Everyone seems to love these vintage family road trip stories, so I figured I’d contribute one of my own from my family (actually my wife’s family, but close enough). This particular story covers the tale of a family road trip from Akron, Ohio to California in a 1930 Packard Club Sedan taken in the summer of 1936. It is an interesting window into a different time of cross-country travel.
This story actually starts in 1920 when Marguerite Kofron (my wife’s maternal grandmother) and her twin brother William (affectionately called Billy) were born. Billy and Marguerite’s mother Maurice died of complications from childbirth, suddenly leaving Dr. Frank Kofron finding himself a single father of two infant children. A licensed chiropractor by trade, he leaned heavily on relatives for assistance, especially the parents of his deceased wife, Clement L. and Laura Emerick (These would be my wife’s great-great-grandparents, for those keeping score).
Driving cross country in the 1930s was still somewhat of a novelty, so word of the trip made the society page of a local Akron paper. So in the summer of 1936, the Emericks, along with their sixteen-year-old twin grandchildren would embark on an eight-week trip across the US, leaving Dr. Kofron behind to presumably tend his practice. Trains were the preferred method of traveling cross-country in the 1930s – it certainly would have been faster and cheaper than driving. They likely chose to drive for the same reason people do today: Freedom to set your own destinations and itinerary, as well as enjoying the sights and the deliberately slower pace afforded by driving.
Mr. Emerick was a retired railroad brakeman at this point, having put in his 40 years at Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and living off a decent pension. Born in 1862, he would have been 74 when embarking on this trip. Around this time, Emerick appears to have purchased a used Seventh Series Packard Club Sedan (pictured in the lede). In those days Packard didn’t advertise model years, and the series numbers (especially the early ones) don’t always line up with model years. Still, judging by the presence of turn signals (the 1929 models didn’t have them), I’m guessing that this is a 1930 or 1931 model. Maybe one of our eagle-eyed commenters can identify the precise year, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume it is a 1930 model.
Packard offered two different chassis configurations in 1930: The 127.5″ wheelbase 8-26, which was used for most models, and the longer 134.5″ wheelbase 8-33 used in seven-passenger models. The Club Sedan is unique in that it takes a five-passenger body (distinguished from the regular sedan by the lack of rear quarter windows) and places it on the longer chassis, giving it ample storage room for an external trunk behind the body. While having the rear wheels extend beyond the body gives the Club Sedan a somewhat stubby appearance, in reality it was anything but: This was a massive car. Regardless of which model you chose, in 1930 you got a straight-eight engine producing “more than 100 horsepower” according to the brochure (the V12 wouldn’t arrive until 1933).
Packard described the Club Sedan as being an “ideal traveling car,” as well as being well suited for parents. Looking at the ad above, I would be hard-pressed to disagree. I’m sure the smooth driving Packard was a supremely comfortable way to eat up the miles in 1936 – I doubt the same could have been said for a contemporary Ford.
I’m not sure what prompted the senior Mr. Emerick to purchase a five- or six-year-old Packard. Keep in mind that a six-year-old car back then is probably equivalent to a fifteen-year-old car today – cars didn’t last as long back then. For the money that he paid for the used Packard, he probably could have purchased a new Ford. We can speculate that perhaps it was his years on the railroad that gave him an appreciation of fine machinery, which the Packard definitely was. Packard at the time had cultivated a reputation for high quality, understated luxury, and I could certainly see myself choosing to own one, were I alive at the time.
Judging by the newspaper clippings, I’m guessing that they took Route 66 to Los Angeles for the westward phase of this trip, which didn’t include any side trips that I know of. They then appear to have driven up the coast on the PCH to San Francisco and then headed west on a northern route to Choteau, Montana to visit relatives for two weeks, which again made the local Choteau newspaper.
While there, they apparently took an excursion to Glacier Park (now Glacier National Park), about 100 miles to the north of Choteau. I’m guessing that the Model A in the photo above (taken within the park) was the nephew’s car.
Here’s a photo taken from the Summit in Glacier Park. Feel free to indulge in some car spotting – Other than the Model A in the distance, these are far too old for me to readily identify.
Here’s another picture from the summit. I’m not positive, but the car in the background on the right could be Mr. Emerick’s Packard.
Ultimately, the family made it safely back to Akron. Alas, there are no surviving relatives to tell me more about this trip, so I know nothing about whether the Packard experienced any mechanical issues (my guess is no). Billy died in 1989, while Marguerite died in 2006. Unfortunately, I did not discover these fascinating photos until after she died, but I hope you find them as interesting as do I.
What a great story! I suspect that the old Packard may have been substantially less than the cost of a new Ford when the old guy bought it. Those things used a lot of gas and parts were surely expensive, and as you note 6 years old was an eternity back then. But what a great choice for the guy who understood machinery. It would be interesting to learn how long he kept the old Packard on the road.
It is a shame that nobody kept a journal about the trip, or that the oral memories were not passed down.
As for car spotting in the parking lot photo, the first fully visible car to the right is a 1935 Ford.
I wonder if he knew the car’s history. If it had been owned by a railroad VIP it likely would’ve been maintained in-house to a high standard.
This sounds like quite an adventure. It would be interesting to know how many weeks they were traveling.
He chose quite well with the Packard. Some cars and pickups are simply more resistant to the scourge of age.
My first thought about Mr. Emerick driving was perhaps he had had enough time on trains in his career! And misspelled names happen frequently for some of us, even easy six-lettered names.
Must have been a really slow news day if there’s an article about someone’s uncle coming for a visit!
Ah, the days before breathless 24 hour news cycles and journalism by press release. There are still mildly interesting things happening in local communities but nobody is there to report on them and nobody will pay to read them.
And there’s the problem of reporting on a trip before you go so that your house will be cleaned out when you get home. It was a different world.
There have long been criminals who read the society papers for information on the comings and goings of likely victims. Herbert Asbury writes about this in his most well known book, “The Gangs of New York”. But the method has been around far longer than that.
It is still customary in some small town newspapers to have a Society column. The tiny farming community in Iowa where my mother was from to this day reports on such things as who took a trip to Storm Lake or Leech Lake or Lake Okaboji or Minnesota or even Chicago fer cryin’ out loud!
Those newspaper clipping seem unimaginable to me too. I’d be creeped out if I found out the newspaper was detailing my personal travels, and I’d never think of submitting it myself and would want to know who did. Did anyone not already aware of this trip (i.e. the Emericks’ family and friends) care about this? Why would all of Akron want to know?
Those society page listings were the Social Media of their day. People would put all kinds of stuff in there — things like “Mrs. Johnson at 422 Maple St. was in bed with the flu last weekend, but she’s glad to report that she feels better now.” Frequently people would include news that relatives were visiting, or that they held a dinner party, etc. For historical research, it’s all rather amusing, and provides for great nuggets of information.
Yes, the text of that second story is very familiar: “Sunday they visited the Gibson dam and enjoyed the experienced greatly.”
The small town papers in Minnesota often opened local stories with a list of attendees and ended with “A good time was had by all.” I believe Garrison Keillor and Lake Woebegone helped memorialize the phrase.
Well into the 1970s, our small-town newspaper was still publishing the names of local residents who had been admitted to the hospital.
Wedding announcements were another big deal – down to the type of material the bride used on her dress, how many attendants she had, how their dresses matched hers, where the reception was held, and who had catered it (to give everyone else an idea of how much the family had been able to spend on the wedding).
Another local favorite was the divorce column – it listed all of the divorces granted by the county for that month, and helpfully included the date the marriage license had originally been granted, so readers could calculate how long it had lasted.
My local newspaper, the “Dundalk Herald” thrives on stories just like this, and has done so for decades. Literally my neighbors on the next farm have 2 friends over for a drunken bridge night and it merits a paragraph.
The ennui of small town life produces strange artifacts.
What a trip, and what a car! Too bad the photos didn’t come with notes. I’ve actually been looking through some notes my mother MADE me take on our trip out west in 1980. It’s mostly a list of old cars I saw and sarcastic observations of a 13 year old.
Anyway, to do a little car spotting at Glacier park I see a nice 1935 Ford coupe 2nd from the right, then a 1936 Ford sedan 5th from the right. The older car further back looks like a 3-window coupe and all Model A’s were 5-windows. The roof is a bit square in profile, so I’ll guess 1930 Dodge on that one.
You’re right about the Model A – Ford never officially made a three-window coupe. There are lots out there, of course, but they are all custom-made conversions.
The 1930 Packard they traveled in was the Series 740 Body Style No. 416 five passenger Club Sedan. Identifiers are the larger headlights with the crest forms and the hood vent doors. The side-mounted spares and free-standing trunk were options. Factory price was $3,750. No known production numbers for individual body styles but Series 740 total production was 6,200 cars.
The 1930 Seventh Series Custom Eight Series 740 with the 140.5″ wheelbase was powered by the larger of the two straight eight engines Packard produced: 384.8 c.i. 106 hp. compared to the Standard Eight Series 726 & 733 engine 319.2 ci (known as the 320 to Packard folks).
By 1936, this 1930 Packard would have had very little resale value but what a great car to take a cross-country trip in!
Even though they noted model years by then, Packard kept up the “series” designations right to the end. In later years the series updates aligned with model years though. Also, Packard didn’t issue a Thirteenth Series due to superstitions involving that number (is this still a thing? We’ll find out later this year when Apple issues, or doesn’t issue, the iPhone 13).
Although nobody in the auto biz uses “series” designations of this sort anymore, cars do seem to get updated now whenever the updates are ready, with new models arriving all year long. Especially at Tesla, where upgrades happen at seemingly random times, announced by a tweet.
Wow, what a remarkable chronicle of this trip. I can’t imagine the advance planning required for a cross-country trip in the 1930s. Things that we take for granted now certainly weren’t a sure bet back then.
And I’m fascinated by Mr. Emerick’s choice of an older Packard. I agree that he likely had an appreciation of fine machinery – and in that context his choice makes sense. Thanks for posting all of this!
Indeed. While not unheard of in the thirties, this isn’t the Griswald’s loading up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to head out to Wally World. Travel by train definitely would have been the preferred method to get from Akron to LA and San Francisco. It’s even more odd when one considers that Mr. Emerick had worked for the railroad his entire life.
OTOH, Route 66 certainly had plenty of places to assist the cross-country auto traveler, including lodging and maintenance requirements. Obviously, speed was not a priority and the group chose a much more leisurely pace for their journey.
A minor note. The lamps on the fenders would have been parking lights, not turn signals, which didn’t become optional on Packards until 1942, according to the Standard Catalog. Everyone used hand signals then. Most cars just had a single, small brake/tail light on the left fender; two tail lights were the mark of a deluxe car.
Even after some cars started getting turn signals, drivers were sometimes given citations for failing to use hand signals, since the traffic regulations hadn’t been updated.
A 1930 car, even when new, would have done well to get 500 miles to a quarts of oil (piston rings improved a great deal between the Thirties and the Fifties) and it would be fun to know how many gallons of oil the family had to add on the trip!
The disc wheels must have been a rare option.
During WW I, the railroads wouldn’t ship autos, so a group from my ancestral town in NC took the train to Flint and drove at least 4 Buicks home in a convoy. My 30 y.o. grandfather Ralph went, buying one for himself and another for his parents. My 19 y.o. grandmother, then sort of courting another Ralph, who’d gone in the army (I have the postcard he sent her when he landed in France), went with them, properly chaperoned of course. Until she had a stroke at 90, she was always up for any trip, if only so she could brag about the virtues of North Carolina to the natives.
The trip was during the winter, and sometimes they had to wait until night for the dirt roads to freeze. The open cars had just side curtains to keep out the cold and rain. I wish I knew more details, like the route they took. My grandparents didn’t marry until Oct 1919, “to the surprise of their friends,” the newspaper said. The other Ralph became one of the town’s richest men, though my grandfather prospered despite heart problems.
The disc wheels were a fairly popular option. Every advertisement for the 1930 models shows either disc or spoked wheels on the featured Packard. Judging by the 1931 brochure, however, “artillery” style wheels were available at least through that year.
I’m going to go against the grain here and say that a well-maintained (which was highly likely) six year old Packard was not very much aged, and a fairly pragmatic choice for a trip like this.
The classic big cars of the teens and twenties like Packard, Cadillac and Locomobile were built like tanks, or trucks, and were extremely rugged and long-lived. They were sought after by two truck operators and such who used them to two even trucks and buses like the one below. Many also were converted into early RVs and such.
Their wear parts were so overbuilt and understressed that wear was slow, and any part could be repaired or overhauled readily.
There were folks who were picking these up for peanuts back in the 1940s and such, and keeping them running was not at all hard. Most of these luxury cars led very pampered first lives, immaculately maintained and not used much.
The guy knew what he was doing, and picked well. I’m sure the big Packard served him well. It was not like taking a 6 year old worn-out Ford or Chevy on a long trip.
I love these old time travelogues. We get a glimpse into how it was to traverse t country. My grandparents bout a 1936 Plymouth new. Four of their five daughters, my mother being number four, learned to drive on this car. My mother could change a flat without a thought to it. Interestingly, one our children went on road trips with us in the 1980’s, i also had them document their journey. No electronic toys until night time. They had to look out and see what was going on. Starting and ending odometer readings had to be recorded aw swell as, where we lodged, what we visited and their comments. Each child three-ring binder had archival pages to accommodate picture postcards. DARN! They had to learn while having fun!
That must have been an adventure of a lifetime for them all – thanks for sharing.
My grandparents, with their three children (incluidng my mother, then 15), made the trip from Boston to Calgary and back, also in 1936. Their car was a 1934 Buick. I have no photos handy, but my mother’s travel diary listed memorable details. Such as using their glasses to hold handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths in an effort to deal with the dust from the dry dirt roads. And my grandfather’s efforts finding someone to grease the car, more than a few times. As all such adventures are, it was a memorable trip. And only in part because my mother would meet one of her cousin’s friends and neighbours – whom she would marry 8 years later.
Great srory! Thank you.