“One Brief Shining Moment”: Packard’s 1929-30 Speedster

“One Brief Shining Moment”: Packard’s 1929-30 Speedster

My piece on the Packard Speed­ster appeared in Col­lectible Auto­mo­bileFeb­ru­ary 2022. Order a copy for their superb col­or pho­tog­ra­phy. How­ev­er, car mag­a­zines rarely want end­notes, and since this is a slight­ly more aca­d­e­m­ic venue, my end­notes (along with many hyper­links) are includ­ed for ref­er­ence and fur­ther read­ing. RML


“For those who love speed cou­pled with util­i­ty fea­tures of gen­er­al motor­ing, Packard builds its Speed­sters. Per­haps it is the inher­ent flow of speed joined to the swift grace of smooth design that sug­gests these inter­est­ing body treat­ments. But Speed­sters they all are, from test car to Run­about. For those who thrill to the max­i­mum speed of an open car on an open road.”1

Speedster origins

The term “Speed­ster” may have orig­i­nat­ed “when some­one knocked the ton­neau body off a car and installed some­thing raci­er,” wrote Packard con­nois­seur Bob Turn­quist. “Most often, Speed­sters were sporty, rel­a­tive­ly light cars with a large gas tank. To many, such styles were just high fash­ion. To oth­ers, they were like an Indy rac­er primed for street use. Indi­anapo­lis was a direct inspi­ra­tion.”2

Many con­sid­er Packard’s 1929-30 Speed­ster an anom­aly from a com­pa­ny known for lux­u­ri­ous trans­porta­tion and under­stat­ed ele­gance. Packard “catered to the ball­room and coun­try club set,” wrote Ronald Sieber. “Although enter­pris­ing rac­ers would use its engines in spe­cials that won events on both road and riv­er, and would per­form dar­ing aer­i­al maneu­vers in Packard-pow­ered air­craft both in war and in peace­time, Packard itself shunned rac­ing and per­for­mance-ori­ent­ed events.”3

Enter the Colonel

But Packard was not total­ly unin­ter­est­ed in high per­for­mance. In 1916, for exam­ple, the com­pa­ny built two impres­sive rac­ing cars for the rac­ing dri­ver Ralph DePal­ma: the “299 Spe­cial,” fea­tur­ing its new, 424 cubic inch Twin-Six car engine; and the “905 Spe­cial,” pow­ered by a Packard Lib­er­ty air­craft engine.4 Packard Lib­er­ties also pow­ered rac­ing boats, includ­ing Gar Wood’s “Miss Amer­i­ca 2,” win­ner of the 1921 Harmsworth Tro­phy. Ear­li­er, the Lib­er­ty had dis­tin­guished itself in wartime air­craft. By 1930, when Packard cre­at­ed a Diesel radi­al air­craft engine, it pro­claimed itself “Supreme on Air, Land and Water.”

The vision­ary behind much of this inno­va­tion was Colonel Jesse Gur­ney Vin­cent, head of engi­neer­ing from 1912 to 1946, father of the Packard Speed­ster. By 1927 Vin­cent had com­plet­ed Packard’s mil­lion-dol­lar Prov­ing Grounds at Uti­ca, Michi­gan, a 2 1/2-mile banked oval sim­i­lar in size to Indianapolis.

“The Colonel rel­ished speed,” wrote Mor­gan Yost, but “the roads of Michi­gan [were] crowd­ed, twisted—and patrolled. With Utica…Jesse Vin­cent could move as fast as he want­ed.” At a 1928 deal­er  con­ven­tion, he cir­cled the Prov­ing Grounds in a Roll­ston-bod­ied sedan at 85 mph. “That was incen­tive enough for a faster Packard, to sat­is­fy the Colonel, to use the track for pub­lic­i­ty pur­pos­es and to take advan­tage of the adver­tis­ing val­ue of speed.”5

“Les camions les plus rapides”

In late 1925, Vin­cent admired a cus­tom speed­ster phaeton designed by Ray­mond H. Diet­rich of LeBaron, the Man­hat­tan coach­builders. Six inch­es low­er, four inch­es nar­row­er than stan­dard, rid­ing 21-inch wheels, with a stretched hood and raked-back wind­shield, it looked like an ante­lope next to the stan­dard pro­duc­tion hors­es.6 LeBaron built two and sold them for $10,500 each—$180,000 in mod­ern dol­lars. These strik­ing phaetons aston­ished the pub­lic and the com­pa­ny. On Mahogany Row in Detroit, Packard’s con­ser­v­a­tive man­agers liked it. Per­ceiv­ing that they had an itch, the Colonel yearned to scratch it.

Vin­cent was fur­ther impressed by a fast ride in a sporty Bugat­ti dur­ing the 1926 Paris Auto Show.7 His dri­ver was Ettore Bugat­ti him­self. The eccen­tric French­man was said to have remarked that W.O. Bent­ley built “les camions les plus rapi­des” [the fastest trucks]. It is not on record what Le Patron thought of Packard Speed­sters, which were not as ath­let­ic as Bugattis.

My dear friend the late Bob Valpey read­i­ly admit­ted this. When I asked him if he intend­ed to run his 734 Speed­ster road­ster on the Lime Rock, Con­necti­cut road course, this vet­er­an vin­tage rac­ing dri­ver quipped: “I’d be quick­er in a dump truck.” At the Prov­ing Grounds banked oval, of course, Col. Vin­cent could go as fast as the machin­ery allowed.

Dur­ing 1927, Vin­cent went to work. He built four Speed­ster pro­to­types, three of which were “test mules.” One was super­charged, but Packard’s con­ser­v­a­tive man­age­ment balked at rad­i­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tions, and three were dis­posed of by Decem­ber. One was bought by young Brig­gs Cun­ning­ham, after dri­ving it around the Prov­ing Grounds at over 100 mph, Cun­ning­ham used it as a dai­ly dri­ver and project car while study­ing engi­neer­ing at Yale. It may be seen today at the Revs Insti­tute in Naples, Flori­da.8

The Vincent Speedster, 1928

The orig­i­nal Vin­cent Speed­ster body shell was rebuilt with “donor” parts and is now at America’s Packard Muse­um, Day­ton, Ohio. (Pho­to by Don O’brien, Cre­ative Commons)

Faced with the need to use stock Packard com­po­nents, Vin­cent select­ed his sec­ond pro­to­type for fur­ther devel­op­ment. He built it the way every hot-rod­der would decades lat­er, stuff­ing the biggest engine into the small­est chas­sis. The lat­ter was from a Packard 443, rid­ing a 126.5-inch wheel­base. (Some say it was a 626, but its crank­hole posi­tion and eight-lug wheels sug­gest 443.) The engine was the nine-main-bear­ing 385 cid Super Eight with 106 bhp in stock form.

Designed for speed, Vincent’s spe­cial had an alu­minum body and lacked road equipment—no lights, wind­shield, fend­ers or bumpers. Its twin buck­et seats were stag­gered, the passenger’s mount­ed slight­ly far­ther back to give the dri­ver more elbow room when wheel­ing this brute around the Prov­ing Grounds. And wheel it did, accord­ing to Charles A. Lind­bergh.

In 1928 the famous avi­a­tor vis­it­ed the Prov­ing Grounds to see the new Packard Diesel air­craft engine, and Vin­cent offered him a few laps with his toy. “I drove the car sev­er­al times around the track, at a lit­tle over 100 miles an hour, if my mem­o­ry is cor­rect,” Lind­bergh wrote. “I believe the aver­age was 109 mph, and that the car had aver­aged about 128 mph with its reg­u­lar dri­ver; but I am vague on these fig­ures.”9

Reborn and Recreated

Jesse Vincent’s Speed­ster remained at the Prov­ing Grounds for many years and then dis­ap­peared. Its body shell was found in the 1970s by Packard col­lec­tors Dale and Don Lyons. Along with A.J. “Jim” Bal­four, they rebuilt the car with “donor” Packard parts. By the 1990s, it was seen at Packard Club events. It is now dis­played at America’s Packard Muse­um in Day­ton, Ohio.  Jim Bal­four wrote about it in The Packard Cor­morant #52 (Autumn 1988).

Then in 2016, Jer­ry Mis­ce­vich of Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, built a per­fect repro­duc­tion. “I saw its pic­tures in the 1978 Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly Packard book,” Jer­ry told Jay Leno, “and I just said ‘wow—I can’t believe they made some­thing like that’….It just wouldn’t leave me alone.”10

Work­ing only from pho­tos, Mis­ce­vich formed the body (steel not alu­minum in this case) over a wood frame, the engine bored out and tuned to deliv­er 120-125 bhp. Every com­po­nent matched the orig­i­nal, includ­ing the Bijur lubri­ca­tion sys­tem, Detroit Lubri­ca­tor updraft car­bu­re­tor, three-speed gear­box, 16-inch mechan­i­cal brakes and stag­gered seat­ing. This exact­ing recre­ation can be enjoyed in a video with Jay and Jer­ry on “Jay Leno’s Garage” via YouTube.11

Sixth Series 626: first production Speedster, 1929

Fac­to­ry ren­der­ing of the 626 phaeton. (Jim Bal­four collection)

With Packard rid­ing high on seem­ing­ly-lim­it­less 1920s pros­per­i­ty, a pro­duc­tion vari­ant of the Vin­cent Speed­ster was con­ceiv­able. Packard chief body design­er Vin­cent D. Kap­tur was entrust­ed with the first pro­duc­tion mod­el. He was assist­ed by a bright new design­er named Wern­er Gub­itz, of whom more anon.

The cars were intro­duced on the 1929 626 chas­sis in August 1928, most with road­ster or phaeton bod­ies. A few sedans were also built. Rac­ing dri­ver Tom­my Mil­ton drove a sedan from Mia­mi to Los Ange­les aver­ag­ing 50 mph, which was pret­ty impres­sive giv­en the roads of those days.

The spec­i­fi­ca­tion fol­lowed Vincent’s prac­tice of a big engine in a small chas­sis. Pow­er was from the 385 cid  Eight, with high-lift camshaft and high com­pres­sion head, which raised horse­pow­er to 130. Unique to the Speed­ster was a vac­u­um boost­er pump. The rear axle ratios were 4.00 or 3.31 instead of the stan­dard 4.38 and 4.07. High gear­ing was uncom­mon when few roads allowed rapid motor­ing. When they did, though, the Speed­ster own­er could “open her up,” press a floor ped­al, and enjoy what Ned Jor­dan called “the roar of the cut-out.”

At a glance, the 626 Speed­ster looked like an ordi­nary Packard, with a longer hood and short­er deck, craft­ed in the company’s new cus­tom body shop. The road­ster lost 14 inch­es behind the front seat to fit the 126.5-inch chas­sis; the phaeton was more con­ven­tion­al. The price for either was $5000 ($86,000 in today’s mon­ey), a hefty sum in 1929.

The little-known 626

That this Speed­ster even exist­ed was uncom­mon knowl­edge, because Packard did no spe­cif­ic adver­tis­ing. As a result, pro­duc­tion was tri­fling. Esti­mates run from few­er than 50 to a high of 70 for all body styles; one source says only 24. Alas only three 626 Speed­sters are known to exist, and for many years the Hen­ry Ford Museum’s road­ster was thought to be the only survivor.

The Museum’s car, the gift of Mont­gomery Young, rep­re­sents one of the most endur­ing­ly attrac­tive, fine­ly fin­ished and lux­u­ri­ous Packards of the 1920s. The orig­i­nal own­er, Emil Fikar, Jr. of Berwin, Illi­nois, insist­ed it be capa­ble of 100 mph. After per­son­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing him­self that it was, he paid Chicago’s Bruesce Motor Sales $5260 in Octo­ber 1928. The invoice list­ed only two options: chrome plat­ed wire wheels ($250), and god­dess of speed mas­cot ($10). Packard declined to sup­ply frip­peries like side­mounts or wind­wings: “As min­i­mum head resis­tance is essen­tial for max­i­mum speed, no spec­i­fi­ca­tions are accept­ed for Deluxe equip­ment for these spe­cial cars.”12

 Designing the ultimate Speedster

Despite thin sales of the 626, Packard decid­ed to expand the line for 1930, pro­duc­ing the grand­est Speed­sters yet. A sig­nif­i­cant depar­ture, the 734 was longer and more pow­er­ful, with long-legged gear­ing mat­ed to a four-speed gear­box. The engine was the 385, spe­cial­ly cast for Speed­sters with angled ports allow­ing hemi­spher­i­cal com­bus­tion cham­bers. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly mod­i­fied for freer breath­ing, the 385 car­ried sep­a­rate intake and exhaust man­i­folds, the lat­ter finned. There was a spe­cial two-throat car­bu­re­tor, vac­u­um pump and ped­al-con­trolled exhaust cut-out. It devel­oped 125 bhp, but an option­al 6:1 com­pres­sion head pro­duced 145 and a whop­ping 290 lbs-ft of torque at only 1600 rpm.

Though Packard rec­om­mend­ed the low­er-com­pres­sion head and 4.00:1 gear ratio, most open mod­els were ordered with high-com­pres­sion and 3.33:1 gear­ing. This ensured that your Speed­ster would top 100 mph—and peo­ple spend­ing Speed­ster mon­ey were inclined to want that. There was also a 4.67:1 ratio for jack-rab­bit starts or hilly con­di­tions, but few of these were specified.

Design­wise, the 626s were con­sid­ered too short for so exalt­ed a mod­el. To many they seemed stub­by, hard to dis­tin­guish from oth­er road­sters. “They lacked the fleet lines that made cars look fast, the Cord, Auburn, Kiss­sel and [Stutz] Black­hawk, for instance,” wrote Mor­gan Yost. “Fur­ther­more, the 1930 Packards had new bod­ies with the refined Diet­rich influ­ence and did not lend them­selves to alter­ations. And, the short body space—only 79 7/8 inches—was just not enough to be com­fort­able, espe­cial­ly for a sedan.”13

A LeBaron heritage

Accord­ing­ly the 734 Speed­ster used the 733 Eight’s 134.5-inch wheel­base chas­sis, its frame rails mod­i­fied to accom­mo­date the larg­er engine. Finned, 16-inch brake drums, unique to this mod­el, slowed the car as effec­tive­ly as the big eight pro­pelled it. But what real­ly made the 734 impres­sive was its styling, the work of a tal­ent­ed triumvirate.

Ray­mond B. Birge, for­mer gen­er­al man­ag­er of LeBaron, had joined Packard in 1927 to set up its new cus­tom body depart­ment. Birge him­self was not a design­er, so for the 734 project he brought in his for­mer boss, Ray Diet­rich, as a con­sul­tant. Most of the lines were estab­lished by Wern­er Gub­itz, who had drawn for Diet­rich before join­ing Packard. “It must have been like LeBaron Old Home Week when Diet­rich arrived,” Turn­quist wrote, “and it cer­tain­ly indi­cat­ed that the orig­i­nal LeBaron Speed­ster would be a strong influ­ence….14

Gubitz’s high style

Speed­ster Vic­to­ria, the rarest mod­el, draw­ing by Wern­er Gub­itz. The shad­ow­ing is typ­i­cal of Gubitz’s style. (The Packard Cor­morant magazine)

Wern­er Hans August Gub­itz was born in Ham­burg in 1899 and emi­grat­ed with his par­ents to New Jer­sey in 1905. His father, who worked at the Amer­i­can Lead Pen­cil Com­pa­ny, encour­aged his apti­tude for draw­ing with an end­less sup­ply of Venus col­ored pen­cils. By his ear­ly 20s Wern­er was a design­er, mak­ing the rounds of car builders and coach­builders, includ­ing Diet­rich Inc. in Detroit.

“The Speed­ster was large­ly Werner’s,” Ray Diet­rich told this writer. “He knew pre­cise­ly how to exe­cute a line on a sur­face. The famous ‘con­ti­nu­ity of line’ which Packard main­tained from the mid-1920s to the 1940s was also large­ly owed to him.”15

In 1927, can­ni­ly siz­ing up his prospects, Gub­itz signed with Packard, where he remained for twen­ty years. “Whether it’s a coat-of-arms on a Deluxe heater or a clois­soiné emblem on the side of a hood,” wrote John Macarthur, you can bet Wern­er Gub­itz had a lot to do with it.”16 W. Everett Miller, who worked along­side him in 1929-33, echoed that praise: “Wern­er was an unpre­ten­tious man with a soft-spo­ken Bronx accent, his Ger­man her­itage being strong­ly evi­dent. He was always rather shy, though emi­nent­ly self-pos­sessed…. There is no men­tion of him in The Inner Cir­cle, Packard’s in-house pub­li­ca­tion, and he nev­er received pub­lic recog­ni­tion for his efforts dur­ing his life­time. But his work, as Packard would say, was ‘of a dis­tin­guished fam­i­ly.’”17

The production 734 Speedster

The result of this col­lab­o­ra­tion was a line of Speed­sters three inch­es nar­row­er and con­sid­er­ably low­er than stan­dard Packards, in five body styles. Most were phaetons and boat-tail run­abouts (the lat­ter with and with­out stag­gered seats). There were per­haps six each of the close-cou­pled vic­to­ria coupe and sedan. A fifth style, the four-seat rum­ble-seat road­ster, was added in ear­ly 1930, accord­ing to Ter­ry Shea: “…when a few cus­tomers inquired about such a ver­sion to accom­mo­date more than just a dri­ver and pas­sen­ger, Packard respond­ed with a very lim­it­ed pro­duc­tion mod­el; just sev­en were sold. The road­ster did away with the runabout’s sexy boat-tail, but suf­fers noth­ing in the looks depart­ment.”18 Over­all pro­duc­tion was thought to be 85 in 1981, but more 734s turned up, and today the pro­duc­tion esti­mate is 117. All too few.

Packard charged $5200 for the open Speed­sters, $6000 for the closed, with the customer’s choice of col­or and uphol­stery, since each car was indi­vid­u­al­ly craft­ed. Some bare chas­sis were also sold, and two cus­toms were well pub­li­cized. The Packard Mag­a­zine fea­tured them in 1930. One J. Brooks Nichols owned a Kir­choff-bod­ied run­about “that insures even less wind resis­tance [than the cat­a­logued body]. Spe­cial treat­ment of [vee’d] radi­a­tor, front fend­ers and wind­shields front and rear, gives full sweep to the impres­sion of swift grace which char­ac­ter­izes the car.” Also not­ed was Lt. J.R. Glasscock’s run­about by E.J, Thomp­son Coach­works, “which sym­bol­izes in every line the grace­ful speed of its Packard foun­da­tion.”19 Fit­ted with Woodlites and cycle fend­ers, Glasscock’s car was spectacular—and may still exist. Back in 1981, a con­tem­po­rary pho­to sur­faced in Cars & Parts mag­a­zine. It would be nice to know if this exot­ic cus­tom survives.

End of the beginning

Despite its belat­ed attempt to build a cus­tomer base with the 734, Packard dis­con­tin­ued the Speed­ster in 1930, before the Sev­enth Series had wound up. The Depres­sion was a fac­tor, of course; but beyond that was the reluc­tance of high­er man­age­ment to use wan­ing resources on what was admit­ted­ly a niche prod­uct. In those days, most peo­ple with $5000 to spend on an auto­mo­bile sought smooth­ness, refine­ment, and above all, low-end torque. This made for a min­i­mum of gear shift­ing and more com­fort­able rides on the rough roads of the time. Some enthu­si­asts express sur­prise that so won­der­ful a car could be dis­con­tin­ued. But to Packard at the time, there was noth­ing remark­able about it.

The Speed­ster idea was not alto­geth­er dead, how­ev­er. In the hope that the Depres­sion had bot­tomed, a new Speed­ster run­about was pro­duced in August 1933. Mount­ed on the 135-inch wheel­base 1106 chas­sis, it was cus­tom-bod­ied by LeBaron (by then run by Brig­gs). It sold for a then-stag­ger­ing $7796, accom­pa­nied by a LeBaron sport phaeton. Edward Macaulay, son of Packard Pres­i­dent Alvan, evolved a series of cus­tom Speed­sters begin­ning with his per­son­al 745 run­about. None of these made it to pro­duc­tion, and today few­er than a dozen 11th Series Speed­sters are known.

Greatest of them all

The Speed­ster thus remained a fabled Packard, avail­able only to a priv­i­leged few. It did not take long to be rec­og­nized as such. Peo­ple were col­lect­ing them by the 1940s, long before there was an old car hob­by, when most cars their age were regard­ed as obso­lete dere­licts. Those who knew what they had were reward­ed by pride of pos­ses­sion, the joys of high per­for­mance and val­ue for invest­ment. Few blue chip stocks have pro­duced bet­ter returns over the years.

They rank among the immor­tals. Dri­ving behind Bob Valpey’s 734 road­ster (in a 1936 One Twen­ty con­vert­ible that seemed to tow­er over it), I was struck by its spi­dery, ground-hug­ging stance, com­bined with the sheer pres­ence of the car. Bob laughed off rac­ing it, but it cer­tain­ly looked like its name. With due def­er­ence to many fine mod­els before and after, many will always think of the Speed­ster as the great­est Packard of them all.


Grate­ful thanks to the Packard enthu­si­asts and orga­ni­za­tions who have added so much over the years to my knowl­edge of the Speed­ster: Stu­art Blond of The Packard Cor­morant, Conceptcarz.com, Ray­mond H. Diet­rich, Jay Leno, John F. MacArthur, W. Everett Miller, Jer­ry Mis­ce­vich, the Packard Club, the Revs Insti­tute, Ter­ry Shea, Ronald Sieber, Dick Teague, Bob Turn­quist, Bob Valpey and L. Mor­gan Yost.


  1. “Speed­sters All,” in The Packard Mag­a­zine, Detroit, Spring 1930, 9.
  2. Robert E. Turn­quist, “Utter Glo­ry: Packard’s Immor­tal Speed­ster,” in The Packard Cor­morant #23, Sum­mer 1981, 9.
  3. Ronald Sieber, “Clas­sic Speed­sters,” accessed 30 July 2022.
  4. For details on these cars see “1916 Packard Twin Six Rac­er,” Conceptcarz.com, accessed 5 August 2021.
  5. L. Mor­gan Yost, Chap­ter XIV, Packard: A His­to­ry of the Motor­car and the Com­pa­ny (Prince­ton, N.J.: Prince­ton Pub­lish­ing, 1978), 303.
  6. “1925 Packard Mod­el 236 Speed­ster Phaeton,” Conceptcarz.com, accessed 8 August 2022.
  7. “About the 1927 Packard Pro­to­type Speed­ster,” Revs Insti­tute, Naples, Fla., accessed 5 August 2022.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Charles A. Lind­bergh to Robert H. Rand, 1 March 1958, in Turn­quist, “Utter Glo­ry,” 10.
  10. Jer­ry Mis­ce­vich to Jay Leno, 22 August 2016, accessed 5 August 2022.
  11. “Jay Leno’s Garage.”
  12. Richard M. Lang­worth, “The Packard Col­lec­tion at the Hen­ry Ford Muse­um,” in The Packard Cor­morant #17, Win­ter 1979-80, 17-19. Yost, Packard, 304.
  13. Yost, Packard, 304-05.
  14. Turn­quist, “Utter Glo­ry,” 10.
  15. Ray­mond H. Diet­rich to the author, Albu­querque, N.M., August 1974.
  16. John F. MacArthur, “Gub­itz,” in The Packard Cor­morant #90, Spring 1988, 17.
  17. W. Everett Miller, “The Bril­liant Art of Wern­er Gub­itz,” in Car Clas­sics, April 1976. 38-41.
  18. Ter­ry Shea, “Fac­to­ry Force–1930 Packard Speed­ster Road­ster,” in Hem­mings Clas­sic Car, July 2013.
  19. “Speed­sters All,” 9.

More Packard

“Queen Mary: We Love Our 1950 Packard Eight Club Sedan,” 2022.

“Why Packard Failed, Part 1: Patri­cian and Its Rel­a­tives, 1951-53,” 2022.

“Why Packard Failed, Part 2: The End of the Road, 1954-1956,” 2022.

The Packard: Ne Plus Ultra of Auto­mo­tive House Organs,” Part 1 and Part 2, 2021.

Searcj also on this web­site for Dutch Dar­rin, Brooks Stevens and Don Peterson.





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