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Fabled Phaeton

Like a classic Hollywood vixen, this 1934 Packard 1104 Super 8 Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton is a leading lady in both style and class. Not only is the car an American classic for automotive enthusiasts, this full-bodied charmer is also the classic silver-screen tale of rare opportunity and timeless beauty.

Ten years ago, Merwin Foster found a ‘30s era Packard Phaeton online that he was interested in seeing.


“Early movies, from the ‘30s and early ‘40s, this is the kind of car you would see,” says Foster.


He bought a ticket to St. Louis, Missouri, and while that specific car didn’t meet his criteria, as he turned to leave, the dealer explained that he had one more Phaeton that was on consignment from the owner. At first glance, the Sport Phaeton was in great shape and held the effortless beauty of the original pre-war era body Foster had been drawn to. While the exterior was in great shape, it hadn’t been fully restored to bring it back to the golden-age stunner it once was. Intrigued by the possibilities, Foster went home to discuss the purchase with his wife, and soon they made the decision to bring the beauty home. The rest, they say, is history. And this car just happens to have a long, vibrant story.

The custom car was originally purchased by an industrialist in Denver who later sold it to someone in California which is where the story diverges into many different plot lines. From the man who wrote feverishly in the April 1980 feature of Car Collector Magazine about the car he could never forget, to the practical use of carrying firewood, to years later being shined up to drive a few celebrities through the Rose Bowl Parade, this car has a colorful history. At one time, famed co-producer of The Sting, Tony Bill, owned the Packard as did car enthusiast Bruce Meyer. People have been magnetized by this car for nearly 90 years. Why


While most of Packard’s (11th series) autos were able to be purchased in standard bodies in display rooms across the nation, the Duel Cowl Sport Phaeton was offered only in custom catalogs and was designed by famous coachbuilder Raymond Dietrich. Astonishingly, only five were ever made and currently, only three remain worldwide.


The allure of this particular Phaeton comes in the showstopping aesthetics, like the long 21-foot body, wide wheelbase, incredible chrome work, and enough curves to make you blush. The exterior includes side-mounted spare tires on each side that match the paint colors, large headlamps, and a flawless paint job. This was the first round of cars that Packard would sell with a radio and, because aesthetics meant a lot, the radio antenna was placed under the running boards. They incorporated driving lights that would turn as the steering wheel did to ensure you could see around corners as you took them.


While the Phaeton is enchanting to look at, there were many amenities that Packard was including at the time that made this a very innovative build. This Sport Phaeton convertible has two windshields – the usual front windshield with electric wipers and a contemporary rear windshield designed to shelter the rear passengers from becoming windblown. Air intake compartments on the side helped with air flow.


Interestingly, it also has an oil reservoir that meters out specific amounts to each of 32 points in the car that might be a bit squeaky. When the car is started, thin copper tubing deposits the precise amount of oil to those points whether in the front or towards the rear.


Another innovative addition for the time were the grille bars on the front of the car that were attached by rods to a diaphragm within the radiator. As the car warmed up, the grille bars would open up to cool the engine and as the engine cooled off, the bars would close again. Similar technology is being used today in large well-known trucks.


A knob below the dash was used to adjust the mechanical shock absorbers to change for different road conditions. In 1934, there were some good paved roads in California but side roads could be rough.

Additionally, the brake pedal pressure can be adjusted from a knob on the dash board. Foster shares, “Speculation is that a lady would need more help braking than a man so the brake pedal would need to be adjusted. Quite the sexist thought.”


Not only does this car look good, it also performs. The Super 8 has a 384.8 cubic 

inch engine and draws on 145 HP to reach a top speed of about 100 mph. That was certainly nothing to scoff at in the early ‘30s when roads for that type of speed didn’t exist.


When the car arrived in South Dakota, Foster knew it would take some work to improve the drivability of his new classic.


“Either you do it all right or it’s an average car that looks nice but things might not work right,” says Foster about the decision to restore.


That’s where AJ Nelson enters the story. As owner of AJ’s Automotive in Canton, South Dakota, Foster was confident Nelson and his team had the ability and integrity to take on this rebuild.


“I was excited to check into it and see what we could do because it was so rare that it would be interesting,” Nelson says of his initial reaction.


Nelson and his team removed the body; stripped and painted the nearly 6,500 lb. car; and redid the fuel tank, transmission, and radiator. AJ’s Automotive used copper refrigeration wire to get the central oiling system back up and fine-tuned the engine that had been sent to a company that specialized in the overhaul of this type of motor. Chroming work was done and included the intricate work on the grille bars. A fellow businessman airbrushed the woodgrain onto the interior panels and gauges were restored. Two-tone paint was finely applied to the exterior and the Sport Phaeton was restored to 100 percent of the original look.


While there was a lot to be done, Nelson says that it was helpful to be able to use parts from other Packards that didn’t need to be fabricated. He also says that it’s beneficial to have as many original pieces to the restoration as possible, no matter their condition.


“If you’re going to do a restoration to original, it’s important to buy a car as complete as possible. It might not all be in great shape but if it’s all there, that’s the main thing,” he explains.


Although the story doesn’t end here, Foster is comfortably riding off into the sunset, delighted with this rare beauty. From his chance introduction in
St. Louis, through an incredible frame up restoration and plans to put a few more miles on it, Foster is pleased with the way this scene has played out. And he gives all the accolades to AJ and his team for the research and integrity of this fabled Phaeton.


“It looks every bit of good as anything you would see at the auctions down in Arizona,” he says.






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