Fred Bruner surveys a graveyard of out-of-commission antique automobiles, their rusted-red bodies clashing with the icy
blue of the December afternoon sky. Hands stuffed in his pockets, Bruner exhales vapor like an idling tailpipe.
Each of these relics from the golden age of roadsters, coupes and sedans is a Packard—at one time the high-end of America’s burgeoning residential fleet. Especially prior to World War II, Packard stood toe-to-toe with Roll-Royce—the Cadillac of its class, before Cadillac was, well, “Cadillac.”
Bruner and his seven employees at Max Merritt Packard Parts & Accessories will harvest parts from these cadavers to help restore other Packards. In fact, in spite of the gloomy surroundings and swooning economy, the Franklin-based business is surviving and thriving as it provides plugs, pumps, points and pistons for Packard enthusiasts and repair shops. (For a tour of the firm, see the video below.)
In 2008, revenue reached $1.1 million after almost two decades of about 10-percent annual growth, Bruner said. The company expects 2009's final sales figures to park at $1.1 million, as well.
If only the business didn’t have such a limited shelf life. The last Packards rolled off assembly lines in 1956, and those folks with fond memories of the vehicles and money to burn can’t be replaced as easily as a chrome hood ornament.
“Do we have a business plan for the aging of Packard owners? The answer is ‘no,’” 49-year-old Bruner said, somewhat stumped by the question of how to keep the business thriving.
“There are a lot of investment-quality Packards out there, and someone will have to take care of them,” he said, searching for answers. “The children of the car owners learn to love them like their fathers and grandfathers. And car clubs are focusing more and more on the younger generations.”
Max Merritt Packard Parts and Accessories has a lot riding on that transition. In six warehouses packed to the rafters, the company stocks more than 50,000 different kinds of parts covering five decades of models, plus a few other makes of similar vintage. It’s amusing to imagine a band of industrious elves swinging by Franklin after the Christmas rush and assembling hundreds of posh LeBarons and finned Caribbeans, right down to the cigarette lighters.
The firm is one of the nation’s four foremost Packard parts sellers, according to Donald Taccone, president of The Packard Club, a 4,000-member organization dedicated to preserving and restoring these four-wheeled antiques.
“Max Merritt is one of my first choices,” said Taccone, who owns and maintains nine Packards. “I’ve never had a problem with them, and I deal with them fairly frequently.”
One can trace the origins of the business to a 1934 Packard V12 Club Sedan purchased by Indianapolis native Max Merritt in 1962. A paint-and-bodywork man for Northside Chevrolet in Broad Ripple, Merritt began restoring the car and looking for parts
Because Packards had been discontinued years earlier, former dealers were more than willing to part with their inventories. “They couldn’t get rid of them fast enough,” said 73-year-old Merritt, a co-owner in his eponymous firm.
Seeing an opportunity to cater to other collectors, Merritt began traveling the country and staking out swap meets and other disenfranchised dealers. In the late 1960s, he founded The Packard Farm in Greenfield with a partner, specializing in Packard and Studebaker parts. In addition to original components, they sold newly minted reproduction parts.
“Some parts got to be rare, so you had to have them made,” Merritt said.
Merritt sold out to his partner in the mid-1970s and started fresh in Franklin as Max Merritt Packard Parts & Accessories, selling original and reproduction parts. Bruner, an electrical technician who had married Merritt’s daughter, Kim, joined the business as co-owner in 1989.
“I was interested in the business aspect of it,” Bruner said. “I really didn’t know cars. I just knew of the Packard from my dealings with Max.
“He really didn’t want to be here full time to run the business. He came in, taught me a few things, and then went to Florida for the winter. ... My feet were to the fire. I was on the phone quite a bit with him.”
Bruner and Kim got a divorce in the mid-1990s, but stayed on with Max. “What I always say is that it didn’t work out with her and I, but it did work out with Max and I,” Bruner said.
Although the company carries body parts like hoods and bumpers, it specializes in mechanical systems like fuel pumps, carburetors and suspensions. Its motto: “Dedicated to keeping Packard on the road.”
Or, as Merritt puts it, “You can’t push them to a swap meet.”
The firm recently roared past the 22,000-customer mark. Its niche market so far appears to be recession-proof.
“We’ve seen a couple of slowdowns in the economy, but our sales figures have increased every year for the last 20 years,” Bruner said. “As long as the guys with money keep playing with their toys, they’ll continue with the restoration of their cars.”
And there’s the rub. The number of Packard owners and enthusiasts is dwindling, according to Packard Club president Taccone.
“Our membership is getting old and will start falling off, and there are not that many younger people willing to step up to the plate,” Taccone said. “That’s the 64-million-dollar question with car clubs around the world now. What do we do? How do you do it? How do you get the younger people interested? … We’re all trying to figure out what to do about it. And no one has the 64-million-dollar answer right now.”
Bruner and Merritt will continue building their inventory, advertising and working with car clubs to keep their business running. But is there a way to keep the company from going the way of the rusted Packard husks in their sideyard?
“That’s a good question,” Bruner said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how to answer that.”