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Guest column/Memories of a father who was a Packard man

To paraphrase Ralphie Parker: Some men are Baptists, others Catholics – my father was a Packard man.

Although Packard car production reached its zenith prior to World War II, the company continued to be an automotive force well into the 1950s and its tradition of innovation carries into today.

I will never forget the day I got off the school bus after a hard day in second grade and saw one sitting behind the house. The chrome was dazzling in the afternoon sun and the Seminole Beige paint glowed through a Simonize sheen. I was mesmerized. That stunning two-door 1951 Packard completely changed how I viewed automobiles forever and it became the standard against which my father would compare all other cars for the rest of his life.

Sixty years later, my brother and I visited the National Packard Museum in Warren, and spent several hours admiring the cars. The experience was not unlike opening long-stored old trunks in the attic of our minds and burnishing our childhood memories, much as the better-than-new cars on display had been meticulously restored.

We couldn’t really afford a Packard, even the used one that overwhelmed me that afternoon so long ago, but now that I look back I can see my dad’s carefully crafted gambit to rationalize buying it. It had begun innocently enough with a drive to visit family friends on Winding Hill. Even in today’s vehicles, this is a tortuous and challenging ascent not to be taken lightly. Sixty years ago, it required skill and concentration, especially with a wife and three noisy kids in the car.

I still remember the faint bouquet of Vaseline hair tonic mixed with the pungent aroma of dad’s unfiltered Camel cigarette. He was working his way up the treacherous switchbacks, winding away at the steering wheel and fighting the recalcitrant vacuum-assisted three-on-the-tree transmission as he coaxed our underpowered, wheezing 1946 Chevrolet four-door up the sharp grade. Maintaining momentum on the tight uphill turns required deft and rapid double-clutching to shift the non-synchromesh transmission into low gear without stopping or stalling the car. Dad, though, was a virtuoso practitioner of the technique, having begun his driving career at age 7 in Model A Fords, and he made it look easy.

On one particularly challenging left turn, though, my little brother opened one of the Chevy’s rear suicide doors and was falling out of the moving car. Maybe it was something from his pilot training or just quick thinking, but somehow dad whipped the car to the right, creating enough centrifugal force to keep my brother in the car.

Then, in a single motion, he reached back with his right arm and yanked my brother onto the back seat, slammed the door shut and continued up the hill with no loss of momentum.

In the ensuing discussions with my mother enumerating the inherent dangers of four-doors and three young boys, dad made the health-and-safety case for a two-door car.

The Packard was the answer. Its straight-eight flathead engine had perfect primary and secondary balance and, thanks to relatively low unsprung weight, it rode better than other cars of the day. The big, slow turning engine made gobs of torque and it would accelerate easily up any hill in high gear. The powerful AM radio sent rich, pear-shaped tones throughout the car. Vaughn Monroe never sounded better.

The plush seats were living room-comfortable for six adults while the BorgWarner overdrive made it a hushed long-legged cruiser with a relaxed mechanical demeanor. Dad loved it and mom quit worrying about us falling out of the car.

That Packard, though, was much more than a car. It was a direct connection to a time of American technological supremacy; a name recognized and trusted for quality and innovation everywhere in the world. Packard marine engines powered World War II PT boats, often operating four or five times longer than their rated overhaul intervals. What had been a very good British Rolls Royce Merlin engine became excellent when built under license by Packard. Cost was reduced, production skyrocketed and quality was unsurpassed. Powering a wide array of aircraft, including Spitfires, Mosquitoes, Lancaster heavy bombers and P-51 Mustangs, the engine was a difference maker in World War II.

Through that car, my dad was connecting us to a hallowed name, a culture and tradition of quality and a company that symbolized American excellence and leadership in the world. He and many of his contemporaries shared that same bond after winning World War II, restarting their lives and trusting in an invincible America to protect them and their families from the omnipresent specter of godless communism.

They lived their lives of quiet optimism born of their shared sacrifices that propelled America into the preeminent nation on the planet. What’s amazing was that even a hard-working brakeman on the B&O Railroad could earn his piece of the American dream along with millions of others.

No wonder my father was a Packard man.

(Wallace is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia and a health care contributor at the CATO Institute.)