1932-1939 Packard Twelve

The history of the 1932-1939 Packard Twelve follows the competition of an era, the fight for the luxury-car market between Packard and Cadillac. Unfortunately, by the end of the Twelve's run, Cadillac had proven its dominance.

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A powerful V-12 engine made the 1934 Packard Twelve one of the fastest cars of its day.
A powerful V-12 engine made the 1934 Packard Twelve one
 of the fastest cars of its day. See more pictures of classic cars.

What could Packard have done after 1940 to prevent itself from being eclipsed by Cadillac as the luxury car of choice? Cadillac had inestimable advantages: a huge, rich corporation to bail it out when sales tumbled; massive transfusions of engineering and styling talent from the many-tentacled ganglia of General Motors; and a lot more money by half.

Still, Packard could have defended itself by continuing to build the Twelve. The lessons of history were staring Packard in the face at the time, but the men in charge paid no attention.

In 1915, Cadillac had made a powerful bid for engineering leadership by switching from four-cylinder cars to a V-8 -- a bold and challenging move. But within months, Packard countered by moving up from six- to twelve-cylinder engines.

The famous Twin Six trumped Cadillac's "King" with an "Ace," and for the next 10 years, as during the 15 years prior, Cadillac was never mentioned in the same breath as Packard.

Packard management failed to recall that lesson of history, or if they did, they rejected it. Had the firm continued building Twelves in the early 1940s -- after Cadillac had abandoned its own Twelve and Sixteen, leaving no multi-cylinder rival save for the lackluster Lincoln-Zephyr -- Packard would clearly have retained its reputation and image as America's premier automobile.

Then, after the war, Packard's peerless engineering staff could have put three decades of multi-cylinder experience to work building a modern, overhead-valve V-12, again trumping Cadillac's ohv V-8 introduced for 1949.

Imagine how people would have then felt about Packard and Cadillac! "You bought a V-8 when you could have a Packard Twelve?" That, and better styling than Packard settled for in 1948, would have made the difference.

Instead, money was wasted larding up the beautiful 1941-1947 Clipper, money that could have been better spent for that ohv V-12. Another right move for Packard would have been to make its first new postwar body style a hardtop, not a station wagon, of all things -- but that's another story.

Why did Packard drop the Twelve? Because Packard management in 1939 no longer viewed the product in the same way that Packard's management team had in 1929. President George Christopher, production mavens like Max Gilman, and numerous other transplants from mass-market companies, had revolutionized corporate thinking.

The Fourteenth Series 1936 Packard Twelves featured revised sheetmetal surrounding a more laid-back grille.
Fourteenth Series 1936 Packard Twelves featured
revised sheetmetal surrounding a laid-back grille.

Packard was geared for the middle-priced field, building hundreds of thousands of One Twentys and Sixes instead of tens of thousands of rich people's toys. That approach undoubtedly saved Packard in the 1930s -- and condemned it to a slow death after 1945.

Since we're dealing here with only eight model years and fewer than 6,000 cars, it's best to define what all the fuss is about. Maurice D. Hendry, New Zealand's top authority on Classic cars (capital "C," in the Classic Car Club of America sense), said it best years ago in The Packard Cormorant, the Packard Club magazine: "If you set out to design a luxury car that would have high performance, but be far quieter and smoother than a Duesenberg; that would rival the refinement of the Cadillac V-16, but be mechanically simpler; you would have your work cut out for a start.

"But if in addition you sought a car Europeans rated superior to the finest Old World contemporaries, you would face a monumental task. If you succeeded, you'd be able to congratulate yourself on a job uncommonly well done. Packard succeeded."

The Twelve was, manifestly, one of the fastest cars you could buy for the money (save for the Duesenberg). The multi-cylinder likes of Cadillac, Marmon, and Fierce-Arrow could probably nip a Packard Twelve in a close race, but as Warren Fitzgerald wrote of a 1934 model, "... no more than a handful of these more powerful cars were actually built or assembled in 1934, and anyone who bought a Packard Twelve could feel reasonably confident that few, if any, cars could challenge its title, 'Boss of the Road.'"

Fitzgerald's road test of a Victoria by Dietrich in Car Life gave 0-60 in 19.2 seconds and a standing quarter-mile in 21.5 seconds at 63 mph, which was going some for a car weighing nearly three tons as tested.

Experts are divided over what a Twelve could do. Documented evidence exists of cars with stock rear axles recording 90-95 mph; it's reasonable to assume that, with a high ratio, a model like a Speedster could nudge past 100 mph.

But we should remember, as C.A. Leslie, Jr., wrote, that the Twelve "was not intended as an expensive hot rod." The real gauge of its mettle was its overall performance. To that end let us quote the late John R. Bond, founder of Road & Track: "For my money give me a V-12 Packard every time -- a car, in my opinion, superior to the P.III [Phantom III] Rolls-Royce." Enough said?

The race toward multi-cylinder luxury cars began just before the Wall Street crash -- and probably wouldn't have started at all had the manufacturers known what was coming. But start it did.

Despite much derisive testimony to the contrary, Packard actually did contemplate a straight twelve, at least according to one former experimental engineer, Ralph Kellogg, who told Hendry that "I laid out the engine and most of the chassis changes required to accommodate it."

Packard knew a multi-cylinder Cadillac was coming, and its quickest response would have been a kind of inline double-six, based on its own excellent six-cylinder engines. Hendry surmised that crankshaft torsional problems, plus such an engine's extreme length, rendered the idea impractical.

Nonetheless, Packard photos do exist of a monster prototype with an immense hood, and stylist Werner Gubitz -- who sculpted most of Packard's golden-age classics, and was not a kidder -- turned out impressive renderings of a "straight twelve" body.

For the actual production V-12, engineering vice-president Jesse Gurney Vincent turned to chief engineer Clyde Paton and his crack team of technicians: chief production engineer J. R. Fergusson, chassis engineer E. R. Weiss, draftsman Ralph Kellogg, and stress engineer Walter Griswold. Under Griswold was young Forrest R. MacFarland, a brilliant but introverted engineer who would stay with Packard to the bitter end in 1956, and was responsible for continuing its noble engineering traditions after World War II.

To this illustrious cadre of in-house engineers was added a talented outsider, Cornelius W. Van Ranst, who was responsible for that other great Packard design impulse of the late 1920s, front-wheel drive. In the beginning, the Twelve was to have it.

Vincent's interest in it had been piqued by the Ruxtons and Cords running at the Indianapolis 500 and encouraged by retired racing driver Tommy Milton, a Packard engineering consultant. Milton's friend Van Ranst had developed the front-drive Cord L-29. Vincent had his doubts about front-wheel drive on a Packard, but the company's patrician president, Alvan Macauley, encouraged it by hiring Van Ranst personally to work up a design.

Paton recalled that the Van Ranst prototype had numerous problems: "We found it inferior (as to hill climbing and icy surfaces) to the rear-drive car. Also the engine incorporated a new design of hydraulic valve clearance automatic adjusters, which were giving trouble holding the valves open at high speeds."

Paton concluded they would need at least 60 percent of the weight over the front wheels to cure the traction problem, but that would have meant heavy steering (in non-power steering days) and rapid tire wear.

Van Ranst then left, though Paton later solved the valve problem and incorporated Cornelius's hydraulics in the production Twelve. The valve gear owed much to General Motors, being similar to that of the Oakland and Oldsmobile V-8s, and the valve silencers were adapted from the Cadillac V-16 the moment Packard got its hands on one in 1930.

This does not imply that the Twelve was a copy of anything else, because many of its features were new and unique. The 67-degree V-angle was greater than the old 60-degree Twin Six of 1916-1923, and, like modern multi-cylinder engines, used an out-of-step firing angle to reduce synchromesh vibrations and side valves to improve accessibility.

Its four main bearings and integrally cast block and crank were matched only by the Marmon Sixteen. The 445.5 cubic inches gave 160 horsepower, plus a mighty 322 pounds/feet torque, which peaked at only 1,400 rpm. The latter was responsible for the V-12's terrific takeoff, especially with low axle ratios (4.41:1 and 4.69:1 were standard for open and closed bodies, respectively, with 4.06 or 5.07 optional).

The rest of the spec sheet was classical Packard: a Packard Eight three-speed transmission with synchromesh on the top two gears and a vacuum servo-boosted clutch, hypoid rear axle, mechanical brakes, Bijur central chassis lubrication, and "Ride Control" adjustable shocks.

The Ride Control caused an unexpected contretemps, Kellogg told Maury Hendry, when initial Twelves reached the dealerships. The dashboard control button was a plunger device over which was an engraved plate reading: IN -- HARD .... OUT -- SOFT. "It was not long before Packard was flooded with angry letters," Kellogg said. "Col. Vincent had the wording changed to something more appropriate." (Will owners of Twelves please send photographs of this plaque so we can savor Packard's angst?)

Innovations for the new model included vacuum assist for the brakes, electric gas gauge, automatic clock, solenoid-operated starter switch, downdraft carburetion, and even an oil dipstick. Also new were "Packard Stabilizer" chassis vibration dampers in the front bumpers.

Clyde Paton, who engineered the system, noted at the time that the Stabilizer "is as simple and as certain as the heavy pole that holds the tight rope walker in balance. At each end of the bumper is a small weight supported between two sets of specifically designed springs in an oil tight housing .... The weights and springs are so designed that they are instantaneously and automatically brought into action to neutralize shocks reaching the car frame."

To follow the story with the 1932 Packard Twelve, continue on to the next page.

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