20 September 2012

The Packard from Hershey : How sweet it is

Bordering on three American States - New York, Vermont and Maine - Quebec has a long-standing love affair with the antique automobile that seems to only have deepened with time. So it’s no surprise that the province has the largest vintage car club in Canada, the VAQ (Voitures anciennes du Québec), established in 1974, which organizes countless events throughout the sunny season and offers its members an elegant 48-page monthly magazine that has never skipped a beat in the past 38 years.

During the last weekend of each July, the city of Granby, southeast of Montreal, plays host to the biggest outdoor judged car show in Canada, organized by the VAG (Voitures anciennes de Granby) and often referred to as the “Mini-Hershey of Quebec” with its 30,000 attendees, 3,000-plus cars in the field and huge flea market.

Located in Montreal East is the largest antique, collector and muscle car dealership in the country, John Scotti Classic Cars, displaying some 200 vehicles in its gigantic showroom. And that’s not counting numerous private collections scattered across the province, many comprising hundreds of rare beauties, among myriad clubs and events such as concours, rallies and marque meets of all kinds. In a word (or two), to quote Barry Meguiar : We’re CAR CRAZY here, too!

Over the years, there have been visionaries who believed in the importance of showcasing the history of the antique automobile by creating their own museums for all to enjoy. One such individual was a man by the name of Maxime Choinière of the aforementioned city of Granby. Mr. Choinière passed away in the early ’80s and his legacy, sadly, ended on the auction block. But his collection was so substantial that it took two auctions to dispose of the entire lot: one in 1986 for the contents of the museum itself; and a second in 1993 for parts by the thousands and the remaining unrestored vehicles that he had accumulated during a lifetime of relentless devotion. This is where the story of our Packard begins.

Claude Daoust was one of the last bidders in attendance on that memorable Friday the 13th of 1993, holding in his hand card number 113. On that day, a wealthy American collector bought off the entire lot lock, stock and barrel, which it is said he schlepped back to the States in no fewer than 45 full-size vans. All but for one car that was spared his buying frenzy: a Packard 640 Convertible Coupe 1929 that Mr. Choinière had purchased in 1960 from one of the Hershey family members in Hershey, Pa. Except the Coupe hardly looked like anything its celebrated brand name might suggest, because someone in years past had sectioned off the car’s entire rear end and turned it into a tow truck. This probably explains in part why no bidder would bother with what appeared to be at best a daunting restoration prospect. But not Claude, who saw the handsome swan behind the ugly duckling.

So after he brought home his newly acquired “tow truck,” folks started challenging him about the vehicle’s authenticity and questioning whether it was really worth what he had paid. It took no more for him to turn his burning passion for Packards of 1929 into a self-admitted obsession with research. In this newfound mission as forensic investigator, his insatiable quest for the facts yielded one of the most extensive sets of documents, books, showroom catalogues and owner’s manuals to be seen. He’s even managed to unearth six different editions of the latter, plus a rare French-language version published that year. Other 1929 Packard aficionados who consult him have nicknamed him the Packard Kid from Montreal.

At one stage, Claude had three machinists producing parts for him from specs. But he knew that so much work meant that a time would come when he’d need to seek help with the restoration process itself. Though thrilling, the experience as a self-made expert had also proven exacting, especially with sudden health setbacks now getting into the picture. So in 2005, after 12 years at it, he turned to internationally renowned classic car restorer Richard Grenon, who agreed to tackle the job. It took seven more years of combining Claude’s vast knowledge with Richard’s proven expertise to achieve the finished product: a stunning, 100-point Packard second to none in authenticity and beauty.

A great deal of attention was focused on some of the car’s finer details, unique options and accessories, as part of a complete nuts-and-bolts restoration.  Among these: a very rare disappearing rumble seat tonneau windshield, a complete tool roll kit, a lightbulb box kit and a tire pressure gauge in its leather case. The car’s trip lights are adorned with a subtle Packard emblem insert while door locks match the ignition lock perfectly. Given the shape the “tow truck” was in, it took the patterns of five different Packards to finish the wooden frame of the body in its original state.

Exterior-wise, it was decided that the car would be painted black, not the easiest of colors, with trimmings in red to match the elegant leather interior. Both men felt that it would be wise to make the vehicle as secure and street legal as possible. So a matching right-side taillight was installed with built-in flashers, enabling her to be driven on any road and in vintage rallies anywhere, free from worry about applicable rules and regulations. The whole project that began in 1993 was finally completed in August of this year, just in time for the Packard’s first official invitation to a prestige event in early October: the Louisville Concours d’Élégance in beautiful Churchill Downs, home of the historic Kentucky Derby.

So now I’ve done it: I’ve actually asked the man who owns one. And as the Packard 640 Convertible Coupe 1929 from Hershey begins her new voyage down South, she will briefly return to her past life in the chocolate capital of America for the AACA’s Eastern Regional Fall Meet there, a few days after the Louisville Concours. Can’t help thinking: How sweet it is! The Great One himself, Jackie Gleason, couldn’t have said it better.

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