April 5, 2013

A last ride in a 1941 Packard for a man who loved cars

Gene Dick started collecting cars at 15, and at one point years later, he owned 300.

Gene Dick started collecting cars at 15, and at one point years later, he owned 300.

One of his acquisitions was a touring car that had belonged to silent-film actor Charlie Chaplin. Dick had so many cool old cars, he kept them guarded by a German shepherd behind a high fence in a huge lot outside Hollywood. He had a repair garage and rented the cars to movie studios. Some of his cars, his family said, were used in “The Untouchables,” the 1987 film about Chicago’s gangster era starring Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Sean Connery.

One car that Dick and his wife, Jeanette, brought with them in their move to Wichita a few years ago was a 1941 Packard convertible coupe. To car collectors, it is one of the most graceful, stylish automobiles ever made.

It is the last car Dick drove, and the drive was the last act of his life, which is fitting, said his daughter, Patti Zongker.

Wichita police said Dick, 84, died at the scene Thursday afternoon after the Packard suddenly accelerated, possibly because of a mechanical issue, left the roadway and struck the brick front of a house in the 1700 block of West Nottingham, in northwest Wichita. One possibility, police Lt. Doug Nolte said, was that both the accelerator and brakes were engaged at the same time, which made the Packard difficult to control.

Dick appeared to have died from injuries caused by the impact. Someone was in the garage at the home at the time, but the Packard struck the other side of the house, police said.

“We’re very grateful that no one else was hurt,” Zongker said.

The afternoon of the crash, it was sunny and warm, a perfect day for Dick to exercise the Packard, which had been collecting dust since summer. Before his last drive, he had been smiling and chattering about the nice weather.

On his last drive, a friend followed him in one of Dick’s other classic cars, a long, black 1941 Buick sedan.

Dick was close to his home when the Packard crashed. The friend who was following in the Buick tried to revive him.

His family takes comfort in knowing that he wasn’t alone, that he apparently died instantly, without suffering, Zongker said.

“He was doing his favorite thing,” driving a classic car on a beautiful day, Zongker said.

“If you’ve gotta go, what a way to go.”

Zongker described Dick as “very upbeat … a teaser, a jokester.” In past years, he was known for having pet cockatoos. He would drive around with one perched on his shoulder. He would dress in period clothes and pose on the running board of a 1920s roadster.

On his basement wall, Dick hung plaque after plaque he collected from displaying his autos at car shows.

“He’d get (his cars) out in the summertime and wash them and polish them,” Jeanette Dick said. “He had a lot of pride in his cars.”

Dick had given the Packard convertible as a wedding present to his wife in 1988. When she first saw the car, it was in pieces. Dick had his mechanics assemble it, let her pick the colors. “He was a very generous man,” Zongker said.

The Packard sustained heavy damage in Thursday’s crash, mostly to the front end. It might be repairable.

On Friday afternoon, Jeanette Dick saw the damage for the first time since the accident – the smashed grill, the newly scraped and peeling red paint.

She sighed, and a tear streaked down her cheek.

It is just a car, just metal and paint. But it embodied him.

Zongker tried to comfort her mother as the two women stepped away from the smashed red coupe.

“He’s going to be missed,” Zongker said.

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