Gear Head Tuesday – Packard’s Executive Decision

Gear Head

Hat Tip_2

Hat tip to “B-Squared” for providing the Wall Street Journal story
that became the basis for this post.

56 Executive-right side

1956 Packard Executive – introduced on 5 March 1956 as a four door sedan and a two door hardtop, only 2,815 of the two body styles were built before Packard closed on 25 June, 1956.

Executive Decision: A Classic Packard Fit for a Wedding

Marikay Satryano, 47, the executive director of the Malcolm Pray Achievement Center in Bedford, N.Y., on her 1956 Packard Executive, as told to A.J. Jaime at the Wall Street Journal.

When you’re serving overseas in the military, you meet a lot of people who say, “When I get home, I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.” A lot of times, cars come up in those conversations. Service persons, when they’re deployed, often dream of being at home in a vehicle they would love to have.

I served in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, and when I got home, I didn’t splurge. I did things I thought were practical. But I always dreamed of owning a classic car, and I’m surrounded by beautiful cars every day where I work. [The Malcolm Pray Achievement Center uses a collection of classic cars to teach students about entrepreneurialism.] Last year, I decided the time was right. I was getting married to my now-husband, Irwin Medina, and I wanted a special car for that special day.

Marikay's Packard Executive

Marikay Satryano and her husband, Irwin Medina,
with their Packard Executive on their wedding day.

I found the Packard in a town outside Saratoga, N.Y., and it was in my price range [around $6,000]. I’ll never forget the day my fiancé and I drove the car home down the Taconic State Parkway. People were honking at us and waving. I thought: This is gorgeous. This feels right. The car is very spacious; it feels like a moving living room.

The Executive was the last model that Packard launched from its Detroit factory. Packard was a luxury-car builder with the famous slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.” The Executive was aptly named, because it was a car for the rising executive at the time. The company built less than 3,000 Executives in 1956, and mine was one of them. The factory closed in 1956.


Monday Morning quarterbacks have a field day arguing whether or not Packard should have introduced the Executive. In the end, the arguments don’t really matter because the Packard half of Studebaker-Packard closed on 25 June, 1956.

The house was falling all around Packard and its president, James Nance. The crumbling of this once-grand marque took on an unstoppable momentum. Had Nance and his team been able to secure financing to launch the all-new and highly innovative 1957 Packards, the story might have had a different ending. Even that is questionable, however, as those cars would have come to market just as the short, but very sharp recession of 1957-1958 sapped the economy. Would the 1957s have been well-received? Would the new features such as the fuel injection have proven to be problematic – further damaging Packard’s quality reputation?

Packard had hurt itself with the introduction of its badly-needed V-8 engine in 1955 because of inadequate development time and the selection of an oil pump that caused valve and lifter problems. Previous Packard management in the form of George Christopher had refused to put a V-8 in development, despite the considerable clamor for a V-8 from Packard engineers, dealers and customers. Packard should have had the V-8 on the market no later than 1953. Thus when Nance arrived at Packard, the V-8 was rushed into production. The company absolutely could not wait another year for the new engine. But in the rush to finish the engine and get it to market, the oil pump issue had not been addressed and that caused multiple problems just when the company didn’t need even one additional headache.

Further quality and reliability issues that plagued the 1955 Packards included the problematic conversion of its Ultramatic Drive to handle the power curve of the new V-8 and assembly issues resulting from the hasty conversion of the former Briggs body plant to a full production facility, a task the plant was never designed to do. The company was trying to do too much, too fast. Packard’s demise was hastened by the loss of defense contracts it was counting on to fund the planned ’57s.

When Nance arrived at Packard in 1952, he immediately set about trying to restore Packard as the premier luxury car marque in the U.S. He had concluded that Packard had cheapened its name with its “Junior” cars. He recognized that the company needed a volume line to pay the overhead, but he felt that the volume car should not bear the Packard nameplate. Thus he set out to divorce the “Junior” cars from the “Senior” cars.

With the introduction of the new “Contour Styling” 1951 Packards before Nance’s arrival in 1952, the Packard lineup consisted of the “200” series, the “Junior” line, built on a 122″ wheelbase and the “Senior” “300” and “400” series cars, built on a 127″ wheelbase. While less expensive than the “Senior” cars, the “Junior” cars were not cheap and were aimed at Buick, Oldsmobile and Chrysler in the mid-price field. However, as an example of the thinking that had hurt Packard’s image as a luxury make, in the “200” series was a two door “business coupé” for salesmen – a market best left to Ford, Chevrolet and Studebaker.

The 1951 “Senior” “300” and “400” series cars’ rear window treatment was more formal than that of the “200” series as were their rear fenders and taillights. The “300” would today be considered a “near-luxury” car while the “400” was aimed at the top of the market.

In 1951, Packard joined the craze for two door hardtops with the Mayfair. The Mayfair and the convertible should have been fully “Senior” cars but the decision was made to build them on the 122″ wheelbase “Junior” chassis, but use the engine of the “Senior” cars and fit them with luxurious interiors. These two models came to be called the “250” series.

James Nance

Packard president James Nance labored mightily to return Packard to being the premier American luxury marque. He arrived just as a perfect storm of events sank Packard. Had he arrived at Packard when first approached to run the company, perhaps the company’s story would be a happier tale. But, as the saying goes, “If ‘ifs and buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” 

This situation was in place for the 1952 models when Nance arrived, so there was nothing he could do to begin differentiating Packard’s models until 1953. With the introduction of the 1953 models, the “200” series became the Clipper. Advertising began to emphasize the difference between the Clipper as a mid-price car and the more luxurious Packards.

Nance’s goal was to have the Clipper become a separate make, reserving the luxury field to Packard. The “300” was continued as a less-expensive luxury Packard in 1953 and 1954, but Nance got his way in 1955 when the “300” was dropped. The Packard name was used only on the top end cars for 1955 – the Patrician Touring Sedan, The Four Hundred hardtop coupé and the Caribbean convertible. Nance argued that the less expensive cars were bleeding the Packard name white. Counter arguments were made that Cadillac and Lincoln offered a less expensive series (the Cadillac 62 and the Lincoln Capri) and that role was fulfilled for Packard with the “300,” even if the “200”- now Clipper – was a still lower-priced car. Those on that side of the argument ignored the fact that in 1951 and 1952, the “300” (even into 1954) was priced against Buick, not Cadillac and the very lowest-priced “200” was very cheaply trimmed and an embarrassment to the Packard name. A Packard business coupé? Really?

56 Clipper Custom

1956 Clipper Custom Touring Sedan in Jamaican Yellow and Dover White

When the 1956 models arrived, Nance had succeeded in making the Clipper a separate make and they were registered as such. The initial batch of ’56 Clippers did not bear the Packard name on them at all, except on the data plate where the cars were identified as being from the Clipper Division of the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. Howls from customers and dealers forced a running change where the Packard script was added to the lower right of the trunk lid on the Clippers.

56 Clipper Custom-hdtp-rear

An early production ’56 Clipper Custom hardtop in Persian Aqua and Dover White – it doesn’t have the Packard script in the lower right of the trunk lid. That’s a ’53 Packard Mayfair hardtop to the left.

The 1956 Clippers were offered in three series: the base “Deluxe,” the mid-price “Super” and the top-of-the line “Custom,” repeating the model differentiation introduced with the 1955s. The analogous Buick models for 1956 were the low-end Special, the mid-range Super and the top-of-the line, near-luxury Roadmaster. The Packard lineup continued as in 1955: Patrician Touring Sedan, Four Hundred hardtop coupé and the Caribbean, which was now offered both as a convertible and a hardtop coupé.

The auto industry had a record-breaking year in 1955, but that volume did not continue into 1956. Sales across the industry fell sharply with the advent of the 1956 model year. The falling market momentum combined with the quality problems Packard had with its ’55s severely crimped Packard’s volume for 1956. The company was forced to close the factory for the entire month of February to get production in line with demand.

Panic became the daily operating mode at the Packard headquarters on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard. The company was grasping at every idea to try to generate volume – and cash. The dealers – both Packard and Studebaker – were compounding the company’s problems by refusing to deal on the cars. The dealers on both sides of the organization had a reputation of holding out for full price on their cars whereas Ford, GM and Chrysler dealers would “wheel and deal” and go for volume. For example, Chevrolet dealers were reported to be content with (in 1955-1956 dollars) a profit of $100 per car while Studebaker dealers were averaging a profit of $374 a car – and then they complained about not being able to move their inventory. Unsold cars at the dealerships meant unbuilt cars from Packard in Detroit and Studebaker in South Bend. And that meant the cash was not coming in to pay the overhead, much less the tooling costs for the 1957s. With the deteriorating situation, the banks and insurance companies refused to give Nance the funding he needed to launch the new cars. It was in this mode of panic that the Executive came to be.

56 Executive-front

The front of Marikay Satryano’s ’56 Executive. Compare the grille with that of the Clipper Custom pictured above to see the difference in the front clips.

56 Executive-rf-fender-detail

The Executive was a clever and inexpensive ploy to get some volume, never mind that it went against Nance’s edict of “not selling cheaply against the Packard name.” A Packard front clip was put on a Clipper Custom chassis. The side trim was modified slightly from the Custom and an Executive name badge was applied to the trunk lid. The Custom was discontinued.  The Executive sold rapidly when it reached the dealers, but only 2,815 were built before Packard closed on 25 June, 1956. A sign of the chaos that had spread across Packard is that some of the Executives were built with the Clipper symbol in the steering wheel center and on the post of the “C”-pillar of the roof rather than the Packard crest being installed.

56 Executive-dash

The Executive retained the interior of the Clipper Custom.

The Executive was a handsome entry to the market that was well-received considering how few were built. Should Packard have introduced it sooner? Or should they have not built it at all? The Monday Morning Quarterbacks will continue to debate that question …

56 Executive-rear

The rear of Marikay Satryano’s ’56 Executive. From the “A”-pillar back, the Executive was the Clipper Custom body, thus it uses the “boomerang” taillights rather than the “cathedral taillights” (below) of the Senior Packards. The boomerang taillights became wildly popular with car customizers. If Packard had been able to sell as many cars as it did these taillights over their parts counters, Packard may have been able to soldier on a while longer.

5687 Cathedral


56 Executive hardtop-rear

Above: an Executive hardtop in Shannon Green and Eire Green two-tone. Most of the Executives were painted in two-tone combinations. Below: an ad for the Executive hardtop.

56 Executive ad

Below: the front cover of an Executive brochure.

56 Executive ad-front


Add yours →

  1. Jack Darnell 30/08/2016 — 07:14

    Great article. Of course I just love the pictures of the cars. At the top of the article it is written about the classic Packard being driven down the Taconic Park way. WE hiked under and over that road. I sat here imagining WAVING and YELLing as that dude drove by. I enjoy seeing a classic on the road, defying progress, I have been known to circle a block just to see one that is parked.

    The entire article with If’s and But’s is good, along with some great and some misguided men. It is hard to predict the future (as the need for a good V-8). I was in the building business my brother in retail (something you would understand) He was always thinking 6 months ahead (i.e. Christmas orders in July), I could not have done that. The same with some men who are promoted high enough that their foresight guides a multi-million dollar company, ONE MIS STEP of out guessing the future spells disaster, as pointed out in the article.


  2. Reyman Branting 31/08/2016 — 07:24

    This article put Nance in a different light from my previous exposure. It is my understanding that he ordered destruction of old Packard parts to force owners to buy new Packards. That soured me on him.
    His foresight in separating Clipper from Packard and insisting on a V8 have changed my opinion.
    Has anyone pictures of the projected 57 Packard? The Predictor was a show car, not intended to go into production, but I assume some of its features would have appeared in 57.


    • The parts destruction order is often pinned on Nance, most often by people with an agenda against him.

      Nance was a forward thinker. The unbuilt ’57s would have had (mechanical) fuel injection and disc brakes as standard equipment. Now think about that – this was planned for ’57. The first American car to get disc brakes was the ’63 Studebaker Avanti. Fuel injection didn’t become commonplace until the late ’70s, but it was not until the late ’80s that it truly replaced carburetors across the auto industry. The “retro” Packard grill on the ’57s would have been impact-absorbing; another feature that wasn’t adopted across the industry until the early ’70s – and then it was by government edict. Flow-through ventilation would have been standard on the ’57s. It appears that this is an idea Nance took with him to Ford when he became general manager of the Lincoln-Mercury division. The ’57s would have had a retractable rear window on some models. Packard first proposed this on the ”53 Balboa show car designed my Richard Teague. It was a feature on the Predictor. Nance took this idea with him to Lincoln-Mercury.

      I posted one image of the planned ’57s, a Four Hundred four door hardtop, in last week’s Gear Head here:

      They would have been quite handsome. They would have been considerably lower than the ’56s.


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