By Gerald Perschbacher LL.D.
In the 1930s and 1940s, nearly everyone who lived in California and knew about Packard automobiles had solemn respect for the name Earle C. Anthony, an extraordinary mover and shaker for that car company and for West Coast advancement.
Born days before Christmas in 1880, his could have been but wasn’t the first Packard agency. In 1905, when he opened his car dealership, it included 18 brands, so the story goes, but it wasn’t long before the entrepreneur settled solely with Packard. As with many other things, Anthony did it in a big way.
To measure his girth of achievements up to his death on Aug. 6, 1961, let’s be clear about his drive. He was a fast-forward man and pioneer, credited with designing and building his own electric motorcar in the waning age of horse-drawn transport. He is acknowledge as being the first man to build and drive an automobile on the streets of Los Angeles. Anthony was among early car dealers and forced a look forward in business. He introduced or elevated the advancements of full-service gasoline stations with equipped and uniformed workers who attended their customers. He was among those who launched the massive use of neon lighting to promote his offerings. He took a lead in the forming of the Los Angeles dealership association. He brought radio into homes. He promoted higher education. He spread his influence up and down the California coast and inland, with spheres of influence particularly radiating from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Anthony was a man of massive achievements, but lest we get off the road too far, let’s bring our attention back to Packard to which this article is dedicated.
Anthony served on the board of the Packard Motor Car Co. and was among the last five distributors of more than 70 that supplied the brand as the company moved toward direct zone operations from the Detroit headquarters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In effect, at his peak as Packard distributor, he extended his Packard muscle into any city, town or county where he contracted to supply dealers. More than that, his influence extended far beyond when it came to special cars.
Custom-designed Packards were privileged requests met by dealers-distributors such as Anthony. Since Hollywood held sway with the viewing public, which frequented motion picture theaters prior to the dominance of television, Anthony and the Packard name held attractive prestige. Hence, Anthony and his staff were willing to cater to the monied moguls of movies and stars as they ordered special-build, custom-bodied cars suited to their tastes.
Equally, Anthony seemed to have an innate sense of promotion when it came to those sales. He boosted his notoriety on powerful Radio Station KFI, which he founded, and commonly added avalanches of print ads and promos to trumpet such achievements. Indeed, the mere appearance of a movie star alighting from a fancy Packard provided through Anthony was a masterful move. He gained added note in newsprint and magazine features when such stars were seen with a Packard at a special theater opening or awards ceremony. When there was an event of high interest, such as the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, or the welcome of a famous man such as Charles Lindbergh, Packards were often were the leading parade cars, thanks to Anthony.
Had it been possible, some might say he could have been his own best man at his wedding!
Anthony’s tasteful self-promotion was not lost on others. Packard dealers across the continent followed his lead in alerting local media to their achievements. In key cities such as New York Chicago, Boston and St. Louis, distributors and top dealers learned lessons from Anthony as his examples were touted by the Packard home office. Dealership publications made that point quite clear by the 1920s and 1930s. When Anthony was credited with influencing Packard leaders to offer a limited-edition amethyst (purplish) model for 1954, the creative urge was not restricted to the West Coast. At least one of those rare cars was sold new in the Midwest. This article would be remiss if it were not mentioned that use of the word “cormorant” for the pious pelican atop the radiators and (later) hoods of Packards has been credited by historians to be a favored term for the bird that found home along the shores of California.
As a final thought, it is little known that Anthony took on the Hudson brand in the 1930s. That was in a decade that also saw other distributors taking on brands as secondary to their initial interest. As with Hudson, the brands that Packard dealers often took on were mainly mid-priced offerings. Having Hudson, Nash, or Chrysler as additional products offered the feel of insurance in sales if the economy took a downward slide as happened in the first half of the decade. That thought did not last. Packard flexed its corporate might, enticing the likes of Anthony and Berry to relinquish direct management of those other distributorships.
Even Anthony needed to be reminded who was in charge.