Dad loved cars — big cars, classic cars, and in particular, the 1938 Packard he owned for three glorious years. That Packard was the vehicle against which all other cars in Dad’s life were measured and fell short, and that’s saying something since he owned 46 of them over his lifetime!
Growing up, I heard many stories about the Packard: how Dad purchased it in 1947 for $785 (he kept the original receipt and laminated it years later); how it had been painted a dull gray during the war years; how the leather upholstery and wooden windshield frame were rotted from rain damage; and how Dad restored it piece by piece to create his dream machine.
The Packard was a fixture of Dad’s past, but it’s hard to connect with a story lifted from the dusty shelf of memory. That’s why I loved discovering among my parents’ papers a 1948 letter to Dad from his cousin Majlis where she talked about his work on the car. Her comments written in what was then the “here-and-now” added a new dimension, a sense of immediacy, to the family’s Packard legend. I could picture Dad sending snapshots of his pride and joy, and Majlis sharing the photos with her husband and young son, David, who in turn showed them to everyone else, saying “That’s my Uncle Gunnar’s car.”
“I fell in love with the swatch of material you sent showing how you upholstered it. I said to Stan I was tempted to ask if you had any small leftovers for the front of a jacket for David but he discouraged me saying you probably needed anything left over for patches.”
Dad sewed the new upholstery himself, cutting, piecing and stitching the seat covers after hours in the tailoring department of Todd’s Clothiers in Pasadena, where he worked as an assistant manager. He told me that he purchased an expensive wool plaid fabric because he liked the look of Chrysler’s Highlander cars.
Dad had also written to my mom, Carlyn, about his work on the car, but he had not yet confided to his cousin that the Packard wasn’t his “one and only true love.” That title belonged to a young woman he had met back east the year before.
Dad spent months restoring the car. He had the shiny bits rechromed to make them sparkle, repaired the convertible top, worked on the engine and, finally, had his initials painted on the doors in swirling Old English script.
Despite all of the work, when Dad drove his 12-cylinder beauty back to Baltimore to marry Mom, engine trouble required him to feed it two quarts of oil every 100 miles.
Dad called the Packard their honeymoon carriage, but Mom said she only appeared in photos if she stood next to the car.
My parents’ love affair lasted all their lives, but Dad was forced to break up with his Packard when he discovered a crack in the engine block. He couldn’t afford to repair it and instead sold the car to make the down payment on a tract home, purchased with a GI loan. But between Dad’s tales and Majlis’ letter, at least I’ve had the chance to go “along for the ride.”