Car of the Week: 1941 Packard 120

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By Brian Earnest

Jim Steele is a successful, active, affable and very connected guy. He’s involved in many clubs and organizations in the small town of Fayette, Mo., used to own and run the two local newspapers, and has been plenty active in the old car hobby over the years.

He probably didn’t need any more friends and acquaintances in his life, but he acquired more than a couple a few years back when he decided to adopt a sweet 1941 Packard convertible.

Now he’s pretty much “on call” for any parade or big social event that happens in his corner of the world. After owning the car for more than seven years, Steele figures that pretty much every one of Fayette’s 2,700-plus residents know his Packard, and most of them know the guy behind the wheel.

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“The last two years I’ve really driven it quite a bit, and people around here love it,” Steele admits. “’Where’s the car? When are you going to get that out?’ It’s s a small town and everybody knows about it, and everybody asks about it.”

That pretty much means Steele and his Packard are locked into every homecoming parade for the town’s high school and Central Methodist University, the Fourth of July parade and any holiday processions that get organized. Steele doesn’t charge for his appearances, but he probably could. And when he gets tired of being seen in his Packard, Steele jumps into his 1946 Chevrolet Fleetmaster sedan, which he’s had for more than 30 years.

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“On days that are nice and the weather is OK, I drive them as much as I can,” he says. “Both the Packard and Chevrolet are just good old No. 3 cars, and when you put them in local shows, people still like the them … [The Packard] looks pretty good, but it’s not going to be a 400-point car or anything.”

Steele wasn’t looking for a trophy chaser when he traveled to St. Louis back in 2007 to check out the car at Hyman Classic Cars, a well-known dealer specializing in high-end machines. Steele had seen the car advertised and figured it might finally signal his chance to own the type of car he had been admiring since he was a kid. “I can remember as a kid loving those cars — just the way they looked,” he recalled. “Obviously in those days I couldn’t afford one. Unless you count the ‘42 , that’s really the last of that model with the traditional design, other than some limousines that they made in ‘46 …

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“And being a 120 it was reasonably affordable. When you get into the senior Packards and C.C.C.A stuff, they do get a little more pricey… I still probably paid too much for it, but those are the things we do.”

The 120 Series was a landmark model of sorts for Packard when it was introduced in 1935. It marked Packard’s first big foray into the crowded and competitive mid-priced field. The 120 line ran through 1941 with varying degrees of success with the exception of the 1938, when it was replaced by the Packard Eight.

The 120 was the company’s attempt to broaden its customer base and help Packard weather the final years of the Great Depression. The 120 Series occupied Packard’s second tier, above the 110s, but below the 160s and 180s. For 1941, the convertible coupe was one of eight body styles offered in the 120 line.

The 120s carried Packard’s straight eight L-head 282-cid power plant. The 120-hp engine was mated to a three-speed selective synchromesh transmission with a column shifter. The wheelbase stretched 127 inches and the 15-inch disc wheels were stopped by hydraulic brakes.

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The 110 and 120 series for 1941 had a few minor revisions from the previous year, most notably the head lamps, which were sunken further into the front fenders. The sidemounts which were also more hidden. The options list included Deluxe bumper guards, a factory-optional “K” deluxe steering wheel, dealer-installed “Senior” Deluxe hood ornament, a radio with its rare cowl-mounted antenna, heater and defroster, and running boards.

The convertible coupes tipped the scales at 3,585 lbs. and came with a base price of about $1,400. Production fell to just 1,700 for the entire 120 range.

Steele doesn’t have an extensive knowledge of his car’s history. “We found out there was an older couple over in Boonville — which is a little town about 15 miles from here — and they had it early in their married life,” he said. “I think it did spend some time in Ohio. And of course it was made in Detroit, but otherwise I don’t know a whole lot about its history.”

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The car has been restored at least once. Steele figures it got the full treatment some time in the 1990s. “It’s an older restoration. I think it probably had a new paint job… and a new leather interior that’s pretty well done,” he said.

The Packard was a little finicky at first, but Steele has gradually replaced some of the problem areas — plugs, points, wiring, fuel filter, distributor and fuel pump among them — and it’s running nicely these days. He still has to be careful when descending down through the gears, however. “The only real problem I’ve had is with the shift mechanism,” he says. “I’ve tried to replace all the parts and taken it to people who know more than I do … You’ve just to got to be very careful downshifting into low. Otherwise you get stuck, then you get to get out of the car, walk around, reach under there and try to move that yoke down by hand.

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“But it’s a good running car. It starts right up. I drive it mostly on secondary roads. I certainly try to stay off the Interstate. We have a number of rural paved roads around here that don’t have a lot of traffic, so it’s mainly just driving in the countryside … It cruises very comfortably about 60. The Chevrolet is the same way, and they have a way of telling you ‘I really don’t want to go much faster.’ It’s got kind of that neat ‘putt-putt’ sound like the old cars had with the straight 8. It’s got kind of a neat sound to it.”

Steele says his only concession to non-originality came just a few months ago when he equipped the Packard with radial tires. If he gets to drive the venerable convertible as much as he hopes, it will be money well spent. “I figure they ride better and handle better and they are safer,” he says.

“And I’m not too concerned about winning some concours d’elegance.”

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