by J. M. Fenster, photographs by Roy D. Query; Automobile Quarterly Publications; 208 pages.
“Emil Fikar was not exactly a gangster,” J. M. Fenster begins her essay on the 1929 Packard Speedster 626 Runabout, “but he did live in Chicago in the Twenties. And he did sell a prohibited beverage.” What Fikar sold was near beer, that dispiriting concoction whose other name, 3.2 beer, reflects its meager alcohol content. But near beer was just as illegal as whiskey during Prohibition, and Fikar “did require a car that would outrun anything a sheriff might drive.” To this end Fikar went to Buresch Motor Sales on Ogden Avenue one day in 1928 and asked about the new 626 Speedster, the one Packard’s publicity people were offering to “the select few who frankly love the hum of racing car power throbbing to be unleashed at a toe-touch.”
“This may or may not recall the essential Emil Fikar,” writes Fenster, but he certainly was happy with his automobile. These Speedsters were built to order—none ever saw the inside of a showroom—and Fikar picked up his new car that autumn at the Packard Proving Grounds outside Detroit. At Fikar’s toe-touch the car hit 110 miles per hour (10 mph above the promised top end), and the new owner paid out the five-thousand-dollar base price and an extra ten for the deluxe hood ornament.
Eugene Fikar fades from history now, thirty years go by, and a car enthusiast named Montgomery Young comes across a Packard roadster derelict in a Lake Forest, Illinois, garage. Knowledgeable friends told Young to beware: the company had never built a car that had so large an engine compartment over such a small wheelbase (the car’s regal snout took up fully half of the 126.5-inch wheelbase). But Young bought it anyway, although he, too, had his doubts about the car’s authenticity. Then one day he spotted the dealer’s name on the identification plate on the fire wall. Buresch Motor Sales was still in business, and Mr. Buresch immediately remembered the car. In fact, he still had the bill of sale.
What Young had, it turned out, was one of just seventy-four speedsters sold on the 626 chassis. Today it’s the only survivor. Five thousand manhours of work have brought it back to a condition that Fikar would approve of, and it has come to rest at the Henry Ford Museum, not far from where the original owner pushed it to a screaming 110 miles per hour sixty years ago. This Packard is one of thirty-two in Packard: The Pride ; it appears both in the photograph a proud Fikar took the moment he got it home and in Roy D. Query’s modern views. In an age when good color photography is commonplace, Query’s pictures are spectacular. The cars have all been driven to sympathetic settings, and they more than hold their own against sunsets and seascapes and great big country houses.
The first Packard in the book is the first Packard: the Model A Single-Seat Roadster that James Packard drove out of his shop on November 6, 1899. The 1,610,000 Packard cars that followed set a standard of quality—subdued, powerful, sculpturally superb—that even the great, flashy contenders like Duesenberg couldn’t eclipse. The example in this book mirror the history of the company from its birth until its failure in the 1950s, but what distinguishes this volume from other good automotive books is the care the author has taken to pay attention not only to the cars but to the people who drove them.
In her brisk, amusing text Fenster tells of Packard owners ranging from George Patton to King Faisal II of Iraq. Fenster is perfectly at home with technical matters—of Fikar’s Speedster, for instance, she tells us “the Custorm Eight engine was fitted with a highcompression cylinder head and a highlift camshaft, which raised the output from 106 bhp at 3200 rpm to 130 bhp”—but we learn at least as much about what kind of car the Packard was from the glimpses of the likes of Mrs. Glenn Stewart, who had her serenely majestic 1926 LeBaron Landaulet equipped with a safe. When Mrs. Stewart stopped by the bank, the tellers came to her.