Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Drivable Dream

by DTA

Photos by Don Spiro

One Of a Million

“It’s just a neat old car” to the owner of this 1950 Packard Super Eight

For most people, buying a 1950 Packard is a memorable experience, even if it is an ageing, unrestored car. But when Scott Cawly acquired his Super Eight it was just like any other day. So much so, in fact, that at first he can’t remember exactly when he bought it. “Four years ago? Five?” he muses. The rare 23rd series Standard two-door Club Sedan was still in the hands of its original owners, in Camp Verde, Arizona, about 115 miles north of Cawly’s compound in Chandler. He says that the faded Turquoise Blue was a special spring color that year, and has endured more than half a century of scourging Southwestern sunlight surprisingly well, oxidizing gently and showing only traces of rust. It has resisted the omnipresent desert’s attempts to burnish the front fenders with dust- and sand-laden wind.

It’s not entirely truthful to say that Cawly’s Packard came directly from the original owners; a friend actually owned the car for about a week before calling up Scott and offering it to him. He never drove, or even retitled it, so Cawly received it with the original 1950 title intact. It didn’t come with any other documentation of any kind, so its history was a blank slate, aside from a conviction that it had spent the previous half-century in the center of the state. It didn’t come with much else, either: It appears to have only one option, fender skirts, which came with the car, in the trunk. “They’re kind of a pain when you have to do tire stuff,” says Cawly, who has left them exactly where he found them. It does appear that they were on for most of the car’s life, as they have weathered to the same shade as the rest of exterior, possibly, they were only removed when the time came to prepare it for sale. The car even had the radio deleted, which with the presence of the skirts averages out to exactly zero options.

Inside, he found an entirely original interior, down to a large hole in the seat fabric where the driver’s shoulder, presumably the same shoulder through the decades, had rubbed when getting in and out. “The seats are actually fairly decent,” he says, aside from a spring that pokes the driver in an…uncomfortable place. During the car’s storage, it appears that the passenger side front window may have been left ajar, and Arizona’s scant rain made its way in, discoloring the door panel on that side. The frame is solid and the exterior belies its first appearance; the trim is entirely complete and a couple of small patches of surface rust are the most serious trouble. Super Eights are easily identified by the pair of chrome trim lines along the sides, one from the base of the windshield extending to the middle of the rear fender, and a spear from above the front wheel well almost to the rear lamp. Super Deluxes have a nice eggcrate grille, but Standard Supers use our Drivable Dream car’s horizontal slats. With less trim around the opening as well, it’s a slightly plain, yet busy, front end with many intersecting lines which doesn’t make it everyone’s favorite car, but the “bathtub” fastback shape is distinctive and alluring, and they have many fans.

It was the wear, inside and out, combined with the car’s fundamental soundness, which sold Scott (to the tune of $8,500) on it. “You rarely see one, and it’s a neat color. It had a lot of appeal because of its originality—it hadn’t been monkeyed with, it wasn’t all rusted out and patched up.”

Scott likes all his cars to be drivable, so the Packard was treated to some work. “It had been sitting a lot of years, and wasn’t running well at all,” he said. “The carburetor was plugged up, and the brakes were pretty bad.” Rebuilding the brakes was the only major challenge, as the old fluid had more or less congealed in the lines, which he was ultimately able to flush out and reuse, along with some reproduction hardware from Kanter. The patched-up radiator was recored, a new starter was installed and some suspect wiring attended to. For many of us outside of the sunbelt, the notion that nothing was particularly hard frozen is almost inconceivable, but he says, “With this Arizona stuff, you can take every bolt and nut out of it with a screwdriver. I grew up in Chicago, and after two years we were cutting bumpers off with a torch.” He left the aesthetic elements of the car untouched. “It was just the stuff you have to worry about to drive it around, so it was drivable and dependable.” Four or five days later, it rolled out of his shop, Scott’s Autobody.

Rolling is what these cars do best. As equipped with a three-speed manual with overdrive, as opposed to the optional Ultramatic automatic, they’re fine highway cars, with good torque from the long-stroke 150hp straight-eight. “It doesn’t have a lot of get up and go. That overdrive helps a bunch—the first three gears are pretty close,” says Cawly. “But once you get it into overdrive it runs along pretty well. It’s just a neat old car.” Ride quality of the 3,640-pound car on a 127-inch wheelbase is also good, now with a set of radial tires for comfort and safety, but it’s not up to that of some of Packard’s competitors. “I have a 1951 Cadillac that doesn’t compare to it at all,” says Scott. Ed Franko, the Packard Club’s chief judge, says that, “They’re nice driving & handling cars. You can drive them at highway speeds without hurting them. It is a lovely car to drive. Whether you like the styling or not, it’s an easy car to drive, a comfortable automobile.”

It joined a fleet of about 50 cars that Cawly drives regularly, one being swapped for another on a daily basis. The first day we spoke to him, he was using his perfect black unrestored 1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk, which he had also bought from the original owners, in Hollywood, California. The day before? An original 18,000-mile 1970 Chevelle SS396. But don’t get him started on those Studebakers.

“I lived in South Bend for a while. Therefore, the Studebakers.” Almost every one from 1947 on. You could also say, ‘therefore the Packards,’ as after 1954 all Studebakers were technically a Packard brand, but that’s a different story. In 1950, the “Golden Anniversary” Packards were built in Michigan by a company still in the hunt for America’s high-end car buyers, although with a model now dating to the 22nd Series introduced in 1948, they were losing ground rapidly. Fewer than 5,000 of all Supers were built for the year. “If they would have kept the Clipper design, it might have been a better choice,” said Franko. “They also had trouble filling orders—couldn’t get steel.” Subtle and not-so-subtle pressure was being applied to all the independents from GM, Chrysler and Ford, and it didn’t bring tears to their eyes to see a competing luxury marque such as Packard start to flounder.

While this is the first 23rd series Packard he’s ever owned, as you may have gathered, it’s not his only old car. We can’t tell you how may cars Scott has, but here’s a hint: Think of a number, any number. That number is too low. Out in the scrub of Chandler, Arizona, cars are crammed into warehouses, sheds, outbuildings, garages, in huge and magnificent profusion. If we didn’t suffer from the same malady, we’d say the man had a problem. But we do have the same compulsion, so we think he has a treasure trove. “99 percent of them run and drive,” Scott says. “They’re all drivable dreams.” Except for the 17 cars he currently has apart in his garage, in various stages of restoration. One of those is the oldest car he owns, another Packard, this one a car from 1941 that once belonged to Ronald Reagan. “I’m a car nut—I told you. I never changed—I’ve just been buying cars ever since I could. I tried to hold onto everything I could, although there were a few I let slip through my fingers. Back in the ‘70s I had a 1970 Hemi ‘Cuda…I traded it off for a Dodge Colt in 1974.”

“The first car I can really remember…my uncle John was a doctor and he came home in a brand new 1957 Thunderbird, coral. He always had the neatest new cars, I can remember it like it was yesterday, I can remember every car he ever had. I just bought him a new Thunderbird—red. With a white top, so it looked like his old car. As a kid, I spent every waking hour in the garage. I once had to go through the whole house wiping the baseboards off because I left the vents open when I was painting a car.

“I used to ‘borrow’ my parents’ cars…all those things you shouldn’t do. My aunt used to come and visit, and I’d borrow her 1964 Custom 880. I wrecked it one year, took it out in the snow, I was 13 or 14, and I spent a lot of years in trouble for that.

“I’ll never quit. There’s nothing else that excites me. I’m not into sports, I don’t do basketball, I just look at cars, work on cars. I like the whole restoration process, but I really love painting. And putting it all back together, taking all the little pieces and seeing it all come back together.

“It’s just a love—I’ve been doing it all my life. I roll out of bed, walk next door, and go to work. Not many people get to do what they love every day of your life.”

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