Packard Twelve Coupe

Packard: The Majestic Twelve

It has long been regarded as ironic that the greatest creations of the classic era came during the depths of the recession. Although the company was in excellent financial health, Packard was deeply concerned about the devastating effect of the Depression on sales in the fine car segment. Packard’s response was to redouble its efforts, meeting the threat from Cadillac and Lincoln head on with the new Twin Six and a range of spectacular custom bodies.

Packard’s Twelve was, in many ways, the signature car of the classic era; it was the top-of-the-line offering from America’s leading manufacturer of fine cars. It was the Brooks Brothers suit of the time: a conservative car with finely tailored lines, elegant appointments, a refined chassis, and a whisper-quiet, twelve-cylinder engine.

In a sense, Packard’s Twelve was never meant to be. In fact, the car’s history goes back to the Cord L-29 and the great Miller-engined front drive racecars. Packard’s management was intrigued with the idea of front drive and commissioned the construction of a prototype. A decision was made to develop a twelve-cylinder engine for this new car, as the shorter length of a V12 – compared with Packard’s venerable inline eight – allowed more flexibility in packaging the front drive chassis.

Extensive testing revealed weaknesses in the front drive chassis’ design, and anticipated development costs soared. Meanwhile, Cadillac had ignited the multi-cylinder race with their exquisite new sixteen- and twelve-cylinder models, and Packard’s dealerships were feeling the pressure.

The solution, born of necessity, created one of the defining models of the classic era: install the new twelve-cylinder engine in Packard’s proven Deluxe Eight chassis. The result was christened the Twin Six, in honor of Packard’s first V12 introduced more than 15 years earlier.

The eleventh series is often considered to be the ultimate Packard Twelve. It was the last car with the classic swept fender lines, before the advent of the streamlined look. The front ensemble is truly beautiful, with a graceful “vee”-shaped radiator and matching headlights and fender lights. And the ’34 dash is a jeweled work of art, surrounded by rich burled walnut trim, and the first to incorporate a built-in radio.

The vast majority of Packard Twelves were delivered with one of many factory bodies fitted. Available in every conceivable configuration, open or closed, formal or sporting, two doors or four, it is hard to imagine anyone needing something else.

Packard’s clients, however, were used to the special things in life. A new Packard was an utterly unattainable thing of beauty for even the moderately well-to-do. Only the truly wealthy could consider a new Packard Twelve. However, there were still some for whom a production Twelve lacked the cachet and exclusivity they craved – and it was for these discerning clients that Packard created the Individual Custom line.

Crafted by the leading artists of the time – Dietrich, LeBaron, and Brunn – they were built in tiny numbers. While an extensive folio of colors and fabrics were available, for these cars, anything was possible, from body modifications to special materials and finishes. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most successful of these cars, were those built by Dietrich, Inc.

Dietrich, Inc.

One of the most respected designers of the classic era, Ray Dietrich was also one of the most influential.

Like his future partner, Dietrich began his career as a designer at Brewster in New York. More than just a coachbuilder, Brewster was the Harrods of the trade, catering to America’s leading families, many of whom had patronized Brewster’s for generations in what was known as the carriage trade.

Young, bright and talented, Dietrich’s skills were put to good use at Brewster. As a young man, however, he dreamed of more – he wanted his own company. He developed a fast friendship with Tom Hibbard, another Brewster designer, and together they began to spend their free time planning a venture together.

Unfortunately, one day in 1920 Brewster learned of the plan and summarily dismissed the pair. Forced to implement their plan sooner than expected, they were long on ideas but short on money. They decided to spend what little they had on a first class location, and soon they were operating at 2 Columbus Circle, a prestigious New York City address that also housed the design offices of Fleetwood.

They named the new company LeBaron Carrossiers, because Hibbard was something of a Francophile, and they both agreed that the name sounded sophisticated. One of the interesting things about the new venture is that they chose to concentrate on design and didn’t even have a fixed relationship with a coachbuilding firm.

After a slow start, projects began to be awarded to the talented pair, but it was proving difficult to earn a living without the profits of body building. At about this time, the owners of the Briggs Body Company made a proposal – they would trade shares and merge the companies. In effect, LeBaron would become the design arm of Briggs, while LeBaron would have the control – and profits – that came from building bodies. The deal was consummated in 1923.

Just before the Briggs deal, Hibbard and Dietrich were approached by Ralph Roberts, a talented designer who wanted a job with LeBaron. In the end, they decided not only to hire him but make him a partner as well, though his responsibility would be for business management, as the firm already had two designers.

At about the same time, Tom Hibbard went to Paris to look into the feasibility of establishing a European base of operations for LeBaron Inc. While there, he formed a friendship with fellow American designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin, and the two decided to create their own Parisian firm, and Hibbard and Darrin was born. Hibbard cabled Dietrich to give him the bad news.

In the meantime, Ray Dietrich had met Edsel Ford at the New York Auto Salon. The two hit it off together, and what was to become a lifelong friendship was born. In the meantime, Lincoln became LeBaron’s biggest customer, designing production bodies as well as limited production series customs for Lincoln chassis.

Eventually, Edsel Ford decided he wanted to integrate the design and coachbuilding business more closely with Ford’s operations, and he encouraged Murray, Ford’s largest body building firm, to approach Hibbard and Dietrich.

Roberts didn’t want to take the step, concerned about their partners at Briggs. While Dietrich seemed to share his concerns, after a visit to Murray in Detroit, he decided that he couldn’t ignore the opportunity and cabled Roberts to tell him that he was leaving LeBaron to form Dietrich Inc., which would in effect become the design arm of Murray with Dietrich owning 50% of the company.

There, his smart and elegant designs attracted the attention of Packard management, and as a result, Packard became one of Dietrich’s best customers. Lacking an in-house styling department, Packard incorporated Dietrich design cues in later production cars. In fact, after 1933, all open Packards carried Dietrich body tags, recognizing the influence of Dietrich’s work.

Nevertheless, Dietrich Inc. still built a few custom bodies for the senior Packards, and these special cars have come to epitomize the ultimate in classic styling. Every line is exquisite, starting with the graceful v-windshield, continuing with the Dietrich trademark beltline, and finishing with a superb and elegantly tailored roofline and tail.

160 hp, 445 cu. in. side-valve V12 engine with two barrel Stromberg downdraft carburetor featuring automatic cold-start, three-speed synchromesh transmission with reverse, and shaft drive with hypoid rear axle. Front suspension via semi-elliptic leaf springs and beam axle, rear suspension via semi-elliptic leaf springs and live axle, and four wheel adjustable vacuum-assisted mechanically-actuated drum brakes. Wheelbase: 148"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Ron Kimball

Gallery: Packard Twelve Coupe