Packard Man

Joe Lessard, a mechanical wizard, has been taking things apart and rebuilding them since his teenage days on a Massachusetts farm.

His first attempt to reconstruct something really big was a 1940 convertible Roadmaster Buick his brother had given him. He was 14 at the time, and that sort of led him to the steamboat of automobiles, the Packard.

Today, Joe Lessard, a soft-speaking 66-year-old, knows the pure, unadulterated pleasure of driving down the highway and having people’s heads snap about.

You won’t find him in some homogeneous automobile of blunt-nosed fiberglass and plastic variety, the one-model-fits-all mentality.

No, Joe Lessard’s prefers to tool about in something from the big iron days of automobiles—the large and the heavy, in a day when automobiles were an extension of the self, when they possessed pizazz and art rather than pedestrian function. He wants poetry when he motors. He wants an ocean going land whale of an automobile with a trunk the size of a cemetery and tires that could fit on small tanks.

Joe Lessard, pronounced Les-sard, rebuilds Packard automobiles, the ones with running boards wide enough to hold a passel of mobsters with Tommy guns. His range of restoration runs from the box boats of the 1920s to Packard sedans of the 1930s  through the 1950s, the long, broad beauties that eventually went the way of the dinosaur in the 1960s.

Currently, Lessard is restoring a 1929 Packard, a 1949 sedan, and a 1951 sedan, which runs, but has been sidelined for a new interior. He has another ‘49 Packard sedan stored, awaiting his attention as well.

Although he has reconditioned other autos, it is the Packard that has captured his imagination and time over the past two decades. He has even restored a 1930 762 Packard sedan engine and transmission that hold exhibition space in the Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio.

The legendary Packard, big wheels of  pre-Depression era movie stars and mobsters,  goes back to the days when automobiles were in the hands of adventuring engineers, rather than the robotic sameness of the assembly line.

James Ward Packard, a mechanical engineer of Warren, Ohio, purchased what was considered in 1898  to be a driving wonder, the Winton. It turned out that Packard thought the car was not much more than junk and set about building a better means of transportation. He enlisted his brother, William, and after a while, the Packard was hogging the road.

The Packard boys began to win auto races with their V-12 hulking engines, and in 1919, so the history books say, a 12-cylinder monster ripped off 149 miles per hour across Daytona Beach sands.

In the 1930s, the boys decided to let others sear the landscape in search of speed records while they concentrated on luxury. The Packard became the car of the elite, the wealthy, and the mob, with its bullish straight eight engine and shimmering style.

During World War II, the Packard brothers built other engines for the war effort and then after the war discovered that good old American competition had muscled in. Cadillac, Buick and other auto makers were gobbling up new customers with better engines and lighter cars.

By the 1950s, Packard was on the ropes and in the late ‘50s, the company was purchased by Studebaker. Within a couple of years, both were gone.

But Lessard has a running romance with Packard. Lessard, manager of Value Line Textile mill in Lenoir City, Tenn., has been in love with the car since he saw his first as a youngster living in Massachusetts.

Taking things apart and putting them back together again came natural for Lessard. That’s why when he joined the Navy in 1956, he insisted the Navy send him to electronics school instead of making him a mechanic. He became an aviation electronics technician,  and eventually rode in the big early warning military jets traveling between Midway Island and Alaska, keeping all the electronic gear buzzing properly.

While in the Navy and a stint at Barber’s Point in Hawaii, he bought a 1930 Packard from a junkyard. He got it running, and then had to sell it to another Packard lover for $30 when the Navy shipped him to Midway.

In 1966, Lessard decided he needed an education, so he bought a house in Knoxville, Tenn. “At the time, Tennessee was one of the few states that would let you pay in-state tuition if you owned property.” That’s why as a practical matter, he bought the house here, and studied at UT.

He also sold a 1929 Packard he had reworked to help finance the move and education. He earned a degree in business and stayed on to pick up a master’s degree in business administration.

At the time, Lessard also held down a full time job while going to school, and worked in spare moments to restore automobiles. But the ghost of the Packard left in Hawaii continued to haunt Lessard.

In 1991, Joe’s wife, Mary Jo, bought him a 1951 Packard that had to be restored from the wheels up. That took him eight years.

“I don’t know if that was such a good idea or not,” she says with a laugh. Joe has been known to work through most of the night on his beloved Packard. Seven days a week.

Today, the ’51 series 200 sedan, gleaming with enough green paint to reflect pools of light, sits in his two-car garage cum mechanic’s workshop. Over in the corner, the ’49 Packard, a tan hunk of rust and iron, sits up on jacks. It’s interior roof is sagging and the floorboard is rotted through. It’s almost perfect, says Lessard.

Still, there was something missing in his life, he says. He could not’t get the 1930 Packard out of his mind. He contacted Guy Slaughter in Aiea, Hawaii, who had bought the old sedan, and discovered that all but the engine and transmission had been sold to other Packard aficionados over the past 40 years.

Joe bought the engine and transmission from Slaughter for a bottle of pretty decent wine. He had it packed and shipped to his garage in Knoxville. That was 2000. Two years later, he took the completely restored engine—which had been named the Drassel (Lessard, spelled backward) engine by Slaughter’s children—and transmission to Warren, Ohio, to the museum, where it sits today.
So, what is it about the Packard that has so captivated Lessard all these years?

“It’s the engines. They were just so well engineered. They are eight cylinders with nine main bearings, all sitting in a row. Most cars back then only had five main bearings. Today, you are lucky if you have three.

“That means the Packard engine had to be very, very well engineered and it had to be balanced within a thousandth of an inch. The chassis itself was unique. On some models, the chassis could lubricate itself.

“The car really handled and was very dependable. I have a friend who drove a 1911 Packard across the U.S. not too long ago.

“And back then, the Packard was the prestige car. You could get a Ford then for about $600. The Packard cost about $3,000. Not everyone could own a Packard,” he says with a smile.

Lessard rubs a hand over the chrome-plated steel bumper in front of the ’51 sedan. The bumper looks like a steel battering ram.

“The Packard,” he says, “was a real car.”

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About tennwriter

FRED BROWN is a retired Senior Writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He has been a journalist for 45 years and is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. He is a recipient of the Malcolm Law Trophy for Feature Writing and in 1983 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Journalism to study at the University of Michigan. He has published both fiction and nonfiction. Brown has a B. A. Degree in English Literature from Presbyterian College. Other highlights of his career include: Books and Stories Authored: Marking Time: East Tennessee Historical Markers and the Stories Behind Them, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn. 2005. Discovering October Roads: Fall Colors and Geology in Rural East Tennessee, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn., 2001. Co-authored with Harry Moore. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, published by John F. Blair Publishers, Winston-Salem, N.C., May, 2000. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald. Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers, published by Emerald House/Blue Ridge Publishing, Fall, 1997. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald "We Can Eat Sparrows," New Millennium Writings, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Fall & Winter, 1996. "The Devil's Roost," Voices From the Valley, Knoxville Writer's Guild anthology, 1994. Snake-Handling Believers, 2 chapters in book by Dr. Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press, 1993. History of Commission on Religion in Appalachia, 1992-93. "Seniors: Telling Tales to Life's Upperclassmen," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, fall 1992. Coker Creek, Crossroads to History, history of a mountain community and its people near Tennessee-Georgia border, 1991. "Character Building," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, fall 1991. The Faces of East Tennessee, a history of East Tennessee Counties, 1990. "Tillman Cadle, Memories of the Coalfields," Now and Then, The Appalachian Magazine, Center for Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University, Vol. 7, No. 7, fall 1990. Trader Jon, a biography; Castle Books, Memphis, 1986. "Mining Reform," Sierra, Vol. 71, No. 5, September/October 1986.
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