Packard Super 8 coupe: A taste of '30s high life
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Can you imagine the feeling of buying a car to restore, and later finding it has a glamorous past and a place in the annals of history?
Ross and Robyn Marshall don’t have to imagine it, that’s what happened when they acquired this 1935 Packard Super 8 three-window coupe.
They now live in Queensland, but brought the car here for a few months to take in the Ellerslie Classic Car Show and Napier’s Art Deco Festival in February, and the Packard Rally this month, which starts in Blenheim on March 24.
The Marshalls will then drive to Hanmer Springs, across to the West Coast and down through Franz Joseph to Wanaka, where 50 classics go on display at the Warbirds over Wanaka Air show on March 30-31.
The couple were living in Knoxville, Tennessee when they bought the car 11 years ago. Ross had a 1933 Buick Doctors Coupe he was looking to sell, and a friend he bumped into at a classic car meet told him about a retired Supreme Court judge who owned five Buicks and a Packard.
“I let it go for a bit, then called and introduced myself. He said ‘I know who you are, you have an old-car store in Tennessee,’ and he’d seen the Buick there.
“I said tell me about the Buicks. It took about an hour. And I said, now tell me about the Packard.”
The news wasn’t that good. “He said it’s a 1935 Super 8 three-window coupe, and it’s in a million pieces. He said he’d been restoring it for 50 years, and ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever get it finished.’
“I said, if you don’t mind my asking, how old are you? He was in his 80s, and I said I didn’t think he’d get it finished, and suggested he swap it for my Buick ... ”
Ross first had to back out of another deal, but soon called the judge back. “And he said okay, I’ll do it. That was Tuesday. On Thursday he called and said he’d forgotten to tell me who’d owned the car. I nearly dropped the phone!”
It had been delivered new to aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1935, with its cut-glass flower vase — Amelia was spokeswoman for Packard at the time — and it has her initials generously scattered about the exterior.
It was allegedly parked at the airport when she left for her ill-fated final record attempt, and never returned. Her husband kept it for two years in the hope she’d be found.
By the time Ross bought it, it was no longer pristine. “We went down, and it took us seven or eight hours to load the car on the truck and trailer. ”
Clearly the car preferred an exciting life, for he nearly didn’t get it home. “On the way back, in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a mighty explosion behind us. The trailer had come off the truck. I was travelling at 60mph [96.5km/h] with an 18-wheeler on one side. I went from 60 to about 10 in about a second, and was able to stop with the car in one piece.
“The pin that held the tow bar had sheared due to the weight, and I nearly lost the whole thing. As I pulled up, the safety chain gave way. The car was okay.
“That was a terrible heart starter!”
They put it back together, then brought it “home” to Australia, for the final restoration. “I had people help, but I’m an engineer. It was a jigsaw puzzle …”
It was one worth completing. “It was one of 12 and there are just five left in the world.”
Ross aimed for a restoration that would take the car to the condition it was in when Amelia owned it.
“It drives like it was brand new,” he says.
The 6.3-litre straight eight engine was rated at 112kW at 3200rpm, put to the wheels via a three-speed synchromesh gearbox, to propel 2.2 tons of metal. Top speed back then was quoted as “adequate” but the factory tested it at 160km/h.
Now imagine hitting a bump at that speed and relying on leaf springs to keep you on the tarmac, or hauling it up using drum brakes. But then if you’re prepared to break airborne records and fly round the world using 1930s technology, a little thing like that won’t keep you from driving.
A flick through the owner’s manual is fun. It’s been a long time since front and rear bumpers would be listed as a feature, but here in the Packard book they are, along with two sun visors, two “windshield cleaners,” a smoking set and vanity case and “32-candle-power headlamps,” so let’s hope the Marshalls stick to daytime driving.
They finished its restoration just the day before it was shipped to New Zealand, and it’s getting familiar with our roads. The couple drove it from Auckland to Napier, in heavy rain, and it still has many South Island kilometres to go before it first turns a wheel back in its new Australian home.