100 years on, the phoenix is still flying
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Robert Duncan doesn’t seem the sort of bloke you’d glance twice at if you passed him on the street — unless he was at the wheel of his 1918 Packard.
Not that he drives his extraordinary car that often. Normally it’s stored at Wanaka’s Wings and Wheels museum.
However, on a visit to Wanaka, Driven was offered a drive — and we do mean drive.
All the cars at the museum are privately owned. This isn’t the sort of museum where things go to die, so the Twin Six Packard — yes, it has 12 cylinders under the hood — is ready to go when we are.
Duncan bought the Packard about 10 years ago.
“It had gone from America to Australia,” he says, “and was customs-seized from a guy who brought 50 cars in, and was under-declaring them.
“We bought it from the man who bought it from customs — along with another, as a parts car.”
It was a wreck, the body shell was sitting on the chassis, along with the engine block, and everything else was in boxes.
Duncan likes to keep things original, and says all the running gear is original. Half the panel work has been remade. “It’s 100 years old, for Christ’s sake!”
The wood is new, and some parts had to be replaced. The speaking tube the owners used to relay instructions to the chauffeur is genuine; but it didn’t come with this car.
Duncan has a second Packard and is slowly sourcing bits for that. “Originally we had 175 per cent of two cars.”
Fortunately, Duncan’s a civil engineer by trade, and does much of the mechanical work himself.
He says: “The wood was done by John Martin, at Cromwell, a retired teacher who now just does vintage car wood; the paint at Wanaka’s Rodz and Restos, the upholstery by Steve Whitren, in Alexandra.
He says the nickel brightwork was done by Shiny Bits, in Geraldine.
“And any machining I couldn’t do, was done by Barry Morgan, in Wanaka.”
You get the impression that with 15 restored cars in Duncan’s garage, all those guys are on speed dial.
The restoration took two years. Duncan worked on the car in the evening and at weekends.
Although Packard built a number of these engines and chassis, this is one of only two made exactly like this. It was a rich man’s town car, costing US$7200 when new, which back then would have bought the equivalent of 27.7 Model T cars.
The body was built to order from a coachbuilder. This one by Fleetwood boasts six “fenders”, or mudguards, and is a semi-collapsible landaulet — with the front seats open, where the chauffeur and footman would sit.
A hood lifts over the spacious rear, with its fold-down table, little drinks cabinet with slots for glasses, its two flower vases, in-built clock and fold-out dicky seat, for kids or maids.
But we’re up front — once the 6948cc motor has fired. First Duncan uses a wooden stick to check the petrol level, then he pressurises the fuel tank and pours a little petrol into each of six priming cocks, before turning the six switches to drop that fuel into six cylinders.
Then he checks the oil. There’s no dipstick; you turn a small tap and if oil pours on to the ground, it doesn’t need topping up. Once the oil is checked, he undoes the cap under the radiator-mounted temperature gauge to top up the water.
Finally it fires, and we pull away. At 67kW — a 2017 1.3-litre Toyota Yaris boasts 63kW — there’s not much power, but plenty of torque. We’re in top (third) gear from 16km/h, and we stay there at junctions, open-road speeds, the lot.
It cruises around 75km/h, could reputedly hit 145km/h, and engine braking is phenomenal, which is good, since the brakes operate only on the rear wheel, the footbrake via a contracting band on the outside of the drum, with the handbrake applying conventional shoes inside – to slow 2.2 tons of car. Oh, did I mention no power steering?
And now it’s my turn. There’s no synchro on the gears and, after fluffing the first change, we’re away. We drive in top gear along the Wanaka waterfront and through town, ignoring the orders coming through the speaking tube from today’s passengers.
We drive up a hill, still in top — by golly this thing’s torquey — and into the countryside, the switch flicked to open the muffler for the full, rich rolling soundtrack, the semi-elliptic leaf springs as bouncy as you’d expect and the car inclined to wander over the road. You have to get used to it and keep a light touch on the wheel.
Finally, to my relief, given my bank account would be insufficient to meet a repair bill, we’re back by the shed, and I’m wrestling it into reverse and backing 5.5m of 100-year-old car into the shadows.
Duncan says that when his car collection started to grow, his wife bought a calendar, added a car per month, and said that when he filled the year he could buy no more.
And now? “She’s buying another calendar.”