By Brian Earnest
There are plenty of folks around who really dig their old cars. And there are more than a few who are just head-over-heels, crazy nuts about a particular four-wheeled friend.
And then there are guys like Bill LeGall.
If there were a town specifically for people who were over-the-top, totally, insanely, madly in love with their cars, LeGall could run for mayor. The genuine, unbridled joy and enthusiasm that gushes out when LeGall tries to describe his lovely 1956 Packard Four-Hundred is truly contagious. As far as LeGall is concerned, there has never been a finer automobile built on this planet. And after hearing his take on the endless virtues of his Persian Aqua Four-Hundred, it’s hard not to be persuaded.
“Every time I use that car I feel like it’s the first time,” said LeGall, who has become a well-known figure in audiophile circles while running a very successful speaker repair and restoration service out of his home in Lansdale, Pa. He is a connoisseur of many things, and lives life with a rare zeal. But when it comes to collector cars, he is set in his ways. There is the 1956 Packard Four-Hundred. And there are all the rest of the cars in the world.
“I can’t even put into words my love for this car,” he says. “I can’t tell you in words how fantastic it is.”
It’s probably a good thing that LeGall and his wife wound up with their Packard, because they were actually acting a bit like stalkers before the car was theirs. Bill had owned a previous ’56 Packard and was in Ohio buying parts for it when he started quizzing the man who ran the business back in 1976. “I asked the vendor, ‘You must know of every one of the finest Packards in the country, don’t you? And he said, ‘Yes I do.’ I said ‘Where are they?’ And he made a list of six on a yellow pad, and said, ‘This is the best one. It’s in Coalport, Pa.’”
But the car in question was not on the road. In fact, it was sort of in hiding, and the LeGalls had to go window peeking to find it.
“On our way back to Brooklyn, N.Y., where I used to live, we decided to drive to Coalport, and sure enough there was a Packard dealership building there,” he said. “It was called Hegarty Packard. And this vendor of parts in Ohio had said, ‘Walk to the back of the building and look through the window in back in the shop area, and you will see the car.’
“Sure enough, we looked in the back window and I almost passed out. The car looked brand new!”
But the LeGalls had shown up on a Sunday and the business was closed. Undeterred, the couple found out where the Hegartys lived and dropped in for a visit.
“We walked down the street there to this home and it turns out they were just pulling out to go to church. I said, ‘Are you Mr. Hegarty? I’m interested in buying your ’56 Packard.’ Well, I had long hair and looked like a hippy, and he didn’t even answer me. He didn’t even acknowledge I was there. He just continued out the driveway and took the family to church!”
But the LeGalls didn’t give up, and with the help of “a friend who is the smoothest talker in the world,” they eventually convinced the man to sell the ’56. “We drove back to Coalport, and I brought the money, and I didn’t know how he would react seeing me again, but this time he could have not have been any nicer. My friend Morris and I and my wife Loretta spent the entire day getting this car running because it hadn’t run since 1960. That’s when old man Hegarty had died. He was the original owner of the dealership and it was his personal car. They parked it and never drove it after that.”
The trio put in a new battery, changed most of the fluids and somehow managed to get the slumbering car running. Then, against their better judgment, they drove it all the way home in a blizzard, never even turning off the engine that had been silent for 16 years. “It turned out to be one of the two or three biggest snowstorms in my lifetime,” Bill said. “And the drive home was over 400 miles … Mr. Haggerty decided to loan us some skid chains or we’d never make it home. But we made it!”
The lovely Four-Hundreds were a two-door hardtop subset of the top-of-the-line Patricians. For 1956, a total of 3,224 were produced, compared to 3,775 of their four-door Patrician siblings. Base MSRP of the Four-Hundreds was $4,190.
Changes in the Packard body, from 1955, included a redesigned grille with a mesh insert with vertical and horizontal chrome bars placed against it. Both the mesh and the grille could also be seen in the “air scoop” opening under the main horizontal bumper bar. Wraparound parking lamps were seen again, but had rounded rear edges. The headlamp hoods were lowered by one inch. Front fenders were extended on all Packards and Executives. Packard hood letters no longer appeared, being replaced by a centrally mounted crest. With the redesigned bumper, the guards were spaced wider apart, placing them directly under the headlamps.
The Patrician sedan and the Four-Hundred hardtop both had vertical vents on the rear fenders and the same arrangement of side trim. This consisted of a wide, ribbed chrome band extending the full length of the car between two horizontal rub rails. The first rail ran from the front edge of the upper grille bar to the rear edge of the back fender; the second was parallel to it, about eight inches lower. Both moldings intersected the vent ornament and outside door courtesy/safety lamps were placed at this spot. Also seen on both cars were model identification script, set into the contrast panel, behind the front wheel housing. In addition, both were highlighted by bright metal body underscores that continued across the fender skirts and had wide, ribbed chrome rear extension panels. The Ultramatic transmission offered an electronic push-button selector mounted on the steering column.
The Four-Hundreds certainly had a lot going for them — style, comfort, reputation and cutting-edge gadgetry. The push-button transmission and air-leveling ride screamed luxury. The 290-horse four-barrel V-8 gave the car plenty of power, and the paint schemes and badging were all top-notch. But as far as LeGall is concerned, it was the car’s unique full-length torsion bar suspension that set it apart.
“It has no coil springs or air suspension,” he said. “It has a full-length torsion bar, and this thing literally drives like a train. I’ve had all kinds of cars, driven in all kinds of cars, and I’m absolutely convinced there is not a more satisfying car to drive in my lifetime. It’s always totally planted, because it doesn’t rely on shock absorbers to keep the car on the ground. The wheels are glued to the ground. You do feel every pebble in the road, and yet you are never jostled. It is the most level ride. It is amazing.”
LeGall’s car has a full array of amenities, including power windows, seats and antennas, signal-seeking AM radio, dual heaters in the front and rear with separate controls, side running lights and fancy gold plating on the dashboard.
The Packard had 32,000 miles on the odometer when the LeGalls bought it. For a few years, Bill drove it frequently to work. The car now has 99,000 miles.
Bill has tweaked the clutch and transmission several times on his own, and repainted the car himself in the early 1990s. Beyond that, the car is largely original.
“I stripped the car down, I believe in ’94, and replaced the rocker panels, mig-welded in new metal to the bottom of the front fenders and couple other spots … And then painted the car using the original nitro-cellulous lacquer, rather than modern paints,” he said.
“I had the trunk lid and hood off the car on horses. I painted those pieces outside as well as the bottom part of the car … But the roof I did in our garage. And the paint went on so smooth, it was amazing. It barely needed any buffing at all!”
Not long after he got the car running again, LeGall took it to a show and found out that he apparently had a talent for spraying. “We went to a show in New Hope, and we put the car in the fairgrounds, only so we could picnic behind it. And they announced for your car to be judged make sure your hood is open. My friend Marty said, ‘Bill, open the hood. You could win something. I didn’t want to do it, but … I opened up the hood, and two or three judges came along, and when they saw the car, they said, “This is all original.” I said, ‘No, I just painted it. I had pictures in the trunk of me painting it and stripping it.’ They simply could not believe that the car was repainted, and that I did it in the driveway. The car took first prize! And the competition was wicked!”
For now, LeGall said he has no plans for the Packard, other than to drive it as much as he can. It will never be for sale, he insists, even though he has had many offers.
He says every “8 or 10 years,” he and Loretta drive the car back to Pennsylvania to show it off to the Hegarty family and assure them that the car is alive and well and went to a loving home.
“It’s not a show car, it’s something I love to drive,” he says. “The reason I don’t go to car shows hardly at all is that once you get in the car and start driving, you don’t want to stop and park it. I’m always sad when I get home and turn the key off and the ride over is over.”
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