A Story of Restoration: Of a Car, Not Fish


This is a love story. An unusual one, perhaps. Nonetheless a tale of steadfast devotion and affection that has endured through good times and bad for many, many decades.

The lovers were born a few months apart in 1935, he the son of a respected Philadelphia thoracic surgeon, she an extraordinary beauty. His father named her “Gregory,” but the son always knew she was a she.

That’s where the unusual part comes in. The son is George Willauer, now a retired Professor of English at Connecticut College. And “she” is a 1935 Packard—a 120-horsepower deluxe convertible with a 134-inch wheelbase, a straight-eight engine with three forward gears, a rumble seat, an exterior trunk rack, two side-mounted spare tires, and a removable figurehead of an angel holding a tire. Or, as Professor Willauer points out, what some might call “an angel with a donut.”

Behind the front seat lies a compartment designed to hold golf clubs. The chrome-plated radiator cover is louvered and controlled by a thermostat that opens and closes the louvers depending on the temperature of the engine. The headlights have four levels of intensity: park, city, drive, and pass. There is a cigarette lighter, but neither a heater nor a radio. Weight: nearly three tons. No power steering.

The price: $3,400 in 1935 dollars, or close to $80,000 in today’s money. That’s about the same as 2023 Tesla Model S.

Professor Willauer and his sister were driven to school daily in the Packard, which was warmed and dusted each morning by Glynn, Dr. Willauer’s faithful chauffeur. Looking in the mirror-like black finish, the siblings imagined they were flying. In winter, the canvas top was raised, and they sat under a horse blanket that covered their laps and bare legs. When it snowed, the car was fitted with “enormous rubber-covered chains.”

To this day, Professor Willauer’s voice warms as he recalls those days. At the time, he says, there were a couple of other Packards in town. “One was owned by a spinster patient” of his father’s. The woman didn’t drive often, so, “without her knowledge, her entrepreneurial driver rented it along with himself to funeral directors for high-class rides from church to cemetery.” Another, owned by the father of one of his friends, was “stored in a neighboring barn and provided hours of imaginary trips” for him and his friend.

When the time came, Professor Willauer learned to drive his father’s “Gregory.” The hardest part: “The pneumatically-assisted brakes, when pressed too hard, shrieked and squealed, echoing loudly through the narrow streets” of central Philadelphia.

Then, in 1948, Dr. Willauer bought a 12-cylinder Lincoln; the Packard was retired to the back of the family barn, there to suffer the fate of many a beauty: neglect and deterioration. But Professor Willauer’s affection remained.

In 1976—fourteen years after Professor Willauer married Cynthia Cameron Thun and moved to Lyme—his father gave him the beloved Packard, and the two were reunited in Lyme. When she arrived on the flatbed, covered in years of dust, she “looked like a beached battleship.”

All love stories have ups and downs. Years of costly restoration ensued. Patience and perseverance were required. But Professor Willauer found just the help he needed at Vintage Motor Cars in Westbrook, one of the surprise jewels in the crown of the Connecticut River watershed. Started by Richard Willard in 1961, Vintage has gained a national and international reputation for unrivaled skill and attention to detail in bringing back to life classic cars in need of skilled attention.

It was Rich Willard’s father, Sam, now 91, a retired shop teacher and housebuilder, who spearheaded the efforts to restore Professor Willauer’s Packard. “One fall the engine needed a new manifold,” says the professor. “One was found, but it was spring before it arrived, because the part was in a barn in remote Vermont, covered with snow.”

The road to restoration was also paved with a new block; a rebuilt engine, distributor, and carburetor; a rewired electrical system; reupholstered seats; a new canvas top, and white wall “Mafia” tires to replace the “funereal drab” of the all-black originals. Professor Willauer’s praise for and appreciation of Sam Willard is profound. “All this he does with modesty and integrity, always preferring the least costly solution over the easier but more expensive one, even if it takes a year or more for the execution.”

When, nearly a decade later, the Packard was ready for the road, Professor Willauer was happy to show her off, driving her “from home to town, to church, the beach, and the occasional party where the parking is ample.” Each 4th of July—to the cheers of onlookers—he led the Lyme parade with the town’s Citizen of the Year as his passenger.

Above Left: Wrecked Willauer Packard. Above Right: 1935 Packard Coupe. Seen here: Towing the damaged car. Images Credit: George Willauer.

But then, in August of 2017, disaster struck. “I was driving home from the Beach Club after a swim when I was sideswiped,” Professor wrote in his memoir. “An oncoming car crossed the yellow line. I thought it would straighten out, but when it didn’t I pulled to the right.” The Packard ricocheted off the guard rail, veering violently into the guard rail on the opposite side of the road, coming to rest facing traffic.

“I had neither an air bag nor a seat belt,” Professor Willauer recalls. “I was lucky to be alive.” The Packard, so lovingly restored, was a wreck. “My heart was broken,” Professor Willauer says. Would that be the end of this love story?

For several months, the family debated what to do. The car sat in a field, covered with tarps. When, finally, the decision was made to undertake yet another restoration, Sam and Richard Willard once again proved themselves to be the knights in shining armor of the piece.

The Willards who repaired the Willauer car. Image Credit: Dick Shriver.

With a settlement from the family of the young man who was driving the other vehicle to finance the project, Professor Willauer’s beloved Packard returned to Vintage Motor Cars, there to receive anew the Willard’s incomparable TLC.

Vintage Motor Cars continues to this day to maintain the car. And Professor Willauer continues to drive her around town, and to star in Lyme’s 4th of July parade.

In speaking of his devotion, Professor Willauer acknowledges that his affection is not simply for the car, but for the fond memories it provokes: of jumping on a running board for a ride up the driveway as his father arrived home in the evening; of seeing the guards salute his father as the family approached Fairmont Park; of being allowed to show her off at his Wesleyan graduation; of the appreciative looks and comments she has always evoked. But perhaps his deepest affection is for his father, whom, he says, “had a love affair with Packards.” And perhaps, Professor Willauer acknowledges, keeping his father’s car with him is also a way to keep with him the love of the father whom he so admired.

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