Don Weber, RIP: Storming Pikes Peak, 42 Years On

Don Weber, RIP: Storming Pikes Peak, 42 Years On

Arrivederci, Don

Don Weber of San Anto­nio, a ster­ling gen­tle­man of the old school, died Decem­ber 10th at the age of 90. Those who miss him may like to leave a few words on his per­ma­nent lega­cy page. There you will also find details of his extra­or­di­nary life.

In Don Weber’s mem­o­ry, we thought it would be a nice thing to reprint my arti­cle on storm­ing Pikes Peak in his 1914 Packard Six Mod­el 1448 on the 1976 Glid­den Tour. It first appeared in my sixth issue as edi­tor of The Packard Cor­morant, Spring 1977. It reap­peared in issue 174, First Quar­ter 2019, edit­ed by my friend and suc­ces­sor, Stu­art Blond.

That trip up the moun­tain, now so long ago, stands out hair-rais­ing­ly in the mem­o­ry. Hap­pi­ly, we still had the photos—all of which, with my oth­er Packard papers and mate­ri­als, are in trust for the Packard Motor­car Foun­da­tion—the won­der­ful non-prof­it enter­prise which pre­serves Packard his­to­ry includ­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant part of the famous Packard Prov­ing Grounds in Uti­ca, Michi­gan. I rec­om­mend this insti­tu­tion to any­one who cares about cars.

Glidden Tour 1976

When Mr. Weber said he was plan­ning to scale Pikes Peak in his 1914 Packard 1448, he was ask­ing for rid­ers. It didn’t take much per­suad­ing, because Don is a hos­pitable gent, hap­py to have fel­low auto­holics on board. The Packard’s ascent proved to be a cinch. But it was a ride none of us will ever forget.

In 1976’s annu­al Glid­den Tour revival, the venue was Col­orado Springs: a “hub tour,” with five sep­a­rate routes begin­ning and end­ing at the Four Sea­sons Motor Lodge. We arrived Tues­day night, amazed the next morn­ing to see the mag­nif­i­cent Rock­ies all around us, on a bright, clear, mild Sep­tem­ber day.

The park­ing lot was swarm­ing with cars. Glid­den Tours now accept any pre-World War II auto­mo­bile, but this is real­ly a brass car event (built through, say, 1918 or so). Among 326 reg­is­tered cars, Packard had 32 or ten per­cent, the sec­ond most pop­u­lar make after Ford.

As far as the Weber crew were con­cerned, the first four days were just a shake­down for the big event: the Pikes Peak climb the last day. This is no pushover, even for a mod­ern car, and the road toward the top is grav­el- sur­faced, bring­ing groans of dis­may to own­ers of fas­tid­i­ous­ly restored antiques. For Don Weber, it was all mere bagatelle. “I didn’t come all the way from Texas,” he declared, “to play chick­en with a lil’ ol’ mountain.”

Behind the Wheel

We were cruis­ing at 50 (and the Pierce-Arrow ahead was much clos­er) when Don left the driver’s seat (the 1448 is right­hand dri­ve). He motioned me to take over….like, right now.

One day’s dri­ve took us through Frank­town, Cas­tle Rock and back via Per­ry Park and Palmer Lake. We were cruis­ing along behind a huge Pierce-Arrow 66, at about 50 mph, when an idea dawned on my Tex­an friend. “Want to take over?” he queried above the roar of the cut-out.

“Sure,” I said, plung­ing toward the precipice and not know­ing it.

“Okay, you got it,” Don replied, stand­ing up and shift­ing toward my seat!

Small piece of advice: Don’t learn to dri­ve a Packard Six by slid­ing over from the passenger’s side to take the wheel of a sev­en-pas­sen­ger tour­ing car mov­ing at 50 mph, close­ly fol­low­ing a Pierce-Arrow. It could be embarrassing.

Drop­ping into the leather seat, I grabbed hold of the wheel. This is always a good idea when drop­ping into the driver’s seat at 50 mph. The Six responds well to steer­ing input, but there is no return action. Far in the dis­tance, now, I saw what I most feared: a red light! “Don, how­in­hell do I stop this thing?”  “Noth­ing to it. Just use the foot­brake, and if that’s not enough grab hold of the hand­brake on the out­side. It works on the tranny.”

I used the foot­brake. Noth­ing hap­pened. Packard brakes weren’t the grab­bi­est things back in 1914. I used the hand­brake. And the mon­ster quick­ly drew up, but the light had changed. I groped for sec­ond gear, found it, ground into it—and kept on going past the pre­scribed right turn.

We coast­ed to the right side of the road and turned into a gas sta­tion. The­o­ry: duck around the back of the sta­tion, rejoin the missed right­hand road. It worked, but we had a near miss with an AMC Pac­er in the back lot. If a 1448 ever gets hit by a Pac­er, it will have to go to a body shop to have it tak­en out.

“Boss of the Road”

Once you get the hang of it, the Six is an easy car to dri­ve. The han­dling, while not sophis­ti­cat­ed, is pos­i­tive with not too much body roll. Fur­ther on into the moun­tains, Don was point­ing the car into fast, neg­a­tive cam­ber bends at 50-60 mph with­out so much as lift­ing his foot from the accel­er­a­tor. The 1448 respond­ed ably. The foot brake (oper­at­ing on rear wheels only) is suf­fi­cient if you have enough time to antic­i­pate a stop. The pro­gres­sive three-speed gear­box nev­er heard of Syn­chro-mesh, but with a lit­tle prac­tice you can whip upward in the gears with­out a clash; down­shift­ing, how­ev­er, is anoth­er mat­ter. You must dou­ble-clutch, and time it properly.

The 1912-15 Six­es were the biggest cars Packard ever built, in dis­place­ment (525-cubic inch­es) and in dimen­sions. One mod­el, on a 144-inch wheel­base, was offered as a run­about. That kind of wheel­base results in a two-seater slight­ly short­er than a Bugat­ti Royale. Per­for­mance was excel­lent, with 60 mph reach­able in less than 30 sec­onds and sus­tain­able on grades as steep as one-in-ten. A notice­able dif­fer­ence in per­for­mance occurs when the cut-out is released; at 50 mph say, the car roars and spurts forward.

Heading for the Summit

It was brisk but sun­ny and clear as we entered the Pikes Peak toll road. Lit­tle did we know what lay ahead.

Fri­day, Sep­tem­ber 25th dawned chilly, and we put up the side cur­tains and top. Off we went, north­west on U.S. 24, past the Gar­den of the Gods, Man­i­tou Springs, Ute Pass and Cas­cade. Check­ing in at the Pike’s Peak Toll Road we were told of a “slight snow­storm” at the sum­mit. The gate­keep­er, look­ing appre­cia­tive­ly at the Packard, told us we’d make it with ease.

Up we drove. “You will have no use for over­drive on this moun­tain,” we read in a brochure, “but be sure it is out.” It would have been if we had one, but we com­pro­mised by using the cut-out for extra power.

At 9,000-feet we stopped to look down at Crys­tal Creek Dam. The Packard wasn’t even steam­ing, and had come along in sec­ond or third most of the way, over­haul­ing Hup­ps, Fords, and a lone but deter­mined Brush run­about en route. All was well. At 11,000-feet we had our first view of the Con­ti­nen­tal Divide. The Packard gulped a bit of water, but showed no sign of seri­ous distemper.

A lit­tle fur­ther and the sun was gone. It began to rain, then, and as we ascend­ed, to snow. We rolled into Glen Cove (11,425-feet), the lunch stop. Antique cars were every­where in var­i­ous stages of fright or deter­mi­na­tion. The Glen Cove crowd was hes­i­tat­ing on their ascent to the sum­mit (14,110-feet). The snow had start­ed in earnest. A glimpse of what await­ed us was a return­ing 1928 Bent­ley tour­er, mud-bespat­tered, look­ing as if it had come from one of those mud­dy Eng­lish trials.

Break­ing up the pit stop was an impa­tient Don Weber: “Let’s get a move on before they close this lil’ ol’ moun­tain down.” The crew agreed, and piled into the Packard.

Blizzard Conditions

I look over my shoul­der at a yawn­ing chasm called “Bot­tom­less Pit.” I shout, “A lit­tle more to the left!”

What hap­pened then is only a blur. We look upward and see a long string of spindly antique cars trail­ing nose to tail on a diag­o­nal ascent up a tree­less moun­tain­top. “How far is that?” I ask Don, who grins and puts his foot down.

It’s snow­ing hard­er, and at 12,000-feet it’s a full-blown bliz­zard. Rags come out, and we start wip­ing the wind­shield. There are no wipers, of course. Don final­ly pulls over to let me get out and wipe the out­side, so he can see a lit­tle. In the process I look over my shoul­der at a yawn­ing chasm called “Bot­tom­less Pit.” I shout to Don, “Dri­ve a lit­tle more to the left.” Don laughs and beck­ons me back inside.

Onward… Can’t see any­thing now. Don peers through a lit­tle clear spot in the wind­shield as his pas­sen­gers hud­dle. We’ve passed 13,000-feet, and it’s snow­ing hard­er than ever. The Packard isn’t at all both­ered by this, and nei­ther for all I can tell, is Don. He’s just there for the dri­ve, even if he can’t see out the bloomin’ windshield.

“Turn this Car Around!”

13,000 feet: out of small clear bit of wind­shield we behold a world of frozen vapor….

Some­where about 13,500-feet, the world is one frozen cloud of vapor. The Packard, nev­er stopped by any­thing mechan­i­cal, is final­ly halt­ed before a burly police­man. “You can’t go any far­ther,” he shouts through the howl­ing gale. “The summit’s closed down tight. We’re work­ing the cars down almost by hand.”

I sigh my relief, but Weber is still in there punch­ing. “I came all the way from Texas for this,” he hollers back at the gen­darme. “You mean I got­ta stop 500 feet from the top because of a lit­tle snow? Come on, man—Ah’m a Texas Ranger!”

It is use­less, thank the Lord. The police­man is tak­ing no guff. I breathe anoth­er sigh, but Don just laughs: “This car could make it to the top of Everest.”

We shiv­er in front of our won­der­ful Packard at 13,650 feet, the snow and wind and gale all around for pho­to­graph­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion. It’s been a grand ride.

On the way down there is some con­cern about the Packard’s brakes, and indeed strange smells emanate from the direc­tion of the rear wheels. But Don keeps the car well in hand with the trans­mis­sion brake, and it’s a safe run all the way back. The snow stops. The sun reappears.

We rejoice at our sal­va­tion that night at the awards ban­quet, where every­one expects our Packard to have won some­thing, but no luck. It seems that forty cars made the sum­mit, and per­formed at least as well ours. But few of them ran along lev­el roads at 60 mph all day, breez­ing by the Due­sen­bergs and Lin­colns, cap­tained by the skill­ful and com­pan­ion­able Don Weber, who dri­ves like no other.

Weber and the Automobile

Don was a dear friend, His deter­mi­na­tion to get to the bot­tom of the 1912-15 Packard Six his­to­ry, explod­ing pri­or mis­in­for­ma­tion, is one rea­son why Packard: A His­to­ry of the Motor­car and the Com­pa­ny was so good and accu­rate. The Six was among the finest cars the old com­pa­ny built. Packard called it “The Soft-Spo­ken Boss of the Road.”

Bar­bara and I are so glad we had a chance to be with Don again recent­ly, when he attend­ed my pre­sen­ta­tion at the Tri­umph con­ven­tion out­side Dal­las in 2016. Although he pre­ferred vin­tage Ital­ian cars for high speed work, he’d dri­ven out from San Anto­nio in his Porsche, and not slow­ly. Don always liked to keep the ham­mer down. He was him­self a Soft-spo­ken Boss of the Road.

Arrivederci, Don. Correrai ancor piu veloce per le vie del cielo.

(Wiki­me­dia / Hogs555)

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