The Eternal (American) Triangle
It is widely accepted that the Rolls-Royce is “The Best Car in the World” and I have long held the view that Mercedes-Benz make the best-engineered cars obtainable, although it is a precious long time since I drove one. But which is the best American car?
The stakes must, presumably be between Cadillac, Lincoln and Packard, for that has been the pattern of this eternal American triangle since post-WW1 luxury motor-carriages emerged from the three American factories. In trying to start a discussion along these lines I am thinking, it should be explained, of which was the best car made in the USA over the full period of such production, not just of one outstanding model or one particular period. In the case of Cadillac and Lincoln that means from just before, and soon after, the First World War respectively, but the Packard is, alas, no longer current. This is intended to be an outline about which is the Best American Car, so that those from other nations do not come in to it, except as adjuncts to any arguments put forward. It is interesting, though, that from the emergence of the 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce in 1906 to the current Silver Spirit and Bentley Mulsanne, the title of Best Car in the World has belonged exclusively to Rolls-Royce, in universal opinion. Can the same be said of any one of the three makes that run for the best US-car stakes?
Origins do not matter much. If Henry Royce, engineer, took most of the bugs out of the French Decauville he had bought, in evolving his first car, the little 10 h.p. two-cylinder Royce is not usually considered in the context of his later Silver Ghost, Cadillac and Packard both had very humble origins. The former, Henry M. Leland’s baby, was a Ford-like single-cylinder, epicyclic two-speed, chain-drive confection, dating from 1903. The first Packards were similar buggy-like vehicles, also single-cylinder, but of 12 h.p. and having a 3-speed transmission. They dated from 1899, and constituted the Packard brothers’ idea of what the 1898 Winton should have been like, rather as Royce refined the Decauville in 1903/4. The Lincoln came much later, not until 1922, representing one of motoring’s more splendid ironies, inasmuch as it was the product of Henry Ford, who, while mass-producing the World’s universal car in the guise of the immortal Model-T, wanted something at the other end of the automotive spectrum and improved the big vee-eight that Leland had turned to after leaving Cadillac to achieve this ambition. That wasn’t until 1922, so it is from then that the “‘triangle” really forms.
By then Cadillac had gained a reputation for good cars, with a 30 h.p. model announced in 1906, of which 75,000 were sold up to the outbreak of war in Europe, had fitted Delco electric starters in 1912, four years after the Company had been absorbed into W. C. Durant’s General Motors empire, and had introduced their vee-eight, copied from the De Dion Bouton of that multi-cylinder formation. Packard had likewise gained in stature, for after building high-class four-cylinder cars from 1903, the first of whioh was of more than 12-litres capacity and based on the French Mors, but among which the Thirty was the outstanding model, a 7 1/4-litre six-cylinder was brought out in 1911, and in 1915/16 came the legendary Packard “Twin-Six”, its vee-twelve-cylinder engme said to have been based on that of Louis Coatalen’s racing Sunbeam of this type which went to America during the war, crashed, and was acquired by Packard’s.
Racing hardly comes into this discussion, and anyway only Packard really indulged in it and then only occasionally, like Rolls-Royce, apart from Briggs Cunningham’s 1950s Le Mans Cadillac forays. But performance does, which is why the argument has a place in Motor Sport. So does quality and luxury, which as Owen Goodrich, who was with the Packard Motor Company until 1954, has reminded us, are very different things. Here it has to be said that other makes besides the three forming the eternal triangle may well be cited in this argument. I am well aware that some very distinguished American cars have existed alongside the Big Three. In earlier times makes like the Peerless, the Cunningham, the Pierce-Arrow and the Marmon, etc. attracted attention and respect. But hardly to the extent to which Cadillacs, Lincolns and Packards did. In a later period it might be thought that the Model J and supercharged Model SJ Duesenburgs, race-bred cars allegedly developing 265 b.h.p. and 320 b.h.p. respectively, and the Safety Stutz Vertical Eight (meaning that its eight cylinders were vertical, not in a vee, a straight-eight in fact) should be included. But these were sporting cars. The Duesenberg was the sort of car a person addicted to 36/220 h.p. Mercedes-Benz might buy, and the Stutz Black Hawk more for those who would otherwise run a 4 1/2-litre or a Speed-Six Bentley, although, in fact, both makes appeared with closed coachwork and in the ownership of non-sporting celebrities. Much the same can be said of the impressive FWD Cord. But Buick and Chrysler have certainly made luxury models.
In England after the war there was at first a noticeable coldness towards cars imported from the USA, partly I think because Englishmen who could afford the best thought back to the Rolls-Royce, Daimler and Napier reputation of pre-war days and partly because of the lateness with which America entered the war, afterwards claiming to have won it. With inexpensive American tourers like the Ford, Chevrolet, Durant, Dodge, Dort and others it was a different matter and, as I reminded you recently, the McKenna Duties had to be imposed to try to quell their numbers. But where prestige and luxury was concerned, there was a slow start and in the USA itself there was the l.h.d. Springfield Rolls-Royce to offer a Derby-like challenge to the aforesaid Big Three.
That apart, it took conservative Englishmen, from West End Clubs, Company board-rooms and other seats of power, some time to get accustomed to machine-turned instead of tree-wood and fine veneer fascia panels, to long gear levers protruding from the centre of the front compartment, and to cars intended to run almost all the time in the highest of three forward speeds, even though such insults to good taste and motor breeding were seen only from a back seat, through the chauffeur’s glass partition. Cecil Clutton, author of the very first of the now multitudes of books about vintage cars, had this to say: “Although Packard spared nothing to produce a quality car, it is perhaps due to differing national temperament that their cars seem strangely unattractive to European connoisseurs. This is mainly due to the instrument panel, which cannot be faulted from the functional standpoint, but incorporates features aesthetically depressing to the European eye, such as a pressed metal panel with tiresome decorative scrolls, and the ubiquitous ribbon-type speedometer. Nevertheless, this difference of aesthetic standards should not bias the judgement towards a really splendid car.”
Whether it is fair to say that under the bonnets of such American cars there were more iron-castings and pressed-tin than would be found on European high performance luxury cars is another factor to take into consideration, or discard. Disc instead of wire wheels and sometimes drum-shaped headlamps, though, were definitely likely to be regarded with metaphorically raised English eyebrows. Gradually, however, such things came to be accepted. Those who thought in terms of Cadillac, Lincoln or Packard rather than Daimler, Lanchester or Rolls-Royce then purchased. All three American makes sold very strongly here in the 1930s. In their own country they were almost mass produced, compared with the numbers of fine cars coming out of well-known factories in Derby, Acton, Birmingham and Coventry.
Back, however, to which was the Best American car. After the war the Cadillac continued to be handled in this country by popular Fred Bennett, the Packard Twin-Six (one of which President Wilson Woodrow had used on a visit to Ohio in 1919, incidentally with many bodyguards walking beside it, which strikes a topical note) was brought in by B.F. Baker, c/o The Old Colony Club in Pall Mall, and later they were joined by the Lincoln.
The first post-war Packard that The Autocar received for test arrived late in 1923, a 5.7-litre straight-eight that had a crude, doorless, two-seater test body. It was reported that no longer were the brakes and steering too stiff, the latter having been improved by the use of many ball-bearings. The test seems to have been primarily one of the new expanding four-wheel-brakes, which replaced the former band brakes. These were found to be very good, and in wet weather “at least twice as effective as any rear wheel brakes could be”. The 86 x 127 mm. straight-eight side-valve engine would start the car in top gear, a tribute to the clutch, and from roughly 3 m.p.h. the Packard accelerated without flat-spot or hesitation to full-throttle. The W.C. Gaunt Co. that was now handling sales quoted £1,155 for the short-chassis, £1,195 for the long-chassis 37 h.p. Packard.
Before this, in the summer of 1923, S.J. Frost of Praed Street had produced for The Autocar an example of the new 5.8-litre vee-eight Lincoln, with its unusual 60-deg. side-valve engine. The opportunity was seized to drive the car for 128 miles from London to Hindhead and back through Surrey – tests were comparatively mild in those days. The 36 h.p. tourer needed second gear only twice, up one-in-seven hills, rode steadily, was “extremely comfortable”, and averaged just over 63 m.p.h. over a mile. Other items praised were the excellent acceleration, light but dead steering, devoid however of kick-back, the smooth clutch (again permitting a top-gear start); and the almost silent running. Petrol consumption was 13.1 m.p.g. Equipment included courtesy lights for the rear compartment of the open touring body, an inspection lamp, a folding steering wheel for ease of entry, a two-gallon petrol reserve, two cupboards behind the front seat, a cigar lighter with extension to the rear compartment, a removable ignition-key that rendered the starter inoperative, locks for gear-lever and the spare-wheel rims, dipping headlamps, a telltale for the rear lamp, illuminated sump-level indicator, oil gauge, etc. – in 1923 remember. The brakes of this l.h.d. Lincoln relied on contracting rear bands and the price complete was £1,200.
In 1925 a fine 5.9-litre Packard tourer was submitted to our leading weekly motor journal. The price complete was now £1,125 and this was a 70 m.p.h. car, which ran with scarcely a sound until extended beyond 60 m.p.h., at which speed steering wobble intruded. The 34 1/2 cwt. (unladen) Packard cruised best at 40 to 50 m.p.h. and its four-wheel-brakes pulled it up in 88 ft. from 40 m.p.h. Incidentally, the brake lever was on the right, but the gear lever controlling ratios of 4.0, 7 .1 and 13.6 to 1, in the centre. Fuel thirst was 12-13 m.p.g. Thereafter, to the close of the vintage years, although many makes of American cars, some rare, were tested by The Autocar, Cadillac and Lincoln eluded them, although the lesser La Salle version of the former was tried, and they had to wait until 1929 for another Packard. It was a 32.7 h.p. 5.3-litre straight-eight saloon, costing here £795, which did 70 m.p.h. in its 4.38 to 1 top gear, pulled up from 25 m.p.h. in 25 ft. and returned 14 m.p.g. It was criticised for difficult brake adjustment, not entirely powerful brakes in spite of servo shoes, and minor fan-noise and carburetter hiss, and a body badly lacking in European amenities. A comparison is provided by the 39.2 h.p. 6.3-litre vee-eight Lincoln Town saloon tested by the same journal in 1930. Priced at £1,550, it did nearly 80 m.p.h. on its 4.58 to 1 top gear, pulled up from 30 m.p.h. in 34 ft., and gave 12 m.p.g. All was praise, especially for the Lincoln’s “beautifully finished body panels and first-class upholstery”. But again the front seat was not adjustable and whereas the 1929 Packard had a simulated wood-grained instrument panel, that of the Lincoln was of burnished metal.
In the 1930s, Packards tested included a 26.4 h.p. 3.6-litre Type 120 saloon (£495) that did almost 85 m.p.h. at Brooklands, 0-50 m.p.h. in 13.4 sec., and 29 ft. from 30 m.p.h., and a 32.5 h.p. 5.3-litre saloon (£895) which did just over 86 m.p.h., 0-50 in 14 sec., and 29 ft. from 30 m.p.h. and there was the 1932 V12 7.4-litre 150 b.h.p. Lincoln saloon (£1,895) that was capable of 98 m.p.h., 0-60 in 16.6 sec. and 10 m.p.g., when tested by The Motor. The Lincoln was now sold here from Ford’s Regent Street premises.
Space restrictions preclude more than a brief rundown on the development of the leading three. Called after the founder of Detroit, Cadillac went from the pioneer vee-eight of ex-Napier engineer Englishman McCall White to the fabulous Ernest Seaholm-designed V16 model of 1930, a push-rod o.h.v. 7.4-litre 165 b.h.p. giant, with separate ignition, carburation, and fuel-feed for each cylinder bank. In 1928 Cadillac had been first with synchromesh on third and top gears, thus endorsing their slogan “Standard of the World”. There was also a 6-litre 135 b.h.p. V12. In England the bigger Caddy cost £58 a year to tax, cost £2,450, and weighed 53 cwt. By 1938 the more simple vee-eight prevailed. Coil-spring i.f.s. arrived in 1934 and Cadillac radiator grilles had a Hispano Suiza appearance, as on the lessexpensive La Salle.
Less costly models followed, before the war, and a side-valve Series-90 7.1-litre appeared, its wider-angle V16 engine lighter than the preceding V16 and V12, but poking out 185 b.h.p. The 150 b.h.p. 5.7-litre vee-eight motor Cadillac sold 66,130 cars in the year war broke out again. But as Michael Sedgwick had observed, “The ‘Standard of the World’ was well on its way to becoming the International standard of affluence, but had lost almost all its character in the process”.
After the war this prestigious aspect was endorsed by the Cadillac Fleetwoods and today the catalogue lists that and the Eldorado (contested at first by Packard’s Caribbean), Deville and Seville, with fuel-injection 6-litre vee-eight engines that are computerised to go automatically from 8, to 6, to 4 cylinders and back again, to conserve fuel, another General Motors’ Cadillac innovation, and front-wheel-drive for Cadillac has arrived, with the Cimarron.
Leland’s Lincoln, which Henry and Edsel Ford smartened up bodily and mechanically by 1922, expanded to 6-litres for its narrow-angle vee-eight engine (not “V8”, which remains a Ford trademark, I believe). The Federal Police used fast 4WB Lincolns from 1924 but it was 1927 before such brakes and detachable wheels became standard. The “Lord of the Road” went on to a V12 engine, the magnificent Model-KB of 1932, fast like the eights, its engine size variously quoted as 7.2 and 7.4-litres. The lighter 6.2-litre Type KA followed in 1933, was hardly a success, so it was replaced with the 6.8-litre Model-K, which ran to the war years, using aluminium cylinder heads and dual ignition but a painted radiator shell. After peace had returned, the Lincoln Continental carved its own powerful niche in the prestige stakes along with Cadillac. It is still in production and that impeccable reference work, World Cars, says the Continental Mk. VI has a 4,950 c.c. V8 engine, giving it a top speed of 92 m.p.h.
Having surprised the World with its production “Twin-Six”, or V12, one of which was supplied with armour-plating to the Governor-General of Manchuria in 1921, Packard (having built a 149 m.p.h. racing car using a 14.8-litre V12 48-valve engine in 1919) went to a six-cylinder for 1920, the 4-litre Single-Six. It exceeded 70 m.p.h. in spite of its conventional design. When the Twin-Six was dropped in 1924 it was replaced with the outstanding 5.9-litre 9-bearing straight-eight, the Single-Eight, that did almost 80 m.p.h. on 85 b.h.p. Items such as automatic chassis lubrication, ride-control, servo 4WB, and even four-speed gearboxes lifted Packard above most American makes, and even when the inexpensive Type 120 came out in 1935 high standards were scarcely relaxed.
It was said that the Packard 120 financed the 6.3-litre Super Eight and the latter’s prestige sold vast quanties of 120s. This applied, too, to the 7.2-litre side-valve Packard V12 of 1932, no longer termed a “Twin-Six”, although Daimler were calling their V12s “Double-Sixes”. A 5.3-litre Eight heralded the war years, based on the 120 chassis but able to reach 90 m.p.h. in o/d top gear, and a year later the 5.8-litre model was much in the former tradition. Alas, some of the quality was diminishing. The demise of the Twelve, says Sedgwick, was thought by many to mark the end of the classic Packard, and after the Company had sold their body dies to the Soviets, who used them for the Russian ZIS, flamboyant styling marked the post-war models. These included the Packard Clipper Six and Eight but the merger with Studebaker in 1954 marked the run-down of this very famous motor car, which died in 1958.
So what credentials can I provide, in the space remaining, for these three American makes? All of them appeared with special coachwork, and all had high-ranking owners along the years, whom it would be invidious to list. We know that Cadillac engineering was copied by Rolls-Royce and R-R had their own V16 of that make for appraisal. A Packard Single-Eight ran 3,965 miles non-stop across America in 1925, wheeled jacks being used for changing tyres on the move, but I have heard that when the V12 was being developed at Packard’s famous Michigan proving-ground the hydraulic tappets repeatedly failed and Cadillac V16 tappets had to be adapted, to gain durability, royalties apparently being paid to General Motors for this. Later, in 1935, a Packard small Eight was taken directly from the production line, a 30-gallon fuel tank installed on the rear seat of its saloon body, and it was run for 15,432 miles round the proving-ground at an overall average speed of 87.23 m.p.h. and a running time average speed of 88.76 m.p.h., continuous news of the run being teletyped to the Packard stand at New York Motor Show.
From a perhaps insular British angle, Cecil Clutton in his aforesaid book ignored the Cadillac of vintage times but called the Lincoln, which outsold Packard, “a car of the highest quality” and he has also remarked that the Packard Eight “completely dominated the vintage luxury-car market”, selling 49 ,698 in the peak year of 1928 (total British R-R Phantom production was 3,979 cars in ten years). He has also called the Packard V12 superior to the Rolls-Royce PIII, rating it the best of all the 12-cylinder cars, an opinion shared by Ron Barker.
Graham Robson, writing so prolifically about motoring in the 1930s is another who ignores Cadillac completely. He also disposes of the Lincoln and Packard as “just too American for the British Landed Gentry” – one wonders why the concessionaires troubled!
When contemplating “upper-crust” motoring, John Bolster practically ignored both Cadillac and Lincoln, to enthuse over the Packard, recalling that in the last war Rolls-Royce chose that Company to manufacture the R-R Merlin aero-engine. The late Anthony Bird noted that the Packards and Cadillacs of the late-1930s “equalled the Rolls-Royce Phanton III in silence and refinement” and Bolster quoted the £895 5.3-litre Packard as able to run rings round the 7.6-litre Rolls-Royce Phantom II for acceleration and speed, it taking 7.3-litres of V12 PIII to go 1.9 sec. quicker from 0-60 m.p.h., and 1.8 m.p.h. faster.
I am not taking sides in this discussion, hoping that my readers may. But I did ask the opinion of that charming American girl Beverly Rae Kimes, until recently Editor of L. Scott-Bailey’s USA Automobile Quarterly. She replied: “It depends upon the parameters you use for ‘best’. If they include the aura surrounding the car, its prestige image and such, I think it’s Packard, hands down. We’re talking somewhat about the indefinable here, but Packard definitely had more of it than the others”. What do you think? – W.B.