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Packard's Hot Rod -- The 1929 Model 626 Speedster

July 2, 2015

Packard's Model 626 Speedster. Small body + big engine = sports car.

Packard. To anyone familiar with American automobiles, that name conjures up thoughts of refinement and style. Whether it’s one of the well-built early models like the 1903 Model F “Old Pacific” (the second car driven coast-to-coast across the United States), or a fashionable Caribbean from the company’s waning days, Packard turned out quality luxury automobiles for all of its 59 years. One thing that probably wouldn’t come to mind, though, is “sports car.” Packard built big touring cars and stately convertibles, not speedy sports cars. Except for that time when it did…

The Stutz Bearcat might be the earliest American sports car, and Chevrolet’s Corvette the most famous, but in between came Packard’s Model 626 Speedster for 1929. This special automobile pushed Packard beyond prestige and into the realm of high performance. The company took its smallest body, shortened it by several inches, and installed an eight-cylinder high-compression, high-lift camshaft engine that yielded 130 horsepower. The result was a short-deck, long-hood sporting automobile capable of 100 miles per hour. These were impressive numbers at a time when a Ford Model A produced 40 horsepower and a comfortable cruising speed around 45.

For all of its attributes, the 626 was not a success. Sports cars are for fun, and few customers wanted to spend $5,000 (more than $68,000 in 2015) on a pleasure car after the stock market crash. Only about 70 Speedsters were built, and just three are thought to exist today (which makes it rather difficult to “ask the man who owns one”). One of those three survivors is in the collections of The Henry Ford.

Packard added a high-lift camshaft and a high-compression head to the Speedster's inline-8. The 384-cubic inch engine produced 130 horsepower.

Our Speedster’s original owner, Emil Fikar, Jr., of Berwin, Illinois, bought the car from Buresch Motor Sales in Chicago for $5,260 in October 1928. He ordered just two options: chrome-plated wire wheels and Packard’s famed “Goddess of Speed” hood ornament. According to lore, Fikar brewed low-alcohol beer and asked the salesman for an exceptionally fast car -- presumably for “professional” reasons during those Prohibition days. Whatever his motives, Fikar got his fast car.

By the time Montgomery L. Young purchased the Speedster in 1959, it had been modified considerably. The owner(s) between Fikar and Young is unknown, but he or she clearly had an interest in modernizing the car’s appearance. The doors were cut and lowered, the top was replaced and the windshield was cut down and pushed back to a more rakish angle. Young devoted some 5,000 hours, between 1959 and 1966, to returning the Speedster to its original appearance. Most of the missing parts he found through diligent searching with collectors and dealers around the country. The parts he couldn’t locate were made from scratch. It was a tremendous effort that restored the Speedster to its proper form. We were all the more grateful when Mr. Young donated the car to The Henry Ford in 1976.

Our Speedster will head to California this summer. It’s been invited to participate in the incomparable Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on August 16, where it will sit alongside some of the world’s most beautiful automobiles. It’s a special honor for the car, and one that I’d like to think would have made Mr. Young very proud indeed.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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