By Brian Earnest
Ken Ruminer had watched the huge, black Packard slowly decaying for years. The stately machine slowly sank into the earth, and even though he wasn’t a “car guy” involved in the collector vehicle hobby, seeing the Packard being so neglected broke his heart.
Ruminer never seriously considered staging an intervention, however, until his wife Sandy unexpectedly gave him the green light. “Yes, you can blame my wife,” chuckles Ken Ruminer, a resident of Lakeland in Southern California. “She’s the one who really started it. She told me to go [inquire about buying it]. She said, ‘We’ve got to go save its life.’”
That was about 20 years ago in Downey, Calif. The Ruminers’ challenge was to get the Packard away from a well-meaning owner who didn’t really want to sell it. The last registration sticker on the car’s license plates was from 1968, meaning the car had sat for almost 30 years. The owner clearly wasn’t in a hurry to do anything with the Packard, and any acquisition probably wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“The car belonged to the property owner where my mother lived, and I’d go visit her from time to time, of course, and I’d always see the car. At one time it was parked under a carport, kind of out of the weather. Toward the last part he had parked it out in the grass in his front yard. It sat out there three or four years. I had no intention of getting a car. It was kind of one of those stories where the car found us … I approached the owner. He had inherited it from his grandfather, who had passed away. The grandfather was from Minnesota. He originally purchased it in Minnesota 1949 and then he packed up and moved out to California, so it had been a California car most of its life.”
The grandson initially balked at the Ruminers’ overtures, saying he had hoped to restore the car himself. “He had parts of the engine disassembled and sitting in the trunk,” Ruminer recalled.
As the months rolled by, Ruminer’s desire to save the car grew every time he saw it.
“Finally, I started seeing these white marks on the side of the car … like little spots and nicks in the paint,” he says. “Well, I found out the landscapers had been hitting it with mowers. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to rescue this car. He’s not gong to do anything with this car. He’s going to let it sit here and rot. So, long story short, he sold it to me.”
Thus began a 20-plus-year odyssey that has included plenty of highs and lows, but that has changed Ken and Sandy Ruminer’s lives in more ways than they could have guessed. The first big step, Ruminer says, was getting in touch with the Packards International Motor Car Club, which helped the couple network, find parts, find a restorer and generally learn how to become “Packard people.” Originally, Ruminer just hoped to get the car running good enough so he could have some fun with it, and looking good enough so that he wasn’t embarrassed to take it out.
“I had to flatbed it home, and it was in pretty bad shape,” he says. “All the parts were there, but all four tires were flat, they had sunk into the ground, of course, and the engine didn’t run. The radiator had multiple holes in it. The gas tank had holes in it.
“So I started working on it myself, and I kind of got it running over a few years. The guy I bought it from would take the spark plugs out every few years and dump oil down into the engine to try to keep it lubricated. And in time, a bunch of that oil ran down into the muffler… Well, it got the car running on about six cylinders, and there was so much smoke blowing out of that thing my whole neighborhood was filling up with blue smoke. My neighbors were all running over convinced that there was a fire. Eventually I knew that I needed some more help.”
Ruminer soon hooked up with Robert Escalante, a well-known Packard restorer who ran Custom Auto Service in Santa Ana. He brought the Packard in with the hope that Escalante could get it running right and troubleshoot any issues that needed addressing. After two weeks, Ruminer got a call to come and check on the shop’s progress.
“He fired it up and, oh my gosh, it ran like a Singer sewing machine,” Ruminer laughed. “It had a stuck valve, and he fixed it and it ran great.”
So Ruminer brought the car back home with designs on digging into some of the its cosmetic issues. It wasn’t long, though, before he realized he was probably biting off more than he could chew.
“I got it home and had some parts re-chromed. I got the radiator and brakes repaired, I patched the holes in the gas tank. But then I realized I needed help because it still looked pretty bad. It needed a paint job and it had a few dings in the body that needed to be fixed. So I called Robert Escalante again, and I said I want the car to look nice, but not so nice that I don’t want to drive it on weekends. I don’t want a trailer queen. He had it about four months, and he did all the body work. He repainted it, did the upholstery … He took the fenders and doors off it and did some rust prevention work. It was kind of a partial body-off restoration, I guess you’d say. I finally got it home in early 2000. It was finally presentable, and I went to a cruise-in near my house that first weekend and I got a first place trophy right out of the box. So I was pretty pleased with that.
“The biggest surprise I’d have to say is that I thought for sure I’d have to do some major engine overhaul because of the way it started, but the engine has been the most solid thing on the car. I’ve had to do virtually nothing to it. Over the years, the more I drive it, the better it runs. But of course, with a car like this, you’ve got to have a thick wallet. The good thing is there are parts available. Max Merritt [of Franklin, Ind.], they have a lot of stuff. They have acquired a lot of parts over the years. If they don’t have new old stock for you, they can pretty much rebuild whatever you need.”
YEAR 4 OF THE POSTWAR PACKARDS
It took two years for Packard to launch any truly “new” models following the auto-building hiatus brought on by World War II, and the company’s answer in 1948 was the hulking Eight models with their new fully integrated fenders. The cars looked big, and they were, with long front ends covering massive straight-eight engines. The cars might have been “bath tubs” to some critics, but they were well received and gave Packard some time to figure out its next move for the 1951 model year.
The Twenty-Third Series “Golden Anniversary” models went on sale in May 1949 and were offered in Standard Eight, Super Eight, and Custom Eight tiers, with the Standard and Super lines each having a fancier Deluxe version. The cars looked much like the 1948 models, but had some noticeable differences. The front bumpers had chromed centers instead of the painted type used in 1948. A thin spear of chrome ran down the middle of the bodysides, stopping just forward of the tail lamps on base Packard Eights. Above this molding, on the front fenders, Packard block lettering appeared and was underlined in chrome. The tail lamp lenses were set in protruding oval-shaped bright metal housings, except on Station Sedan wagons. The size of the rear window (backlight) was enlarged 33 percent. Inside, oval clutch/brake pedals were used. A Packard nameplate was placed between the speedometer and clock opening. A new illuminated switch turned on the engine. The Deluxe Eight had chromed 13-inch diameter hubcaps. The Standard Eight had 10-inch diameter hubcaps. A “Goddess of Speed” hood mascot was standard with both levels of trim. Packard’s automatic transmission was introduced in November 1949 for all models. The 120-inch wheelbase continued.
The Ultramatic automatic transmission was new and was standard on the Custom series. The Standard line was powered by a 288-cid, 130-hp power plant. The Supers got a 327-cid L-head with 145 hp, while the Custom lineup had the big 356-cid straight-eight with 160 hp.
A total of 42,280 Standard and Deluxe Eights were built for the model year. Ruminer’s car was a base Standard Eight four-door sedan. A two-door club coupe and four-door station sedan were also offered. The big four-door sedans carried a price tag of $2,249 and weighed in at a well-fed 3,815 lbs.
LIFE WITH ‘THE QUEEN MARY’
Aside from the fact that it was originally a Minnesota car that wound up living almost all its days in California, Ruminer doesn’t know a lot else about his Packard. It was spared the ravages of winter in a northern climate, but it had been driven plenty during its 20 years of active duty. “The owner inherited it from his grandfather, and other than that, he was a little sketchy on the history. I don’t know if he really didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. The odometer said it had 80,000 miles on it. I would like to believe that’s original. When you looked at the interior of the car, you could tell it had really been driven. The floor mats had been worn down to the floor and the rubber on the gas pedal had all worn away. I think they just parked it, retired it. I don’t think it was broken down. The guy said it was licensed in 1968 and it ran fine. I think they just moved on to another car, and for whatever reason they didn’t sell it. I don’t know why.”
Ruminer has put about 7,000 happy miles on the black sedan in the 20 years he has owned it. Many of those miles have come in cruises with other Packard owners and on trips to and from Packard gatherings. He has found Southern California to be a Mecca for Packard owners, and now Ruminer says his social life revolves mainly around his car club. “There aren’t many [from 1948-50] like mine. You see mostly the big ones from the 1930s and 1920s. A lot of people have more than one. I’ll go to a meet and pull in with my car, and people will pull in around me with three or four!”
Ruminer admits he knew very little about the Packard brand before he had one in his own garage. He had heard about them and knew the company had a very long and distinguished history of building cars. It didn’t take him long to become a fan for life.
“I can see why people fell in love with Packards,” he says. “They are built like a tank. They are all steel, you can tell how they are built when you close the doors, and the engine is massive. I bet the engine weighs 1,500 lbs. It’s a challenge to drive it. It’s a lot like driving the Queen Mary. It’s like 22 feet long. I can barely get it into my garage. I had to remove some cabinets to get it into my garage when I first got it.
“But I get lots of looks and a lot of waves when I drive. That’s the thing I enjoy most. Just driving down the road and getting so many thumbs up. It’s really enjoyable. And it’s just having people look at you when you go to a cruise or one of our Packard functions. People come up and have all these stories: ‘Oh, my dad had one of these,’ or ‘We had one of these up at the farm,’ or ‘I met my husband in one of these.’”
Ruminer can’t say he met his wife in a Packard, but he can always say it’s because of her that he now ones one. “Yeah, I can always blame her,” he jokes. “She started the whole thing!”
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