1955-56: The last true Packards

The American automobile industry had a watershed year for 1955. Car production set new records, especially for the “Big Three” (GM, Ford and Chrysler). Yet before three years had passed, several marques that had been strong car builders for years had disappeared forever.

The most well-known and prestigious marque that went away was Packard. Other cars that died included Kaiser, Nash and Hudson, and by 1966, Studebaker would also bite the dust. Some of these car builders had been building automobiles for half a century. What happened to snuff out so many established companies all at once?

We only have space to focus on Packard this time. Packard was one of the pioneers of the motor industry with its first models dating back to 1899. By the 1920s, Packard was the acknowledged leading prestige car of the American industry, outselling Cadillac and all other luxury car competitors. Packard had a world-wide following and exported to many countries around the globe.

The Depression of the 1930s was tough on Packard, as it was on other builders of expensive luxury cars. But in 1935, Packard brought out a new medium-priced Packard, the One-Twenty. The One-Twenty was a huge success and restored Packard’s financial health. It was so successful that Packard neglected the luxury car field in the 1940s. The result was that, by 1950, Packard’s leadership in the prestige market had been eclipsed by Cadillac, and in some years even by Lincoln and Chrysler. There were no other U.S. luxury car makers left.

All of the “independent” manufacturers that had survived the Great Depression prospered during World War II and in the sellers’ market that followed. But by 1951, the crunch was on. GM was approaching a 50-percent market share and Ford was on a roll infused with a vigorous new management team. To remain competitive, every car builder had to bring out new high-compression, overhead-valve V-8 engines as soon as possible. In 1954, Packard sales fell drastically due to a recession, and also because it did not yet have a new V-8 to offer. Packard was still building flathead straight-eights, a type of engine considered obsolete. The situation was becoming critical.

The other independents were equally stressed. Nash and Hudson merged in 1954 to form American Motors. Packard’s only choice was to acquire Studebaker, which it did Oct. 1, 1954. The new Studebaker-Packard Corp. brought together two long-established car builders and created a company with lines of cars in every price class. It offered the potential of being better able to compete with the Big Three — if the new enterprise could be organized and get competitive products into the marketplace in time for the 1955 model year.

Packard had been preparing a substantially changed line of Packards for 1955. One important step planned was to use the Packard name only on the largest and most luxurious models at the top of the line. Smaller versions, using the same bodies but shorter wheelbases and slightly less powerful engines, would be called Clippers. The aim was to rebuild the prestige of the Packard name, which some thought may have been eroded by smaller cars bearing the Packard name starting with the 1935 One-Twenty.
The 1955 Packards were large, powerful and luxuriously trimmed cars. In every respect, they were worthy heirs of the Packard heritage of luxury and fine engineering. They rode a 127-inch wheelbase and were more than 18 feet long. Most importantly, they carried a brand-new, state-of-the-art overhead-valve V-8 that generated industry-leading power outputs.

The Packard sedan was called the Patrician and the two-door hardtop was named the Four Hundred. Both were powered by 352-cid V-8s producing 260 bhp. The convertible version was named the Caribbean and offered 275 bhp. To demonstrate what the new engines could do, a Patrician V-8 sedan was run 25,000 miles on the banked Packard test track at an average speed of 104 mph — a stunning performance, indeed.

The powerful new engines were only part of the story; an innovative new suspension using torsion bars, instead of springs, provided an amazingly smooth ride which, at the same time, cornered superbly and was well controlled over irregular surfaces, such as railroad crossings. There were other innovations that one would expect from a company with the rich engineering tradition of Packard, such as an optional limited-slip differential.

The bodies appeared at first glance to be brand new, but were actually a revision of the Packard body shell introduced in 1951. For 1955, a panoramic windshield and straight-through fender lines culminating in visored headlamps and tail lamps transformed the appearance of the cars. For 1956, the new engines were enlarged and power output boosted. A push button-controlled automatic transmission became optional. In the Caribbean line, a two-door hardtop with a fabric-covered roof was added. Caribbean seat cushions were reversible with leather on one side and fabric on the other. Caribbean engines were at the top of the industry with 310 bhp available.

It was a stellar line-up, well calculated to return Packard to a place at the top of the automotive prestige ranking. But it was not to be. For 1955, the company had moved all Packard and Clipper car production from the Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard to a newly renovated factory on Conner Avenue in Detroit purchased from Chrysler Corp. The ostensible reason was that Packard had to start building its own bodies, but the Conner Avenue plant was too small and had lots of start-up problems. Still, total production for 1955 was 55,247 units, of which 16,833 were Packards (the rest were Clippers). But build quality was bad and production was slow.

By 1956, the word was out that Packard quality had deteriorated and the company was in trouble. The Packard Division had been profitable in 1955, but Studebaker had lost money because of its obsolete plant facilities in South Bend. For 1956, Packard sales plummeted to just 7,538 cars (28,835 total including Clippers).

On April 9, 1956, the Packard Executive was introduced. The Executive was a Clipper Custom with Packard front fenders and grille. It also bore the Packard name in a belated recognition that perhaps that is what buyers valued after all.
It was all to no avail. Drowning in a sea of red ink, Detroit production of Packards and Clippers ceased Aug. 15, 1956. This was the end of the true Packards.

Cars bearing the Packard name were built for two more years in South Bend, Ind., but they were little more than face-lifted Studebakers. It was an inglorious end to a marque that had been an industry leader for half a
century.

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