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classic cars

1936 Packard 120 B owned by Garry Hockin Credit: Bob English for The Globe and MailThe Globe and Mail

Auto makers' efforts to re-establish markets fractured by a world shifting on its axis aren't new.

Packard is a name now all but lost to memory, but from early in the last century until the Second World War, it was one of the leading luxury brands in North America, producing simply splendid automobiles in the classic tradition.

But if the company hadn't recognized and responded to the threat sparked by the 1929 Wall Street crash, Packard likely would have seen its plant gates clang shut like those of so many of its legendary contemporaries. The car that kept Packard in the game was a new "junior" model introduced in 1935, called the 120.

What's the appeal today of this somewhat down-market model ? As the company's self-assured slogan suggests, let's "Ask the man who owns one." In this case Garry Hockin of Burlington, Ont., a long-time Packard enthusiast who purchased his 1936 120B Convertible Coupe a couple of years ago.

The car's style and presence speak for themselves. But as a history buff who owns a chartered accounting firm that works with a number of automotive companies, Hockin was also attracted by the role it played in helping the company survive.

The Packard brand was created in the closing year of the 19th century, after Ohio-based brothers James and William Packard took delivery of a U.S.-built Winton and (as the story goes) had the temerity to suggest to its builder his efforts could be improved upon. Build a better one yourselves if you can, was Winton's reputed response. So the Packards did, creating a buggy-like, single-cylinder-engined, chain-driven conveyance in 1899 that also featured novelties such as a three-speed gearbox and automatic spark advance.

The Ohio Automobile Co. (soon to become the Packard Motor Car Co.) was formed and began building and selling Packard-branded vehicles, always with an eye on the luxury end of the market.

This was first addressed with a huge 12-litre, 48-hp, four-cylinder-engined car that sold for $7,500 (U.S.), followed by a 7.25-litre six-cylinder model in 1912. In 1915, Packard created the world's first series-production 12-cylinder-powered model called the "Twin-six," which sold for a more modest $2,600 but firmly established it as a premium luxury brand.

Packard soon became known as one of the three "Ps" along with Pierce-Arrow and Peerless.

By the end of the 1920s, Packard was building, and exporting worldwide, more large and extravagant, eight-cylinder-engined luxury Victorias, Cabriolets, Town Cars and Landaulet bodied automobiles than any other U.S. auto maker and raking in the profits. Not quite the lineup to suit the arrival of the Depression in 1930, which Packard first attempted to address with the introduction of a model called the Light Eight in 1932.

This smaller and more affordable ($2,000) car wasn't the answer because it was built to Packard's high standards and thus wasn't profitable; the company lost a bundle before it was dropped after a single model year. Packard's second attempt proved considerably more successful, giving it the volume seller it needed to ensure its survival.

The 120, or sometimes called the One Twenty, was introduced in 1935 and sold for about $1,000 to $1,100, much less expensive than the lowest-priced "senior" model, which started at about $2,500.

The 120 was built in a factory revised for higher-volume production; it was available in seven models, from sedans, to coupes and the convertible coupe (with rumble seat) owned by Hockin. Although the 120s were smaller, they had more modern styling flare, which gave them plenty of eye appeal.

They were mechanically modernized, too, with independent "Safe-T-Flex" front suspension, hydraulic brakes and were powered by a 110-hp, flathead inline-eight displacing 257 cubic inches. This smooth and reliable engine was stroked to 282 cubic inches for 1936 and horsepower increased to 120, which could accelerate the 3,500-lb cars to 60 mph in about 20 seconds and to a top speed of about 85 mph.

Even though some Packard purists see the 120 as the demarcation point between the company's senior models that represented its premium past and its more middle-market future, the model definitely saved the day.

The 120s were still built to the company's high standards, but opened ownership to a much larger buyer group. Some 25,000 were sold in 1935, compared with 7,000 of all other Packard models, and made the company the 12th-largest U.S. auto maker.

Hockin's car is one of 55,000 built in 1936. The 120 name was dropped in 1942 after a total 175,027 had been built.

Packard emerged from the war years financially sound but it never quite managed to recapture its pre-war panache as a luxury brand. After purchasing Studebaker, it struggled through the 1950s, producing some classy models along the way, but the Packard name, which had once graced the best selling luxury cars in North America, disappeared in 1959.

Hockin, now 62, grew up in an auto-enthusiast family and was a typically car keen-teen with a penchant for British sports cars. This evolved into a more eclectic interest in classics that led him to his first Packard in the mid-1970s and then to the presidency of the Niagara region of the U.S.-based Packard Automobile Classics club.

His 1936 120 B had been owned for many years by a fellow club member who had restored it and, when he died, the car went to a dealer then to a friend of Hockin's who passed it on to him.

"Cars have always been a big part of my life. I've been very fortunate," says Hockin, whose wife Shelagh and their two children share his enthusiasm. "We drive our cars. We go on a lot of tours and to a lot of meets. We enjoy them. They're something that bring us a lot of pleasure."

globedrive@globeandmail.com