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Valley man honored for helping keep Packards running

Sun., Jan. 22, 2012

R.P. “Skip” Ritner is passionate about classic cars.

So much so that he’s largely responsible for keeping more than a hundred 1930s Packards on the road, cars that would otherwise be broken down, hidden beneath dust covers and relegated to garages and run-down barns around the world.

This month, the Classic Car Club of America recognized the Spokane Valley man’s contribution to the world of classic cars with a prestigious award for keeping classic cars in driving condition.

“I’m not used to such treatment,” Ritner said.

It started 26 years ago when he was restoring a 1932 Packard Twin Six of his own. His timing chain cover, which goes on the front of the engine, was severely corroded – a problem many Packard owners face – and there was nowhere in the world to purchase the part.

So Ritner set out on a mission to cast the part and have it machined himself.

But, he said, “You can’t machine just one of these because of the time it takes. The cost would be prohibitive.”

He needed to make at least 10 at a time, but it wasn’t much trouble finding other Packard owners eager to get their hands on one of the covers.

After selling the completed parts, he said, “I thought at that point I was through with the project. Not so.”

The calls soon started pouring in.

In the fairly small community of Packard owners – Packard only made the Twin Six from 1932 to 1939 and the cars were expensive, each costing as much as four or five Chevrolets – word spread quickly that Ritner could make the part.

He estimates he has sold about 140 of them to people around the country, including to renowned gearhead Jay Leno, who owns several Packards.

Now, he makes the timing chain covers for both ’32 through ’34 Packard Twelves and ’35 through ’39 Packard Twelves. The parts are labor intensive and expensive to produce, but Ritner didn’t make them for the money; he did it for the love of the hobby.

He said he’s been working on cars all his life.

“The first Packard I bought was in 1968,” he said. “It was really a beater. But it provided a good education.”

His good friend, Gary Graupner, who has restored numerous cars with Ritner, joked that the time and money-consuming hobby of classic car restoration “can be a quick way to a divorce.”

But Ritner and his wife, Jeanette Ritner, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. She said he’s been working on cars for about 49  1/2 of those years.

“It’s definitely an intense hobby,” she said. “But, anyway, it’s been wonderful, too. And I enjoy the cars. It’s been fun and we’ve met wonderful people all over the country.”

Ritner couldn’t say what it is, exactly, about Packards he finds so appealing. But looking around his garage – filled with antique signs and clocks, records and 8-track tapes by artists like Elvis and Roy Orbison – it’s clear he’s drawn to history and nostalgia and, of course, sturdy-yet-stunning classic cars.

For years Packard led the luxury car market in America. But it took a hit during the Great Depression and production didn’t pick up after World War II, despite the economic prosperity that followed the war. While many competitors at the time were faster and had bigger engines, the Packard was refined and stately. But by the late 1940s, Packard lost a lot of its prestige in the luxury car market and production ceased in 1958.

And Ritner is toying with the idea of ceasing production of the timing chain covers.

“I’m at a crossing point,” he said. “What am I going to do? Someone else could pick up the project.”

But those who know Ritner know better. He’s said he’s finished making the part in the past, but when it comes to keeping Packards on the road, he can’t seem to say no.

“It’s really somewhat of a labor of love,” he said.

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