What a sad end for the grand Packard marque! With the ’56 models, the efforts of Packard president James Nance and the Packard designers and engineers were really coming together in their drive to restore the company as THE premier American luxury car.
As we’ve chronicled previously Packard in the pre-war years had been the leader in the luxury automobile class, but as the Depression lingered, Packard launched the lower-priced 120 series (and it’s 110/115 spin-offs) to maintain sales and profitability. The 120 was not a low-priced car, but was priced far lower than the senior Packard models and competed squarely in the upper mid-price market most notably against Buick.
The problem was that Packard diluted its luxury image and by the immediate post World War II years, had effectively given the Luxury car King crown to Cadillac. Packard didn’t pull off the trick of building both lower priced and luxury cars the way that Mercedes-Benz has been able to do. Packard’s problem was not that they built lower priced cars but that they built too few luxury cars. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of their destruction. Most Packard historians agree that Packard’s president during the Depression years and into the immediate post-war era, George Christopher, not only sowed the seeds of Packard’s destruction, but fertilized the seeds as well. As “PacDoc56” wrote in an e-mail to me,
“I blame George Christopher for the whole come apart. He hated the Senior line and planned to salt the earth with junior Packards. There is your beginning of the end right there.”
I wholeheartedly agree with “PacDoc56’s” summation. Christopher had come to Packard from GM where he had worked both at Pontiac and Buick. There is no question that he was a talented production man and the launch of the 120 brought Packard’s manufacturing techniques for that line to the head of the class for the era. The other face of Christopher, however, was his determination to be another Buick and push for volume, relegating Packard’s profitable and prestigious luxury cars to the sidelines.
Nance arrived at Packard in 1952 and set out to regain the luxury market leadership and also restore Packard’s role as a leader in engineering. Although Packard had been the only independent automaker to develop its own automatic transmission, the company lagged in replacing its excellent but aging straight eight engine with a V8 when the V8 had captured the attention of the buying public in the post war years.
The company made a further mistake by replacing its forward-looking pre-war Clipper model with the poorly-executed postwar restyle of the Clipper with what became derisively known as “the pregnant elephant look” or “upside down bathtubs.” Compare a ’49 Packard with a ’49 Cadillac – with its attention grabbing new 2 door hardtop model powered by Cadillac’s new OHV V8 and you immediately see that Packard was in trouble.
Cadillac even out-classed Packard in its ads. It wasn’t always this way …
With Nance’s arrival, Packard “put the pedal to the metal” trying to catch up with and surpass Cadillac. The stylists went to work on an all-new body design. Engineering got cracking on a new V8 and other engineering features.
Packard, known as the “Master Engine Builders,” should have had a V8 in the immediate postwar years, but Christopher would have none of it. It is odd that Christopher approved the development of the Ultramatic Drive but not a V8. My theory on that – and it is just that: a theory, because I have no facts to back it up – is that because Christopher had come to Packard from Buick after his stint at Pontiac, he viewed Buick as his chief competitor. Buick developed its Dynaflow automatic transmission independently of the Hydramatic fitted to Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Cadillac. (Chevrolet didn’t get an automatic until slightly later, and it was their own unit, “PowerGlide.” Anyone who has driven a Chevrolet fitted with PowerGlide wonders where the power went …) So while Buick got its Dynaflow, Buick stuck with its straight eight engine while the other GM divisions were getting OHV V8s. Thus my theory is that because Buick developed its own automatic but stuck with its straight eight, Christopher saw to it that Packard developed its own automatic and continued with its straight eight. Whatever the case was, the bloated design of the postwar Packards didn’t hold up well against what was coming from Cadillac and the V8 engine and spiffy new hardtop Cadillac brought to market made Packard look old and dowdy.
Seldom remembered today is Packard’s marine and aviation engine business. Packard had landed a big contract to build jet engines for the Air Force and Navy. For Packard’s Defense work and for the new V8 and revised Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission, Nance built a new plant at Utica, Michigan near the Packard Proving Grounds. As the Defense work accounted for some 80% of Packard’s profits, Nance was counting on the Defense contracts to fund the new car line.
We’ve seen previously how the roof fell in on Packard just as the new car program was nearing launch. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, who had come from GM, cancelled most of Packard’s Defense contracts. At PackardInfo.com, there has been a discussion about the end of Packard and a strong case was made that Wilson knew exactly what he was doing in canceling Packard’s (and most of Studebaker’s) Defense work. I wholeheartedly agree with the point that was made in that forum that it was a deliberate move on Wilson’s part to insure that Packard would be unable to retake the luxury car crown from Cadillac. The purchase of Studebaker wasn’t properly vetted and Studebaker (in Nance’s words) “bled Packard white.” The merger of Packard and Studebaker into American Motors was not completed when the architect of that merger, George Mason, died and his successor, George Romney, called off any further merger discussions. Packard had been buying its bodies from Briggs. Chrysler bought Briggs and forced Packard into a hasty leasing of the Briggs plant. Nance bought into the argument that the Briggs facility should be used for both body building and complete assembly – a task made very difficult because of the size of the plant. (It was never intended for complete production, it was built as a stamping and body assembly plant, The completed “bodies in white” – actually primer – were then trucked from Conner Avenue to East Grand Boulevard for final assembly.) The result of trying to do it all at Conner was horrendous quality issues with the ’55 Packards – just at the peak of the post-war selling boom and when Packard needed every sale. There was more and we’ve covered it all before. Nance and the Packard staff were caught in a perfect storm of things going wrong all at once. The upshot of it all was that Nance was unable to finance the stunning new cars planned for 1957 and Packard closed on 26 June, 1956 after building only 28,427 cars (most of them Clippers) for the model year.
But the 1956 Packards were really stellar cars. The quality issues of 1955 had largely been overcome, though Packard got another unneeded black eye for 1956 when its new limited-slip differentials, manufactured by Dana, were prone to failure, causing a costly recall.
Nonetheless, the 1956 Packards were truly competitive and offered features Cadillac didn’t: the industry’s first limited-slip differential (quality issues aside), the industry’s first power door locks, the fabulous Torsion-Level suspension system, and the most powerful engines of any automaker. Although the body shell was in its sixth year, Packard’s stylists had done such an effective job with the 1955 restyling that most people thought it was a new body. Unlike most second-year “freshenings,” the changes to the ’56 from ’55 improved the looks of the ’55. The interiors were truly luxurious and fully competitive against Cadillac. With the new ’57s destined to remain waiting in the wings, the 1956 Packards were “the Greatest Packard(s) of them All!”
The bridge over East Grand Avenue that connected the original Packard plant, a marvel of industrial design when it opened, with the plant built to assemble the 120 series in the Depression years. The Packard plant occupies more than 40 acres and has come to symbolize the decay of Detroit.