Packard was riding high in 1937

Gerald Perschbacher |

A bevy of beauties flank and fondle the new 1937 Packard.
Seldom did the Packard Motor Car Company use swimsuit models
to stage new cars, but this rare shot seems to capture the fondness
the general public held for Packard in its best year.

1937 was a very good year for the Packard Motor Car Company. In fact, it was its best.

Sales were hot. Styling was grand. Appointments were superb. Packard was one of the most desired names in the public mind. The only other automotive name that grabbed the attention of the citizenry with any similar degree was Ford, a name relegated to the lower-price field of cars. Not so with Packard. If there was any name that represented royalty among cars, it was Packard.

More than a thousand distinguished families in America claimed Packard ownership for 22 years or more. Such impetus churned the public to covet a Packard. Didn’t matter what stratum of society a person inhabited. This was the car to adore and respect with legendary honors.

That especially was the case in 1937 when the Detroit-based company introduced its Six. With its launch, the Packard name was accessible to anyone who could afford to buy a new car. Priced below $1,000, the Packard Six carried all the design traits that the public demanded in a conservative, stately car. It was just smaller, less powerful and not as fancy. But it looked every bit a Packard. No one denied its lineage. If a buyer was contemplating a Ford, Chevy or Plymouth, less than a couple hundred dollars separated that choice from all the good graces a Packard Six delivered to the buyer’s curb.

Every new Packard for 1937 carried a frontal appearance that resembled timeless classic Roman or Greek architecture. Reminiscent of ancient columns, long grille louvers automatically opened or closed to regulate radiator temperature on senior cars that boasted straight-eight power and simplicity or V-12 elegance.

If a buyer craved more than the Six, the next step was a One-Twenty powered by the company’s smallest straight eight. The car offered huge benefits in the slightly more than $1,000 range. This was the car for rising executives and women of increased influence. It commanded respect on the road. Dealers made owners feel special as an investment on the future. With the sale of every One-Twenty, Packard officials hoped the buyer would be successful enough to soon trade it on the next step in the Packard stairwell: the Super Eight.

Priced at $2,300 on up, the Super Eight was a larger, roomier car, manly in most respects, but sufficiently outfitted to attract the longing eyes of women who preferred quality in fit, finish and tactile appointments. “Open the hood to sell the man; open the door to sell the woman,” ran a saying among Packard salesmen. The Super Eight delivered as much power and speed as most drivers of the day wanted and most roads of the time allowed.

Economy was not a major concern if you could afford a senior Packard, but it lingered as a small issue amid the up-and-down years of the economically challenged 1930s. A Super Eight, properly tuned and maintained, then driven conscientiously, could be expected to deliver 12 to 18 miles per gallon under good driving conditions.


The 1937 lineup for Packard: from left, the Six, the Super-Eight, the
Twelve and the One-Twenty. There were several body styles in each line,
with custom-bodied cars available even on junior models. For some reason,
the company chose three four-door sedans and one two-door for this
publicity shot.

Perched atop the entire Packard stairway was the magnificent Twelve priced as low as $3,400. Gas mileage concerns evaporated to the winds as these nearly three-ton cars often gulped fuel as they delivered 8-12 miles per gallon. So be it. Even as the Great Depression still gripped America, there were some families that gained wealth. Why shouldn’t they have enjoyed their success?

Some did so at the risk of rock assaults if their Twelves motored through the wrong parts of poverty-stricken towns. Even this did not keep Packard from registering its best production year for V-12 models: 1,300 were made.

The Twelves were palaces on wheels. Extremely high-quality wool upholstery materials were specially selected. Leather appointments, such as padded tops on Formal Sedans or leather front compartments on limousines, commanded the best in hides and workmanship. Twelves were tested by Packard throughout the 250-mile break-in period, then made ready for final inspection before being delivered to new owners.

In 1937, “Ask the Man Who Owns One” became a motto for 2.74 percent of the buying public. Calendar year sales surpassed 109,000 units. Never before had Packard reached that level. Never would it reach it again.

As expected, the Twelve claimed the most modest slice of the pie at around 1.2 percent, with Super Eight taking a portion at 4.8 percent. One-Twenty production had a generous 41 percent. The darling newcomer Six expectedly hoarded the majority of the pie with 53 percent.

Custom-ordered cars were an option. Buyers selected from various books and photographs supplied by Packard or by custom-body design houses. Among the most popular were Dietrich and Derham, although any custom builder had the chance to display their talents on a Packard chassis. Most customs were designed for Twelves and Supers. A handful was made on the One-Twenty chassis. Rumor has it that even an occasional Six may have been contemplated, although Packard officials probably did not encourage such acts.

If power and dimensions were determining factors for buyers, then a glance in the statistics column provided cheat-sheet facts: the Six offered a wheelbase of 115 inches cradling an engine of 237 cubic inches delivering 100 horsepower. The One-Twenty offered a 120-inch wheelbase hosting a 282-cubic-inch engine pounding out 120 horsepower. The Super Eight’s wheelbase began at 127 inches and framed the 320-cubic-inch engine producing 130 to 135 horsepower. The Twelve’s wheelbases ran from 132 to 144 inches and bolstered the 473-cubic-inch engine which gave a walloping 175 horsepower.

In 1937, the master of a massive estate could call for Chauffeur Jeeves to pull the Packard Twelve Formal Sedan out of the converted carriage house and station it in the front door’s drive to await departure. Junior could brag about his Super Eight convertible coupe with rumble seat that was ready for the daily drive to varsity events. Sis had her One-Twenty Club Sedan to take her through the entrance drive of the exclusive finishing school. Even the gardener could drive to and fro in his own Packard Six sedan feeling pretty special, meeting his master on the road while flashing all the good characteristic of Packard success.

In 1937, all good things, automotively speaking, could be yours in a Packard!

Author’s note: The National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, will commemorate its 20th anniversary with a week long event (June 20-26, 2009) titled “Packard: The Vision.” Central to that celebration is Opus II, which is an invitational gathering of one of every model Packard from 1937. Contact: National@PackardMuseum.org.

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