Inside the classic convertible that saved a company from ruin
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Classic car aficionados Malcolm and Terry Dean chose this 1936 Packard convertible coupe Model 120B over others to drive in the 21st century.
Right-hand drive from the factory, the coupe was registered in New Zealand in May, 1936. The Deans are its fifth owners.
The Deans had owned a stable of cars from the 1920s, but loved the more streamlined lines that arrived with the mid 1930s. The brakes were better, too, along with of other mechanical advances.
Wanting an open-top car, they spotted this Packard in Rotorua in 1984, taking a photo and pinning it to Malcolm’s office wall.
In those days, the car was peacock blue, a colour Terry loves. But she figured they’d never be able to own something like it.
“The guy we bought it off, Bruce Catchpole, had owned it 40 years, since 1960 when it was newish – at a time most Kiwis were driving 1930s cars.”
As an aside, this model was created because by the start of the 1930s, few people could afford a Packard.
All the previous models had been built by specialist bodybuilders who constructed each body as a one-off.
American carmakers struggled through the Depression, so Packard decided to make a more affordable car.
The three years that the 120 – named for the 120in (3048mm) wheelbase – was produced as a smaller car than the “senior” Packards, saved the company.
“They did a wonderful job of creating a Packard built on an assembly line,” says Malcolm.
Superficially, it resembled the bigger models.
“Priced at the high end of Buicks, cars like that, at half the price of the senior cars,” Malcolm says.
The 120s might have been dubbed juniors, but they still had some advanced technology, introducing hydraulic brakes and independent front suspension to the brand. The more expensive Packards had to wait until 1938 for those.
When the Deans bought this 120B, it needed some TLC as its last major work had been a restoration in the late 1960s.
Malcolm redid the brakes, the bushings for the front independent suspension “and made it reliable mechanically”.
The couple used it for a few years being taking it off the road for a year in 2009 for a thorough going-over, including a change of colour.
They lifted the body off, cleaned up the chassis, had the body realigned, replaced the hood and upholstery and chose a new colour, not one of the 14 available from factory. The upholstery was stitched to the original seat patterns.
They fitted the 120 with after-market 16in wire wheels — available to Packards in the 30s — with modern radial tyres to improve the handling. Overdrive was installed so it cruises at lower revs on the highway.
Malcolm says if it wasn’t possible to get replacement parts they could make it or get them made — such as the suspension bushes, now in urethane.
“I wouldn’t attempt paint, upholstery; that’s for experts. But I can paint the chassis. It’s not show quality, it’ll never win a concours. We use the car; you’ll see it’s got stone chips!”
That straight eight, 282ci (4.6-litre) engine puts out 89kW.
Taking it for a drive, we half-expected it to deliver a fair bit of aural muscle. However once we were purring along Coatesville’s back roads, it proved quiet, with surprisingly little wind buffeting passengers in the open cabin.
Anyone sitting in the fold-up “dicky” seat behind, which the couple usually use as a boot, might be less comfy. On a day of blustery weather, we weren’t keen to try it.
The couple say this car is reliable and comfy.
“We’ve been to the South Island in it twice since restoring it; as far as Wanaka, Queenstown and down the West Coast. And we can cruise at 100km/h. We once drove Auckland to Wellington straight through.”
They drive it most weekends through summer, and use it for trips — naturally to Napier for the annual Art Deco festival.
This Packard will do another next February, when the roaring 20s return. Keep an eye out for it. With the sun gleaming on that glorious paint, it’s hard to miss.