In the summer of 1955, Roger Gross and his cousin Ron Gross both purchased used 1952 Packard Clippers. This narrative is based upon numerous emails and discussions with my father, Roger Gross, over the past few years. Roger explained:
One “after work” project that was a lot of fun was building the “twin” Packards that my cousin Ron Gross and I owned.
I had graduated from high school in 1954. By 1955, I was working at the dealership and was taking classes at the University of Toledo. That summer, Ron and I both purchased used 1952 Packard Clippers and decided to customize them. Both cars were four-door, middle of the road sedans. All makes of cars were pretty plain at that time. It was very popular to do some customizing so that you could have an individualized car.
A very clean 1952 Packard sedan had been traded in, which took my eye. It was a plain gray but it had the biggest straight eight engine that Packard built. This was unusual, since this engine was normally only found in the largest, most expensive models. I bought this car and immediately began “improving” it.
With the help of Uncle Ted, the first improvement was a paint and body job.
First, we took off the hood and trunk ornaments. Then, we sanded and prepared the body for paint. I helped Uncle Ted with sanding. Ted was very particular, so he did all of the painting. We painted my Clipper fire engine red with a black top. We then changed the grille and bumpers to those used on the dressed up models. The parts were interchangeable from other models. We installed big wide white wall tires and full wheel covers. As far as parts went, I sometimes scavenged parts off of the junk cars on the lot, bought new parts or found used parts to install. Since I worked at the dealership, parts were at least purchased at a discount.
Now that my car was looking better, we went to work on the engine. We upped the compression (horsepower) by machining the engine block and changing the cylinder head. There was a local shop that did the machining work. He had a mobile unit that used portable machines to work on engine blocks. The machine would attach to the top of the engine block and was a very fine grinder. It didn’t really take off much material, but created a flat, clean and true surface. This made for the best seal between the cylinder head and the engine block. The cylinder head was only a couple inches thick and it was common for them to warp or leak between the head and the block. This could cause severe damage to the engine so the fit had to be good.
We then changed out the cylinder head. Packard made several interchangeable heads for this engine. These heads either increased or decreased the cubic displacement of the combustion chamber. The cubic displacement is the size of the engine internally. The compression ratio is the ratio between the volume of the cylinder and the combustion chamber. The higher the compression ratio, the more horsepower was obtained. I pushed this to the point that I had to run high test gasoline. Next, we replaced the two-barrel carburetor with a four-barrel. The four-barrel provided lots more power! You doubled the amount of fuel going to the combustion chamber.
Ron and his father (Uncle Ted) began working on his car at about the same time.
Ron’s 1952 Packard had a mediocre engine in it. This was soon remedied. The dealership acquired a 1955 Packard that had been wrecked. We had bought it from the insurance company for salvage. We put the 1955 engine and transmission in Ron’s car. The 1955 model had the same frame and frame rails as Ron’s 1952, so the engine and transmission fit right in. We left the V8 engine pretty much stock. The V8 was a brand new Packard design, so we didn’t know much about it yet. It did have the four barrel carburetor which was installed at the factory. We then dressed the car up as we had done to my car. When we were done, the cars were identical – almost! Ron’s car was painted a bright blue with a black top.
Of course we had to find out which car was the fastest.
Ron’s car was quicker off the line. Actually, much quicker than mine was. However, my car would catch him after about 80 MPH. The title for the fastest car passed back and forth. Then, whichever car came in last was worked on and improved so that it was first. It was never ending!
We didn’t really drag race that much, just from time to time. You had to find a long two lane straight away so you just went straight. Interstate 280 was newly opened, so that stretch worked very well. We didn’t get caught much, but we had a system in place so that if a cop saw us and pulled out, one person would turn left and one would turn right at the next intersection.
On a Packard, 120 MPH was almost straight down on the speedometer. I could get the needle past the straight down position and start creeping back up again. I’m not sure how accurate the speedometer was at that point, but it sure was fast. The car also did not have power brakes; it only had drum brakes. You really needed a lot of room to slow the car back down. If the brake drums heated up, the drum expanded and you lost all stopping power.
I went through a lot of transmissions in that car. Dad (Frank) and I would take the transmission apart and rebuild it. I’m sure they failed because we had increased the torque output of the engine so much. We finally got to the point that we went from an automatic transmission to a three speed manual transmission. I’m not sure why, but we had better luck with the manual transmission, maybe because there were no hydraulic clutch packs to slip.
There was a running joke that was started by my dad. After the weekend, he would sometimes ask me, “Well, how many park benches did you pay for this weekend?” Needless to say, we did pay for a few park benches around in the various communities, indirectly, through our speeding tickets.
My Uncle Chuck didn’t participate in the “twin” Packard project, but he did follow it with great interest.
A few years later, we had a Studebaker meeting in South Bend and he suggested we drive my car. The dealership paid for the gas. I guess he just wanted to see how my car ran.
We took the Ohio Turnpike and as we neared the Indiana line, another late model car and driver would pass and then slow down. I don’t know – it could have been someone that I had raced in Toledo, but I didn’t recognize the car. I would ease around him and then he would do it again. We both went through the Ohio tollbooth at the same time. He started messing around again. Chuck clamped down on his ever-present cigar and said something like “Let’s see what this thing will do!” Since we were between the tollbooths we didn’t figure we would see any law. He didn’t have to tell me twice! I floored it, as did the other car. No contest! We pulled away and just kept going. Chuck looked over and saw that the speedometer was bottomed out at 120. I think he bit the end off the cigar! Anyhow, we did get stopped in time for the Indiana tollbooth. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember him ever riding in that car again.
We kept the Packard for quite a while after Barbara and I got married. We finally sold it in the mid-1960s for a used 1962 Studebaker Lark station wagon. By then, we had four children and the station wagon was more practical. I drove the Packard for a long time – about ten years. Working on those cars was one of the best father and son experiences that we ever had. Ted and Dad did a lot of the work while Ron and I did as much as we could. As I look back, the four of us had done a lot of things together (like perch fishing), but this was the best and longest project we ever tackled.
(I would like to note that I often pressed my father for further details and stories about his 1952 Packard. His typical response was, “I plead the 5th”.)
The next installment is the series conclusion.
The cease in production of the Packard Motor Car brings the Packard era to an end at D. D. Gross Motor Sales. Click here to read the conclusion.