By Angelo Van Bogart
With the last name “Vanderbilt,” Grace Wilson Vanderbilt couldn’t be seen in anything less than a Packard. The family of her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, had built its fortune on transportation — first ferries, then railroads — so moving and shaking was in the family blood. By Grace Vanderbilt’s lifetime, the shaking evolved to hobnobbing with high society and royalty, and the moving came courtesy of Packard.
Several photographs from the 1910s and 1920s show Vanderbilts at the running boards of contemporary Packards, so Grace didn’t need to ask a man who owned one when she went car shopping in the late 1930s. Her hunt took her to an unusual Rollston-bodied Packard that had originally escorted fellow “Old Knickerbocker Society” socialite Mrs. Allen A. Ryan. Ryan had purchased the Rollston Packard from the stock of Park Avenue Packard, a Packard Motor Car Co. of New York distributor not far from the Park Avenue mansion Vanderbilt shared with her husband in New York City. Although it was certainly unusual for one as wealthy as Grace Vanderbilt to buy a second-hand automobile, the Rollston Packard was still worthy of a notable socialite, and definitely unique in high society.
“It’s an Eight chassis, which is odd, because, the story that seems to flow on this car is that it was sold at Park Avenue Packard, and nobody needed the big long wheelbase and power to get around the city,” said Tom Laferriere of the Rollston town car-bodied 1934 Packard Eight he recently purchased. Laferriere uncovered the town car from decades of storage after receiving a tip on its whereabouts from Packard historian Jim Pearsall.
“It is uncommon, and I think where you would find it was in New York City, because of the volume of traffic,” Pearsall said. “They could have put the same coachwork on an 1108 chassis, and there was a beautiful 1108 Rollston town car in 1934, but around New York City with heavy traffic, the Super Eight or Eight chassis would have been better.”
Many Rollston bodies feature the V-windshield, but this is the only known 1934
Packard incorporating the styling element. The sharp and very formal lines to the
town car coachwork still harmonize with the smooth shapes of the Packard fenders, hood and radiator.
In 1934, Packard offered three series of its Eleventh Series model: the Eight, Super Eight and Twelve. The Eight had a smaller displacement straight-eight compared to its larger companions, as well as wheelbases in shorter increments. However, the Packard Eight’s 319.2 cubic inches supplied plenty of power in the city, and the wheelbases in 129-1/2-, 136-1/4- and 141-1/2-inch lengths gave it a tighter turning radius for navigating the cramped quarters of New York City during the Great Depression. As logical as this may seem, it was rare for a coachwork as formal as a town car to be fitted to the Eight chassis, even though most town cars were sold in large cities.
“There’s a lot of speculation why it was done,” Laferriere said. “It was done when it was new; obviously, it’s not a body swap.”
Of the Rollston town cars known to have been built for Packard chassis in 1934, the Ryan-Vanderbilt car is the only known survivor.
“This Rollston has a split windshield and to my understanding, Rollston made two of these town car bodies in ’34,” Laferriere said. “One was on an 1108 chassis and it’s got a flat windshield.”
Although their windshield designs vary, both known Rollston-bodied 1934 Packards have sharp edges to their respective passenger compartments that provide a very formal look, and each carries the deeply skirted front fenders flanking the vertical radiator that define Packards of this year. However, the Rollston town car counterpart to Laferriere’s Packard is mounted on the Twelve-cylinder 1108 chassis on the 146-7/8-inch wheelbase — Packard’s longest that year.
It’s possible Rollston only built two town cars on the Packard chassis in 1934, because the traditional body style was considered haughty in the depths of the Great Depression.
Additionally, Packard already cataloged two LeBaron town cars, so most buyers would have simply ordered Packard’s recommended coachwork. However, this Rollston town car would have been more readily apparent to the New York City socialites since New York City-based Rollston had built the car on spec and displayed it at Park Avenue Packard, thus eliminating the wait for a cataloged LeBaron to be built. And, for the wealthiest of socialites, the green-and-black Packard Rollston town car was not only the right make and body style, but even the appropriate color.
“Most Vanderbilt cars were maroon and black, but this one was green,” Laferriere said. “It’s the color of money.”
Grace Vanderbilt passed away in 1953, so it’s impossible to determine if the color swayed her purchase. However, it’s not surprising she didn’t adhere to the family’s use of red and black, given the fact her husband had been disinherited by his father, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, for their union. Even though fences were eventually mended with her husband’s mother, Grace would never own a Packard in the trademark Vanderbilt colors, as this green-and-black Packard would be her calling card through the remainder of her life.
“She used this car until 1951,” Laferriere said. “Just picture that for a minute — she was still being driven around in this car when 1951 Chevrolets were new.”
Today, the Packard remains largely unrestored and still wears that green-and-black paint scheme. Like many chauffeur-driven town cars, it was well cared for during its years of service, and those years were many. From what Laferriere can tell, the car remained well-preserved for most of its life, although today, it is in need of restoration.
“It was in storage from 1951 to 1961,” Laferriere said. “After Grace Vanderbilt died, the car, through her son, was donated in 1957 to the Abyssinian Baptist Church. They never licensed it and it remained in dead storage. The church sold the car in February 1961 to C. Kornorf. Then it was purchased in 1968 by the [Mead] family I bought it from.”
Before its 1968 sale to the Mead family, the ’34 Packard Eight Rollston town car was well-known by Packard enthusiasts. Once the Meads took ownership, the car fell out of view.
“The car essentially disappeared,” Pearsall said. “It was known to have been in Florida in the early ’70s and then it disappeared and people wondered what happened to that car. I got wind of it last summer and started to track it down.”
Pearsall shared his discovery with Laferriere, who made contact with the Mead family.
“The daughter would talk about how she was always riding in the car and they went on all of these rides, so they were using it,” Laferriere said.
The fun was short-lived, because the registrations stopped in the 1970s when the Packard was parked again, left to fall out of the microscope of the hobby. During this bout of storage, father time was not so kind.
Years of outdoor storage have taken their toll on the interior of the Packard, and
although it appears original and intact, it will require restoration.
When Laferriere viewed the car, it had clearly suffered the ravages of outdoor storage. He did what any enthusiast who stumbles onto an historic car would do and began negotiating its purchase to preserve the weathering car.
“The family wanted to keep it, but there was a storage war and the warehouse owner ended up putting it outside, and that is what destroyed it,” Laferriere said.
After a deal was struck, Laferriere added it to his Packard-heavy collection. Since purchasing it, he has been combing over its condition and features.
“It’s almost all there, but it is missing the radiator cap, air cleaner and the Packard ornament, because that is easily stolen,” he said.
“I get a thrill of getting them started and running and making everything work again,” he said. “I had it running, but it will need a full restoration. It needs paint, chrome, interior, but the [engine] sounds pretty good. I am going to keep working towards detailing the mechanics of the car.”
While Laferriere is excited about the car, he feels it should undergo a full restoration by another enthusiastic Packard collector. He plans to add the car to the inventory of his business, Laferriere Classic Cars.
“I want to share the car and let the next person take it to that level of restoration,” Laferriere said. He feels the next owner will have a unique opportunity to own a slice of history.
“I call this the find of the century, because you don’t find custom-bodied cars that often, especially at this point in time in the hobby. This car has two things going for it: It has the automotive history, because it’s a Rollston ’34 Packard, but it also has American [Vanderbilt] history tied to it, as well.”
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