Never underestimate anyone wearing a cap that says ‘Mr. Front End’

Packard celebrated its Golden Anniversary as an automaker in 1949. The company that had started out building the superior motorized wagon soon reached the very top of the maturing automobile market. In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel “Babbitt,” the title character, George F. Babbitt, expresses exasperation with his wife and kids, who want an expensive fully enclosed sedan instead of an open touring car. His son, Ted, was nagging that everybody else already had one. And “a family’s motor indicated its social rank as precisely as the grades of the peerage determined the rank of an English family—indeed, more precisely, considering the opinion of old country families upon newly created brewery barons and woolen-mill viscounts.”

In particular, young Ted “aspired to a Packard twin-six and an established position in the motored gentry.”

The Twin Six—closely related to Packard’s Liberty aircraft engine—was the world’s first series-production 12-cylinder powerplant. It appeared in 1916 and continued through 1923. The Single Eight that succeeded it the following year lined up eight cylinders in a row and housed a crankshaft with nine main bearings.

The descendant of that inline eight remained in production in 1949, the year Packard fell irretrievably behind. Cadillac now offered a fantastic new V-8. And Caddy’s body styling was influenced by aircraft. Packard had only the languid eight and bulbous bodywork that was conservative when new in 1948. It seemed as though a cast-iron bathtub had toppled over and some elves added a roof. The “Goddess of Speed” mascot on the hood no longer represented quite that kind of speed. The Cadillac looked capable of 400 miles per hour, like the P-38 Lightning. The Packard looked capable of 14 gallons per minute, like the bathtub.

Yet the Packard Custom Eight is a Milestone Car. The stroked 356-cubic-inch eight produced 160 hp, and late in the model year all that wallop was modulated by the brand-new Ultramatic transmission. The Custom Eight was enormous and expensive. “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975” lists the price at $3750 while a Cadillac Series 62 sedan was $700 less. Only 810 of the Packards were built.

When Frederick Scott and his family brought their rust-eaten Custom Eight to the Orphan Car Show on June 6, I suspected some kind of joke. Crowned with a “Mr. Front End” cap, Scott seemed only to lack his fowling piece and a corked gallon of moonshine. The sedan’s body was in atrocious condition. It was hard to believe the car had actually come from Saginaw under its own power. Yet it was explained to me by one of his eager attendants that the engine has been rebuilt and half the body—the half facing out toward the railroad tracks—was restored and primed. Fate had me standing on the ugly side.

Thinking it would be as depressing as exploring an abandoned movie palace, I declined the offer to inspect the interior.

I’m too big a snob. When I got home and started reading about the Custom Eight, I realized they really do have something special. It was terrible of me to pre-judge.

I take back what I’ve said about the fowling piece and the jug.

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