Under the Old Hood

Robert Escalante combines his passion for Packard cars and 1960s-era memorabilia inside a Santa Ana showroom. / Liz Monroy / el Don

By: JP Chabot

Deep in the heart of Downtown Santa Ana is an unobtrusive custom auto shop; simple on the outside, but full of hidden treasures.

The Packard Custom Auto Service owned by Robert Escalante is primarily in the business of restoring and maintaining classic Packard automobiles, but over the decades, the shop has also become a repository of forgotten Santa Ana artifacts and memorabilia.

Walking into the garage itself is like walking into a cultural museum; the support beams and columns are covered in antique license plates, the walls are full of old posters (both commercial and motivational), and even the work area has leftovers from an older era of cars, like an antique key rack from the 1960s. Restored traffic lights hang from the beams, and the top rear corner of the garage is styled like an exterior view of a hotel room, complete with a fancy mannequin lady in the window. A working vintage Coca-Cola vending machine hums beneath the window, loaded with fresh Cokes in glass bottles.

Liz Monroy / el Don

The showroom is where even more hidden treasures lie. It’s full of neat gifts that previous Packard International Auto Club members have given to the shop, like a Planet of the Apes ape mask or an antique vinyl record player.

Most of the best things have been salvaged from old Downtown Santa Ana stores that no longer exist: bathroom doors from the Corday Hotel, windows from Bellis Engine, the front door of L.D. Coffing & Dodge and green Bakelite sun shades from Earl Vincent Auto Parts make up the construction of the show room. An old barber pole and a barber’s chair sit in the center, both donated from an old barbershop that closed down years ago.

Escalante has owned Packard Custom Auto Service for more than 30 years, and taken care of his shop and showroom just as well as he has taken care of the many cars that have come into his shop in all that time. His classic cars have been featured in such movies as The Aviator, but if those movies attempt to show history, going to the shop itself is like walking straight through history. It’s a reminder that the lost past isn’t as lost as we thought, and that old things can still be beautiful.