- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Back when Packard still ruled the automotive roost, young Thomas Brooks was matriculating at Fordham University in New York and Clare Codyre was a student at the nearby College of Mount Saint Vincent.

They married and a Navy career later a 1955 Packard Caribbean entered their lives. Their son, Patrick, is the culprit because he saw the car advertised on the Internet in the autumn of 2003.

Knowing of his father’s affection for Packards, he dutifully reported his find to his father and the rest is history.

The Internet price never met the seller’s minimum bid. Soon afterward Mr. Brooks contacted the seller in Davenport, Iowa, and learned some of the car’s sketchy past. He was told the car was sold new to a Texas woman who died a few years later. It sat unused for several years before an Arkansas man became the second owner. Eventually, the otherwise well-maintained Packard was involved in an accident that severely damaged the front end.

After the Davenport man became the third owner, he dismantled the car and began an eight-year restoration project. When the work was completed, he showed the handsome three-tone convertible for five years, winning prizes across the country.

Emily Wilchar, a Davenport resident, is Mr. Brooks’ sister. She volunteered, along with her husband and son, to give the Packard a cursory inspection. They gave the car a sterling report and Mr. Brooks booked a flight so he could see the car firsthand.

“It had been a show car,” Mr. Brooks says, “and it lived in a trailer.” Cosmetically, it looked like a million dollars, but Mr. Brooks knows that some show cars are only suitable to be driven on and off the trailer. He insisted on a test drive.

The mighty 352-cubic-inch, V-8 engine roared to life. Behind the two-tone steering wheel, with 275 horsepower at his command, Mr. Brooks took off, with the technologically superior Torsion-Level suspension smoothing out the imperfections in the road.

Fortunately, the traffic was light that day because when Mr. Brooks stepped on the brake pedal, nothing happened. He applied all the force he could muster and the heavy car began to slow. “It was like dragging an anchor behind,” the former naval officer said.

Despite that mishap, he bought the car in October 2003 with two caveats. The brake vacuum booster had to be rebuilt and the seller would arrange transportation to Mr. Brooks’ Virginia home.

A month later an enormous truck unloaded the Packard at a nearby shopping center parking lot. The fourth owner started the engine and, although it was not functioning properly, he drove it home.

“There were no surprises,” Mr. Brooks says. After five years as a show car, some unused systems, such as the brakes, needed attention. “A few things were not hooked up at all,” he recalls.

In 1955 Packard manufactured 500 Caribbean convertible models.

Mr. Brooks owns Caribbean No. 361, a three-tone color combination Packard called Sapphire, Zircon and White Jade. Packard gave the colors names of jewels.

Mr. and Mrs. Brooks have named their exquisite car “Sapphire.”

He says the Packard sold new for a staggering base price of $5,962 with virtually everything standard except air conditioning and chrome wire wheels. Neither option is on his car, which is equipped with:

• Power top.

• Power seats.

• Power brakes.

• Power antenna.

• Power steering.

• Power windows.

The dark-blue dashboard is padded and the upholstered seats are original, a testament to the garaged care the Packard has always received. The face of the dashboard is a gold-washed mesh. Either end of the dashboard houses an ash tray, as does each of the rear-seat armrests.

“It’s amazing how the Torsion-Level suspension takes out bumps in the ride,” Mr. Brooks says. “There are no springs at all.”

The massive Packard rides on a 127-inch wheelbase and is an inch and a half shy of 18 feet long from the front bumper bullets to the exhaust ports in the rear bumper.

It is 6-feet, 6-inches wide and 5-feet, 2-inches tall. “With a tank of gasoline and two passengers, she weighs in at 3 tons,” the owner says.

The owner’s manual recommends filling the 20-gallon tank with regular gasoline.

The oil-bath air cleaners cap the twin four-barrel Rochester carburetors with flame arresters.

“Those flame arresters are needed,” Mr. Brooks says. “When it’s cold, the engine will backfire.”

The signal-seeking AM radio is fed from the twin antennas mounted on the rear fenders.

Given enough time to accelerate, he says, “she’ll fly.” The Twin Ultramatic transmission, however, is a bit on the sluggish side. “The engine will be roaring but the car is barely moving,” Mr. Brooks comments. The shift pattern from left to right is:

• Park.

• Neutral.

• Drive.

• Low.

• Reverse.

“It takes some getting used to,” he says.

Everything from the fake twin air scoops on the massive engine hood to the cathedral window-shaped taillights rides on 8.20x15-inch white sidewall tires. Both the windshield and parking light lenses are of the wraparound variety.

“Steering the big car is very effective and very good,” Mr. Brooks says. He explains the amount of power assist is proportional to the speed of the car. That’s a common concept today but it was not so in 1955.

He guesses that highway fuel economy for his behemoth might be in the neighborhood of 12 miles per gallon and perhaps 4 mpg in city driving.

The trade-off for achieving such atrocious mileage is that it is being accomplished in such remarkably splendid style, safety and comfort.

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