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Prepping Packards for the War

A former Packard-Milwaukee employee recalls the war years.
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"My father started with Packard-Milwaukee about 1935 when the One-Twenty model was introduced. That really made an impact on me,” recalled Ralph Wehlitz of Merrill, Wis. Indeed, it did. Wehlitz went on to experience countless Packards up through the straight-eight era.

His father, Erwin Wehlitz, bought a 1927 Packard Club Sedan as the family car. Ralph Wehlitz recalls how he was impressed with his father’s car, down to the MotoMeter perched atop the radiator. Then came a 1930 seven-passenger sedan in which Wehlitz learned to drive. A 1933 Super Eight sedan with wire wheels later grabbed his fancy.
Wehlitz went on to work a short time at the agency before being drafted into the U.S. Infantry for the Second World War.

“Packard-Milwaukee was operated by the factory through Packard Motor Car Company of Chicago,” he said. “Mr. Quinlevan was the manager. I graduated high school in 1942 and went to work for Packard. My job was picking up cars. We used a three-wheel motorcycle, and if more than one car was being picked up, I would ride along and drive one back.”

When the war began, new 1942 Packards were stockpiled by distribution outlets, such as Packard-Milwaukee, to be sold according to government sanction. Many of the cars were Clippers, although there were some Darrin cars in the bunch. Several had air conditioning. Nearly 500 new Packards were stashed in cattle and sheep barns at a state fair park nearby. There was hardly enough room for a man to squeeze between the cars.

“We followed 37 governmental procedures to store them,” Wehlitz noted. Cars had to be placed on blocks, then tires were deflated to 12-15 lbs. Batteries were lined up on trickle charge. Sticks were pushed on the clutch pedal. A bag of moth crystals was positioned in each car. Rust preventative was wiped on exterior trim. Windshield wiper blades were placed in glove compartments. “Lard oil was put in the crankcase and on top of cylinders.”

In January 1943, the call came that several cars had been sold with government approval according to a priority list. Wehlitz and another man were given the task of retrieving the cars and bringing them to Packard-Milwaukee, which was located at the corner of 35th and Wisconsin.

“We were told to bring certain cars, by serial number,” he recalled. “Once we found where they were, we had to move all the cars in front of them, then prepare them for removal. This was in January. It was cold. We used a 1935 Buick ‘big eight’ service car to pull them out. Then we hooked up the car that we needed and pulled it around the fair grounds until it started. If the steering was stiff from cold grease, it wouldn’t steer fast enough for the turns. Next, we jacked up the front. It was my job to jump under the car and loosen the oil drain plug. Once all the lard oil had been drained — while the engine was running — I quickly tightened the plug and told him to add fresh motor oil. We then put the other cars back in place and headed to Packard-Milwaukee.”

Wehlitz estimated that Packard-Milwaukee had more than 20 men in the shop, some specializing in particular tasks. One man handled the grease rack, another the washing area. One person worked on carburetors and distributors. Others handled the grinding of valves or worked on generators and starters.

“It was a standard procedure to assign men like this,” Wehlitz said. As many as six people worked the office. There had to have been at least a half-dozen salesmen, he recalled.

As with many other young men, Wehlitz had to leave his job for military service. While in Italy, he lost an arm, and by the end of 1944, was headed back to America. For a while, he was hired by Packard-Milwaukee to be the weekend watchman. All the time, his appreciation for Packard deepened.

“Packard-Milwaukee was in a good location,” he said. “The neighborhood was fine, and there were other dealers nearby — A Dodge-Plymouth agency, Central Cadillac, a Nash dealer, a Chevrolet dealer and several used car lots.” He recalled taking the leather bank pouch from the dealership to the bank downtown. “I’d be called into the office and a bag with $3,000 was handed to me. I took the bus downtown to the bank. I don’t think it happens like that today.”

Wehlitz became a Packard owner when he obtained a used 1937 Super Eight for $400, a “New Orleans Blue, much lighter than Packard Blue,” he quickly explained. Later came a 1941 Packard Six, then his first new car, a 1950 Standard Eight.

“In the early 1950s, Congress passed a bill for the disabled, especially amputees, making them entitled to receive a $1,600 allowance for a car,” Wehlitz said. “I bought a new one, a Packard ‘300’ sedan, my ‘road locomotive.’ It was smooth, comfortable and powerful.”

He never owned another once Packard went out of business. Still, he is impressed. “A very superior company, innovative in building automobiles. Always excellent machines and a joy to own. My 1937 ‘Senior’ was the best looking I ever owned, and that includes recent Mercedes automobiles. The ’37 was the best looking, ever.”
Just ask Ralph Wehlitz. He was the man who owned one…and liked many more.

[To read more "Packard Points" by Gerald Perschbacher, subscribe to Old Cars Weekly.]

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