(first posted 4/24/2015) It’s supposed to be station wagon week here at CC, but so far, most all I have seen is a bunch of long-roofed metal sedans. Why have we not seen a real wagon? You know, the kind in which you send your driver to pick guests up at the station to bring them back to your horse farm in the countryside for a weekend of genteel leisure. The kind of leisure that involves Irish setters and lots of highballs. Well, we have one today.
It was, of course, the steel station wagon that brought that body style into sync with the modern era in which it became the kind of car bought by ordinary people. Before the 1949 Plymouth Suburban, the station wagon had evolved much more slowly than the rest of autodom, varying not all that much from the Depot Hack body on a Model T. Or, for that matter, the one powered by old Dobbin after being fueled by a bag of oats. A body of furniture-grade hardwood that was sawed, glued, screwed, sanded and varnished, then plunked on a passenger car frame. For starters, they were usually the most expensive model in a given line, and not by a little.
And then there was that maintenance.
I have never owned an old wooden speedboat. At one time, that was one of my life goals, but I have moved on. And the thought of maintaining one of those beautiful brutes is one of the main reasons. In much of the country, a car that sees regular use probably sees just about as much water in a year as a boat (at least a boat on a lake in one of the northern states). Wood and water just don’t go together that well, so annual applications of sandpaper, elbow grease and marine varnish were necessary to keep these
looking like this degrading as slowly as possible.
Would this be the prewar equivalent of today’s Lexus SUV? In some ways yes, but not in others. These wood station wagons were never high-volume models, especially so at Packard, where this was not even shown in the 32-page brochure (which is worth a read, and can be found here). While a Packard, the 110 was the, um, practical Packard. We have previously covered Packard’s first foray into the popular-priced market with the 1937 Packard Six (CC here), and this car was an updated version of the same model. Starting in 1940, the Six was renamed as the 110, in order to fit better within Packard’s model lineup that went upwards through the 120, 160 and the big 180.
Packard built only a few hundred 110 station wagons out of a total 110 production of over 62,000 cars. I guess this was one way to own a coachbuilt car for the price of a Buick. Or even an Oldsmobile, which seems to have been Packard’s target for the 110 according to some of its sales materials (which can be read in their entirety here).
Packard had, by 1940, positioned itself as a solid player in the medium price range. George Christopher had been brought in as Vice President of Manufacturing in the mid ’30s in order to make this happen. As a former production man at Buick and Pontiac, volume production of medium priced cars was what he knew, and what he believed would be necessary for Packard to survive. It is hard to dispute that the eight-cylinder 120 and the Six/110 probably did pull Packard through the Great Depression, which had even much larger concerns like Studebaker on the ropes. Packard trumpeted these cars as the results of its Four Year Plan to modernize the company and its products. There was probably a need to hurry, because a Five Year Plan would likely have sounded way too much like Soviet Communism, which would probably not have pulled in a lot of buyers in the demographic that Packard sought.
These cars were not involved with one of Christopher’s production moves which would eventually come back to haunt Packard–the 1940 decision to subcontract body construction to Briggs Manufacturing. Christopher had no way of knowing that Chrysler would buy Briggs in 1953, forcing Packard to come up with a substitute source of bodies on fairly short notice. But in 1940, Packards would benefit from Briggs’ experience in building all-steel bodies. But apart from the steel-bodied volume models, the small number of wooden bodies would continue to be sourced from elsewhere.
The contract for wooden bodies would be switched in the middle of the 1940 model year. Early cars in the Eighteenth Series (Packard would not adopt actual model years until well after the Second World War) were constructed by J. T. Cantrell of Huntington Station, New York, which had supplied Packard with wooden bodies since 1937. The Cantrell bodies were of mahogany framing with either white maple or yellow birch veneer panels. Later models were the products of the Hercules Body Company of Evansville, Indiana, which supplies a different look of mahogany panels set into an ash framework. This car looks to be one of the 322 Hercules- bodied cars built in 1940. Both of these companies are examined in quite a bit of detail at Coachbuilt.com.
Most of us have seen those sad pictures of the long-derelict Packard Plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, including that iconic overhead walkway that connected two of the buildings. But have we ever seen pictures of that part of the factory when it was fresh and new and something to brag about? I get the same feeling of melancholy looking at the old factory photos as I get in looking at this car, as the 1940 model would be the last new design of Packard station wagon that could hold it’s head high at the country club. The postwar “Station Sedan” (a curious combination of mostly steel with a wooden bustle) and the Studebaker-sourced wagon of Packard’s final two years were decidedly lacking in the kind of “old money” appeal that had been been Packard’s thing for so long.
With 1940 bringing a new model, it would have been a good year to buy a Packard. Actually, 1940 would have been a good year to buy almost any new car, given that new vehicle production would be suspended very early in the 1942 model year and not resumed until late 1945. The folks who chose a Packard in 1940 chose well, as Packard was still a very, very well-built car.
This particular Packard must have met its buyer’s expectations, because the car remains in the family of the original owner all these decades later. It is true that every car has a story, but this one undoubtedly has quite a few to tell. I would have loved the chance to “ask the man who owns one”, but that man (or woman) was busy with a steakburger and milkshake and did not come out while I was photographing their car.
This is one of those cars that just teems with little touches that are worthy of note. Piano hinges on the doors?
Spare tire mounted on the back of the front seat?
A fascinating little handle on the very un-Packard-like hood ornament? All here, and among the little facets of this gem that grabbed my attention.
It is not every day that any of us comes across a prewar Woody Wagon that is largely original, and a super-low production Packard at that. It’s kind of funny that I found this one at the Steak n Shake a block away from the McDonalds where I found the 1937 Packard Six a couple of years earlier. Of course, with the wagon being the much more expensive car when new, the upgrade in burger joints should be expected. I can tell you that this car made my day when I stumbled across it, and hopefully it will brighten your day as well.