Lubbock in 1953. I knew when I saw the first one in Lubbock, that the ’53 Studebaker Starliner hardtops were the most beautiful car I had ever seen. I thought that then when I was six years old and the passage of sixty-four years since then have not altered my opinion of Robert Bourke’s stellar design. A doctor in Lubbock had a yellow and white Commander V-8 Starliner. I remember once watching him leave an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 behind in the dust in an impromptu stop light drag on 34th Street.

1953_Studebaker_CommanderStarlinerCoupe_8Cylinder_120HP_232.6ci

Robert Bourke’s 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner

Although I was only seven years old at the time, I knew that Packard and Studebaker merged in 1954. Aside from my thinking that those Commander Starliner hardtops were the most beautiful car ever, Studebaker’s new association with Packard automatically made me a Studebaker fan.

Being the young Gear Head that I was, I liked to draw cars. I constantly got into trouble in school for drawing cars during class. Just before the 1956 model year introduction, I drew out what I thought the 1956 Packards might look like. As a nine year-old prognosticator, I predicted that Packard would run the “Reynolds Wrap” side trim used from the front fender back to the rear door on the ’55 models all the way to the rear fenders. My family went to Dallas to the Texas State Fair in the Fall of 1955. I knew we would see the new ’56 cars there and I took the drawing I had made of my idea for the ’56 Packards with me.

Big Tex

When we arrived at the site of the Texas State Fair in Dallas, we were greeted by Big Tex. Big Tex burned on his 60th anniversary in 2012!

The ’56 Packards were among the cars shown at the Fair. I was thrilled when I saw the Patrician and Four Hundred on the display with the “Reynolds Wrap” running, just as I had predicted, all the way down the side!

packard-patrician-1955

On the 1955 Packards (above), the “Reynolds Wrap” trim down the side ended at the rear door. On the ’56 models (below), Packard ran the trim all the way down the side. When I was nine, I drew a picture of what I thought Packard would do with the ’56 cars, accurately guessing they would do this with the “Reynolds Wrap.”

56-packard_patrician.jpg

Packard’s fabulous “Predictor” show car was there. I was mesmerized by this pearlescent white vision of what was hoped to be Packard’s future. Many years later I learned that the Predictor had stopped off at the State Fair in Dallas, on its way to Houston to Wendall Hawkins’ Packard dealership. Hawkins’ was one of the top Packard dealerships in the entire country. He kept selling them right to the end – he even took a batch from the factory after it closed. Packard needed more dealers like Hawkins – or du Bois in Virginia. In 1956, du Bois, who created the “Esquire” when he couldn’t get enough Caribbeans, was selling a Packard a day – not Clippers, but Packards.

1956_Packard_Predictor_Concept_Car

The Predictor on display at an unidentified auto show. This is exactly the way I remember seeing the car at the Texas State Fair.

In 1956 during the summer break from school, I spent two weeks at my maternal grandparents’ home in Tulia. My grandfather had found a 1937 Packard business coupe in a barn and bought it. It was then 20 years old. He got the car running. Needless to say, I approved of this acquisition!

While staying with my grandparents that summer, I heard the news on the radio – KGNC, Amarillo – that Packard was closing. The last Detroit-built Packard rolled off of the Conner Avenue assembly line on 25 June 1956. When I heard that news, I burst into tears. I opened the door to a cabinet where my grandparents kept household supplies, fished out a can of Simonize wax and some rags and went out and started waxing my grandfather’s Packard – still crying.

1937-packard-business-coupe

Save for the spotlights, my Grandfather’s ’37 Packard was like this Almond Green Metallic business coupe. 

My father, who, as I wrote above, easily could have claimed the title of being The Biggest A$$høl∑ Ever To Walk The Face of the Earth, had gone to work in 1951 as a salesman for a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Wyeth Laboratories. He had a brilliant start with Wyeth. He quickly became one of their top salesmen in the country.

By 1957, his career was unraveling. I don’t know all the reasons for that, but in retrospect, I think the short but sharp economic recession of 1957-1958 probably was a factor. The bigger reason was, without doubt, his personal behavior. He could be very charming, an aspect of his success as a salesman. But he had a dark side that became still darker and more prominent as the years went by.

His name was M.T. I’ve never known why his parents gave him a name that was only the initials “M.T.” For years, I have rendered his name as eMpTy.

He was a vastly profane man, possessing one of the foulest mouths I’ve ever heard. It seemed it was impossible for him to speak a single sentence without including at least one profanity in it. He was verbally abusive and used his profanity as part of his portfolio of verbal abuse. I grew up thinking my true given name was Stupid Little Bastard. As I reached my teens, I realized that if I were truly a bastard, the fault lay with him.

eMpTy had a violent temper. That temper had a hair trigger. He often gave vent to the anger raging within him by beating me. He would force the family to watch as he made me strip naked and beat me for the slightest of infractions. I never knew what would set him off – it could be anything. He would begin by beating me with the metal buckle end of a belt, then with a board, and finally with his fists. He had drilled holes in the board to increase its impact on my body. The holes worked by pulling some of my skin into them due to the force with which he was hitting me. He drilled the holes in the board  JUST for me! Wasn’t I special?!? Between the time I was four until I reached age twelve, he probably beat me at least once a week. It seemed that he looked forward to delivering my weekly drubbing.

Once my mother tried to stop him during a particularly vicious beating he was giving me. He grabbed her arm and twisted it so hard he nearly broke it. He dislocated her shoulder in the process, shouting at her “When I finish with this stupid little bastard, I’ve got some of this for you, too, you stupid bitch!” As he was administering this “punishment” to me both of my sisters and my brother were crying. He slapped my younger sister across the face, knocking her to the floor . This time he beat me so hard that I couldn’t attend school for two weeks.

eMpTy was the World’s Champion at Nursing Grudges, one of which was against his boss and District Manager, Jimmy Windham. Windham was no one’s fool and was likely to have been keenly aware of the resentment my father nursed against him. This in turn was certain to be a factor in what came next. In 1959, my father was fired from Wyeth. My mother, a Registered Nurse, had been working double shifts at West Texas Hospital in Lubbock even before my father lost his job. Now she was working almost non-stop, taking every available shift.

After losing his job with Wyeth, eMpTy persuaded them to re-hire him – in Denver. That was how it came to be that it was in Denver that I saw my first Packard Caribbean.

For a short while, things seemed to be going well for our family in Denver. Then Wyeth fired eMpTy a second time. They came and picked up his company car, a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne. Soon after that, the family car, a 1956 Chevrolet Two-Ten station wagon was repossessed.

1956-chevrolet-210-townsman

Our family car was a 1956 Chevrolet “Two-Ten” Townsman station wagon in exactly this color combination.

The electricity was often cut off in our home for non-payment. We were forced to move out of the nice home we were living in on Xenon Court in the Denver suburb of Wheatridge into what was little more than a shack on what had been a farm south on West 38th from where we had been living on Xenon Court. Someone my parents had gotten to know in Denver, a man named Linc (for Lincoln) Salem, gave us a sad-eyed 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan to drive, but took it back after a few months. I don’t recall the reason why he took the car back, but it’s possible that he had offered to sell it to my father and my father didn’t pay for it. I always thought it was a little funny that Lincoln Salem owned a Lincoln.

'49 Lincoln Cosmopolitan

For a time, we were driving a sad-eyed ’49 Lincoln Cosmopolitan 

My father was nothing if not nuts. He began imagining everyone was out to get him. He constantly had a hatchet or an ax – or, often, both nearby to “defend himself.” He also frequently used the hatchet and ax to intimidate me and my mother. In addition to the bladed weapons, he kept guns nearby. eMpTy was the kind of mental case that gives anti-Second Amendment Leftists (ahem) ammunition for their gun-grabbing efforts.

While we had the Lincoln, we were in the downtown area of Denver one night. My father was beginning to maneuver the Lincoln into a parking place. Someone cut in front of him and deftly took the space. eMpTy erupted. He reached under the front seat of the Lincoln and pulled out his trusty hatchet and a pistol. My mother, for once, stood up to him and physically restrained him, though eMpTy hit her in the face with one of his fists. The man who stole the parking place saw what was coming and exited the space as quickly and deftly as he had taken it, but not before my father broke the driver’s window of the car.

Without a car, neither my father nor my mother were working. Transportation aside, mother decided not to work as a gambit trying to force my father to find a job. It didn’t work.

I took a Denver Post paper route and it was my income from that route that was feeding the family. I built the route into one of the largest the Denver Post had, throwing more than 300 papers a day during the week and over 400 on Sundays.

Somehow we scraped up enough money to buy a 1950 Dodge painted in that almost chartreuse green that was all the rage in the early 1950s. Being a car that had endured ten Colorado winters where the roads were salted to melt the snow, the floorboards of the Dodge were rusted out. You could see the road below your feet when driving it. The Dodge was equipped with Chrysler’s Fluid Drive. The transmission leaked fluid that hit the exhaust pipe, sending smoke fumes into the passenger compartment through the rusted-out floorboards.

1950 Dodge

We somehow scraped together enough money to buy a green 1950 Dodge. Its Fluid Drive transmission leaked fluid onto the exhaust pipe and the smoke came up into the passenger compartment through the rusted out floorboards. To this day I can still smell that smoke and feel the way it made my esophagus contract. 

My father wouldn’t find a job. He didn’t even try. He spent his days berating my mother – and, when I was home from school or not out throwing papers on my paper route, he berated me as well. The two of us, according to him, were the root of all his troubles.

Finally my mother took her own Denver Post route, one that was called a Motor Route – being large and long enough that a car was required to run it. The smokey old Dodge was put to work on this route which ran north on West 38th from Wheatridge into Golden, home of Coors Brewery. Mother and I worked our paper routes together. We had to keep the windows open in the Dodge to keep from being asphyxiated by the smoke coming up through the floorboards.

I was now 13 years old. It was 1960. I was determined to get my mother, two sisters, my brother and myself away from eMpTy. Along with having an eye for design, I had a talent for drawing. In fact, I wanted to become a car stylist. I hit upon an idea to escape from my father and resurrect Packard in the process! I would design a new Packard and sell the design to Studebaker-Packard! They would build the car and we would escape from eMpTy!

I drew out my idea for this new Packard. I brazenly wrote to Studebaker-Packard president Harold Churchill that I had a design I wanted to sell them to use for a Packard revival. I thought Studebaker-Packard would pay me enough for the design that I could build a house for my mother and siblings in Texas. I had a site in mind for the house – on a small hill on the north east edge of the town where my grandparents lived in Texas, Tulia.

Tulia, TX

If Studebaker-Packard would buy my Packard design, I would buy this corner property in Tulia, Texas and have a house built on it. My father was NOT to be allowed in the new home.

I can’t describe the thrill I got when I received a reply from Harold Churchill along with papers from the Legal Department that were required for submitting my design. I dutifully send the paperwork back along with my drawing and was eagerly awaiting Studebaker-Packard’s reply. I was just sure they would buy my Packard design!

As high as I was when I opened the envelope from South Bend in reply to my letter to Churchill, I was the polar-opposite low when I got the letter stating that “while we are very impressed with your design and capabilities, your idea for a new Packard does not fit our current plans or needs.

60 Packard

In 1960 at age 13, I sketched out this idea for a revised Packard. I tried to sell it to Studebaker-Packard as a way both of reviving Packard and to fund my escape from my father. The design drew from the Predictor show car and could be viewed as a progression of the still-born Packard design that was to be introduced in 1957. It also unwittingly anticipated how the 1963 Mercurys would look.

Conclusion next week

7 Comments

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  1. Very good read, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Intriguing story my friend, very sad parts. Points of life many know, too many do not realize. I have always loved cars, but not to your extent or ability. Thanks for a very interesting read.
    (Some beautiful car pictures to accompany the story)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PS: Oh I remember the ‘recession’ and looking for a job in 1957. Just out of the USMC, I couldn’t buy a job. Finally landed one with a newspaper stuffing the Parade magazine inside the funnies, for folks like you to deliver. That job did not last over three weeks, then I enlisted in the USAF. Your story did bring the memory back of waiting in lines two blocks long for an ‘unidentified job’ that ended up being a salesman for vacuum cleaners (that I could not qualify for!).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a story! Fascinating to read but very sad too, and I thought I had it bad with my step-father. No comparison. I could see your story being made into a movie…well maybe 10 or 15 years ago, no chance with the movies that pump out nowadays. Very well done.

    Like

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