Look at this car. Don’t you think it’s absolutely perfect for wide, straight American interstate highways? You know, the kind of roads that require you to not steer at all, but just cruise at a steady speed, with the car gently cushioning you from the vagaries of the road. Well, I presumed so too, when I first saw it two years back.
I was the navigator in a rally organised by the Vintage & Classic Car Club of India and the car was this, the 1946 Packard Clipper. The route involved a stretch of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway – perfect for this car, I thought – followed by curvaceous stretches off the highway to Lonavla and beyond. I was in for a surprise, looking at the way the Packard handled the uphill climb and the rather sharp and plentiful curves. At the hands of its skilful driver-owner – who shall not be named here at his own request – the immense bulk of the Clipper and the fact that it was softly sprung was soon forgotten, as the Packard simply went about its job without any fuss. It was a revelation of sorts.
Here I was back again with the Clipper on Mumbai’s roads, now in the driver’s seat and coming to terms with the fact that stereotypes need not necessarily be true. For one, an American car need not necessarily be an automatic, as a manual gearbox can be equally good in terms of smoothness and gearshift quality. Two, the size and age of a classic car need not be forbidding to drive on our city roads. Three, American cars can be good looking. Four, refinement, build quality and reliability are not attributes of expensive European cars alone. Yes, all my biases went for a toss after experiencing the Packard Clipper.
The Packard marque, before the 1930s, was quite prestigious. Maybe not at par with fellow-Americans, Pierce-Arrow or Duesenberg, but it was premium, nonetheless. Unlike Fords, Packards were for the wealthy, and there was a reason for it. These cars were built to last and a lot of effort and quality went into manufacturing, to make them extremely durable and reliable. Which is why they were not cheap. But due to the Great Depression and economic circumstances, Packard had to consciously manufacture cars for the mass-market, yet they retained their attributes in these machines as well, while still producing premium models. The Series 21 Clipper was one such mass-market model that emerged out of their factory in Detroit, under extremely difficult circumstances. It was unveiled in 1941, but when America went to war, Packard’s production facilities were diverted to war use. By the way, Packard produced the extremely complex and brilliant Rolls-Royce Merlin Aero engines and did a better job in churning them out in numbers than what Rolls could ever do. After the war, there was a huge pent-up demand for cars and manufacturers were doing all they could to satisfy the hungry American consumer. While giants like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler virtually controlled steel supplies, an independent car maker like Packard had to purchase it in the open market at extremely high prices, as steel supply was extremely low.
Yet they managed to churn out small numbers of the Clipper, a fraction of what the market demanded. Of the 15,892 Clippers produced, only 1,685 units were of this coupe body style. In Packard parlance, they were called club sedans. But the sheer size of the car doesn’t give you the idea that steel was hard to come by, right? There’s so much of the stuff used, no wonder there was a shortage!
The launch of the Clipper was another watershed event for Packard. Though I think it looks brilliant today, in those days, the bulbous shape of the Clipper was considered too radical for a car that wore the Packard badge. For instance, the stylised corporate grille was just an excuse compared to previous Packards. The swoopy rear was, well, too swoopy, especially for those with conventional tastes, used to sharp, booted rear ends. And in retrospect, the Clipper was blamed for Packard’s demise – Packard did not have any other conventional model to offer its customers with conservative tastes – even with later cars, as general car design was proceeding towards bulbous, rounded shapes. As an aside, the dies of the Series 18 and 19, the Packards that preceded the Clipper, were given away to the Russians as a goodwill gesture by the then president of the US, F D Roosevelt. So the Clipper was fighting a lone battle for Packard.
The poor thing. Today, I can say all that fuss about the Clipper was uncalled for. Its silhouette is so unique, and combined with its almost six-metre length, it has presence. And inside, with two living room sofas, there is enough space to fit three people on each with great comfort. And there’s plenty of headroom too. The dash is an expanse of wood-finished metal and is laid out with large switches for various functions (‘Fog Lite’, ‘Cigarette Lite’, ‘Map Lite’, ‘Fresh Air’, etc) which won’t be out of place on those ancient airconditioners we had in another era. The view from the driver’s side is unique. Both the split front and rear windshield seem disproportionately small to the size of the car. The hood stretches a long way ahead and is actually intimidating for a person who’s going to drive it for the first time. To start, all you need to do is depress the accelerator pedal, but in this car, for the sake of reliability, the electrics have been changed to 12V from 6V and a starter button has been added. Press the button and the pedal just so slightly and the Clipper’s inline six hisses to life. Yes, it doesn’t sound like an internal combustion engine at all, more like one of those hybrid units in the Toyota Prius or something like that.
Displacing 3993cc, the sublime six-cylinder engine develops 105 bhp (not much, but surprisingly sufficient) and is mated to a three-speed manual gearbox, with a column-mounted shifter. The H-pattern shift,features the reverse where traditionally the first gear is. In fact, the H-shift is one of the many firsts to Packard’s credit, when the firm introduced it way back in 1899 (might as well tell you now that it was Packard that first replaced the tiller handle with a steering wheel in 1901 on one of the first ancestors of the automobile!). Topped by a neat Bakelite sphere, the gear lever clicks into place so beautifully that if you muck it, you seriously shouldn’t be driving manual cars at all.
There is adequate torque to power the rear wheels of the Clipper and it moves with a grace that comes only with a rich history of building fine cars. For instance, even when the car moves from standstill in first gear, it just glides and doesn’t jerk forward. Second is extremely elastic and you can crawl in it if need be, and it’s virtually the same in third, only you get to relax and drive it like an automatic. You don’t miss the absence of a fourth gear or overdrive because the Clipper came with something known as Econo-Drive as an option. When you reach 22 mph (or 35 kph), to activate it, all you need to do is lift your foot off the accelerator for a moment and place it back again – this will make the car hum along at overdrive-like, low revs. Incidentally, Econo-Drive works even at speeds as low as 25 kph. And if you are in a hurry to overtake, forget downshifting, just put pedal to metal!
It may be difficult to steer or park in extremely, extremely low speeds, but once it’s on the move, the steering lightens up substantially (and surprisingly, I must admit) and it’s a breeze to drive. No wonder those curving road sections it took on during the rally didn’t faze either driver or car. The Clipper, as mentioned earlier, is softly sprung and does a great job in keeping what’s below the rubber where it should be. It gets a coil spring setup in the front and leaf springs at the rear, and rides on 15” rubber. And combined with its long 120” (3,048 mm) wheelbase, the ride is almost luxurious, something you would see only in today’s E- or S-Class Merc perhaps. All this in a mass-produced car from the late 1940s. Those Packards were really special, weren’t they? To re-confirm, as the advertising tagline for Packard went, all you have to do is ‘Ask the man who owns one.