Gear Head Tuesday – Could This Car Have Saved Packard?

Gear Head

Another Packard “What If”


An exceptionally good “home made” effort at a Packard concept for 1957 by noted Studebaker historian John Bridges. The sweep spears on the front fenders aren’t quite Packard-accurate and (in my opinion) the front needs a little further refinement. Those nit picks aside, The car came out very well as you will see further below. Below for comparison: a real Packard sweep spear vs. the fabricated version above.

'34 Packard Twelve belt moulding


More Monday Morning Quarterbacking – 60 years after the event – on what might have been for Packard. The following article, published originally in The Packard Cormorant is by Studebaker historian John Bridges. Bridges has specialized in the still-beautiful Robert Bourke-designed ’53-’54 Studebaker Starliner/Starlight coupes. He has published two well-documented books about the Bourke coupes, “Studebaker’s Finest- A History and Restoration Guide for the 1953-1954 Studebaker Coupe” and “Robert Bourke Designs for Studebaker.” Mr. Bridges is the retired vice-president of a major U.S. corporation and holds over 100 U.S. and foreign patents for his inventions and designs. He has restored a number of classic automobiles, several of them Studebakers. With the exception of added photos and links, Mr. Bridges’ article is posted below unaltered from how it appeared in The Packard Cormorant.

Many factors affect the survival of an automobile manufacturer. Over the past century, literally hundreds have failed for one reason or another. Even today, one only has to look at General Motors and Chrysler to see how out-of-control costs, combined with poor management, can threaten to sink the largest and most powerful companies, regardless of the quality of their cars and trucks. Based on those examples, the short answer to the question: “Could better design have saved Packard?” is “Probably not.” However, it is intriguing to dig into Packard’s checkered history and see how design mistakes contributed to the demise of this once-mighty automobile giant.

'34 Packard Twelve

Undisputed luxury leader: ’34 Packard Twelve

In the decade before World War II, Packard was the undisputed leader in the luxury automotive field in America. For most of those years, Cadillac ranked a weak second, Lincoln was third. In fact, Packard remained the best-selling American luxury automobile from 1924 to 1947. Elegant styling plus high quality and price (snob appeal) kept Packard ahead all those years. Discriminating buyers knew that the Packard was the best America had to offer. Disbelievers were told to “Ask the man who owns one.”


Moving downmarket: ’35 Packard 120

Unfortunately, by the end of World War II, Packard no longer possessed its traditional magic formula for success. By that time, Packard had introduced the 120 and the Clipper, both sold at Buick prices. In 1948, the car got fatter and less attractive. The traditional ox-yoke grille had been modified to look more “contemporary.” Many Packard owners thought that was a mistake and let executives in Detroit know it.


1949 Packard

“Pregnant Elephant,” “Upside down bathtub,” two of the unflattering sobriquets attached to the ’48-’50 Packards. Compare to the ’48 Cadillac Sixty Special, below:


In 1951, the “pregnant” 1948-to-1950 models were abandoned and a new design evolved. The chief designer, John Reinhart, was forced to alter a well-proportioned body because the engineers made him raise the beltline. Their reasoning: “Glass is more expensive than steel.” The 1951 models were the first to express the ox-yoke grille in a completely horizontal form.


The John Rinehart-designed ’51 Packard Patrician

After Packard purchased Studebaker in 1954, plans for an all-new shared body were soon under way. By mid 1956, with the money running out, the shared body program was dropped and Packard production moved to South Bend. With no money left, there was only one way to keep the Packard name alive. The 1957 and 1958 Packards were nothing more than a poorly executed re-badging of the 1956 Studebaker President. Even at that late date, if designer Duncan McRae had returned to the traditional Packard grille of the 1930s and used other Packard design cues in a more dignified and refined way, Packard would have sold more cars than they did. At the end of this article, we’ll compare the “catfish-mouth” 1958 Packard Hawk with my Packard Hawk concept, with a traditional Packard grille and restrained tail fins.

Packard’s Glorious History

In its earliest days, Packard, like other luxury automobiles, produced both a complete car and a bare chassis consisting of a frame, axles, running gear, radiator with shell, hood, cowl, fenders, running board, and headlights. The customer could choose one of Packard’s standard designs or one from a custom body maker. In 1904, Packard established with its Model L the ox-yoke style of radiator, and in 1906, a hexagon was used on the center of the wheel hub. By 1910, those styling cues and a long hood made Packards instantly recognizable. Most other makes of the day were lighter and spindly looking compared with Packard. In addition to its visual advantages, Packard had many mechanical firsts, such as its V-12 engine in 1915 and its nitrocellulose lacquer colors in 1927. But the things that kept Packard on top were elegant styling and quality that rivaled the British-built Rolls-Royce and other luxury imports.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, sales of all makes, especially luxury automobiles, plummeted. Wealthy individuals who could still afford one felt uncomfortable being seen in an expensive car. Packard took the bold step of introducing an ultra-luxurious Twin Six and a sporty but under-priced Light Eight. Because it was a Packard and was priced comparable to a Buick, the Light Eight sold better than the Twin Six. Admittedly, the Light Eight offered breathing room during this critical time, but owners of the senior models felt it compromised the Packard name and image.

A New Path

In 1935, an all-new design was produced — the 120. Many claim the 120 helped get Packard through the Great Depression. Yes, Packard stayed in business while other great companies went under. Marmon went into receivership in 1933. Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg shut down in 1937. Pierce-Arrow failed in 1938. General Motors and Chrysler, with their strong corporate backing and broad range of models, were able to survive. In 1937, Packard introduced a six-cylinder series whose prices were less than a Nash Ambassador. In 1939, Packard essentially abandoned the luxury market by discontinuing the big expensive twelve-cylinder senior line.

During the Great Depression, Packard probably did the right thing by introducing lower-cost models. But with the onset of World War II and the end of the Great Depression, many believe Packard should have returned to the high-priced luxury field that the company had dominated for so many years. Even though times had changed, the previous success of the lower-priced models lured top management into continuing their “Compete with Buick” strategy.

In 1940, after scuttling its previous senior line, the company introduced the narrow-grilled Super-8 One-Sixty and Custom Super-8 One-Eighty. The cars looked very much alike to the less expensive One-Ten and One-Twenty. All exclusivity was lost when the following story was widely circulated: “Coming home one afternoon, an estate owner met his off-duty gardener headed out the driveway. They both were driving new Packards.”

47 Packard Clipper

’47 Clipper Custom Super Eight

By 1941, Packard had nothing to compete with the Cadillac 60 Special or the Lincoln Continental. When planning for the 1941 Clipper design, Packard chose the Buick Roadmaster as its competitive target, again leaving the luxury field to others. The new design, although pleasant enough in appearance, had lost the traditional “Packard look.” It is surprising that the design came out as well as it did since it was a committee effort of Dutch Darrin, Howard Yeager, Werner Gubitz and others. The new model enjoyed some success, but was discontinued on February 9, 1942, when all carmakers turned to helping win the war. Packard resumed building the Clipper in 1945 and built the same model until mid 1947.

Losing Ground

Although the Packard name and reputation kept the company slightly ahead of Cadillac in sales, the tide was turning fast. It was common knowledge that Cadillac was planning to introduce a completely new body in 1948. Packard, still believing it had a chance to stay on top, instituted a crash program for its own new body that year. Since Packard’s Styling Department did not have room for a full-size clay model, the Briggs Manufacturing Company developed the new model by simply slapping clay on the sides of a 1946 Clipper body. The resultant “inverted bathtub” or “pregnant” Packard was similar to some other designs of the day: in particular, the Nash. But the design’s slab sides and vertical/horizontal grille made a presentation that was no match for the beautiful new 1948 Cadillac. And let’s not forget that Cadillacs now had “fins.” Packard still outsold Cadillac by 32,000 cars that year; this was because the Packard name still meant something and Packards were being sold at Buick prices.
A strong seller’s market allowed Packard to increase production to 104,593 in 1949. But Packard’s supremacy was ending. Cadillac now had a wonderful new lightweight and powerful overhead valve V-8 engine. Packard would never again be the leader in the luxury field.

A Bold New Design

In the 1950 model year, Packard’s sales plunged to only 42,640 cars. The seller’s market had ended. With Cadillac’s still-new-looking 1948 models and a new Lincoln having been introduced in 1949, there was no way another facelift of the 1948-50 models would have kept Packard competitive. John Reinhart, a Packard alumnus, who had been with Raymond Loewy and Associates, rejoined Packard in 1947. In 1949 he was tasked to design the new 1951 models. Reinhart gladly accepted the offer, and, along with the help of Briggs’ designers and modelers, came up with a big, bold new body design. It was massive. Reinhart said that he wasn’t happy with what he called the “high pockets” look of the new model (referring to the high beltline mandated by Packard engineers). To decrease the amount of glass, Reinhart wanted to lower the roof. The engineers vetoed that suggestion. Also, he was told that a new horizontal grille was needed. The resultant grille turned out to be the biggest grille die-casting produced by any manufacturer up to that time. From a cost-and-styling standpoint, the grille could be changed with a facelift, but Packard was stuck with the heavy body section and massive rear fenders until the company left Detroit.

Packard’s new president, James J. Nance, joined the firm in 1952, and was quite vocal in his evaluation of the 1951 design. He said “The design should have been more conservative. Packard should never have put out anything as radical as the ’51.” Some customers and dealers agreed. By 1953, Richard “Dick” Teague had taken over Packard styling and was working on a concept car that featured a traditional vertical grille. Because the car was based on Reinhart’s original “high-pockets” 1951 body, the grille looked a little out of place. Named “The Request,” the car received good reviews on the show circuit, but management took the project no further. Teague also oversaw an extensive facelift for the 1955 seniors, with cathedral taillights and a new front clip. Reinhart’s basic 1951 design was still used through the 1956 models.


Above: The ’55 Packard Request show car

Show Cars

By 1955, Dick Teague was working under the overall direction of the new Studebaker-Packard styling vice-president, William Schmidt, who had come over from Ford. Some sources state Schmidt and Teague conceived the incredible 1956 Predictor show car. However, Teague admitted that Richard Macadam and others on his staff assisted. (This is similar to Raymond Loewy claiming credit for the 1953 Studebaker, when Bob Bourke did the actual design.) Although innovative with many excellent styling features, the Predictor was impractical with its “roll-top-desk” roof and “Reynolds wrap” stripe down a ponderously long cigar-box body.


’56 Predictor show car

Probably the most troubling design feature was its Edsel-esque nose. It was rumored that Schmidt had seen an Edsel mock-up before he left Ford in 1955. Whether true or not, this probably had little effect on the Predictor’s nose, since Teague and fellow Packard designer Robin Jones had been considering a narrow vertical grill for some time.

Plans for 1957

In 1954, Packard purchased the Studebaker Corporation. Dick Teague’s counterpart in design at Studebaker was Duncan McRae. In 1955, a plan was developed to have an all-new inner body that could be used for the upcoming 1957 Studebakers and Packards. Outer sheet metal including fenders, hood and trunk would be unique for each make and model. It was a good plan, but there was one big problem — the new Studebaker-Packard Corporation did not have the resources to finance the all-new body. Throughout 1956, hoping for a miracle, S-P allowed the design team to develop the new body designs. The Predictor featured several styling features from the proposed 1957 Packard line.

'57 Four Hundred

Still born: The ’57 Packard Four Hundred four door hardtop

By mid-1956, with the money running out, all hope for the all-new 1957 body faded away. The only hope to keep the Packard name alive was to take the 1956 Studebaker President sedan and re-badge it as a Packard. The obvious question became: “Why not just let the proud Packard name die a reasonably dignified death?” There were at least three reasons. First was the hope that the company could obtain financing for the new body. Second, loss of hundreds of dealers would be impossible to replace if a new Packard were offered later. And third, dealer’s inventory of cars and parts would have to be repurchased by a company with no money. By necessity, Dick Teague and Duncan McRae did their best to make 1957 Packard Clippers out of 1956 Studebakers.


The sad ’57-’58 “Packardbakers”

Except for the huge chrome headlight eyebrows and the “Reynolds wrap” stripe down the side, the 1957 Packard Clippers weren’t bad looking, although they still looked a lot more like Studebakers than Packards. Nobody was fooled. McRae completely lost credibility with his designs of the 1958 Packard line. With a droop-nose fiberglass hood, “fish-mouth” grille and strange double-decker tail fins, the cars looked like neither Studebakers nor Packards. In fact, they didn’t look like anything anyone would want to buy. In 1957, only 4,809 Packards were sold and 1958 was even worse: only 2,642 were sold.

What Might Have Been

Was the year 1956 simply too late to save Packard? Maybe so, maybe not. Let’s do some supposing: suppose Teague and McRae had brought back the traditional ox-yoke grille. And let’s suppose they had chosen a more restrained use of chrome and the elimination of the kitschy “Reynolds wrap” side moldings and Dagmar bumper guards (obviously a Cadillac knockoff). Suppose they had stuck with single headlights and offered driving lights as an accessory. And suppose the tail fin design had been more refined and less like Studebaker’s. In short, what if a more classical design had been chosen for the 1957 Packards? Would the Packard name have survived?

My 1957 Packard Hawk Concept

Being an industrial designer, I have always regarded styling as important, especially the styling of automobiles. My own collection includes such styling triumphs as the 1953 Studebaker Starliner hardtop, the 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible, the 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible, the 1949 Cadillac fastback and, my favorite, the 1955 Studebaker sports car concept (featured on the cover of the January 1993 Turning Wheels). With the exception of the 1949 Cadillac with its state-of-the-art 331-cid overhead-valve V-8 engine, nothing in my collection could be considered a mechanical breakthrough.

To me, the important thing is that they are all beautiful pieces of rolling sculpture. Even as a boy, I loved the design of the 1953 Studebaker hardtops. As time went on, I became fascinated with all post-war Studebakers and ultimately became a life member of the Studebaker Drivers Club (the best $100 I ever spent). I later became friends with Studebaker designer Robert “Bob” Bourke. His clean, uncluttered designs of the early 1950s make Detroit’s bloated and chrome-decked showboats look old-fashioned by comparison. But with non-stop advertising, and low prices, the Big Three’s cars sold well. By comparison, both Packard and Studebaker sales were weak. To compensate, Studebaker slapped yards of chrome on Bourke’s clean designs. That didn’t help. What Studebaker really needed was lower manufacturing costs.

With no money for tooling for an all-new Packard body for 1957, the company was forced to re-badge Studebakers and try to pass them off as Packards. When I first saw the 1958 Packard Hawk, I commented to Bob Bourke “It’s just awful what they did to your beautiful coupe. I think I could have designed a better looking Packard Hawk than that one.” His reply was “So could I, but it’s too late for me. Why don’t you do it?” Bob’s been gone for several years now, but I never forgot his challenge. So after five years of design work and changes to a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk body, I have now built what I think a Packard Hawk should have looked like.

To me, the front end of an automobile is the most important part. It expresses the car’s personality and identity. As stated earlier, I thought Packard made a huge mistake when they abandoned the traditional ox-yoke grille. Can you imagine Rolls-Royce adopting a Buick grille? By putting a dip in the Hawk’s front bumper, I was able to design in a full-size, traditional Packard grille. Next, to give some continuity and respect to 1950s styling trends, I designed hooded headlights, side spears, front fender moldings and hex-centered wheel covers. Even though the Packard Predictor show car, in total, was not a good styling direction, certain features, such as cathedral taillights, seat design, the three-tunnel module at the top center of the instrument panel, and the beautiful pearlescent white body color were attractive, so I incorporated them into my Packard Hawk.


The instrument panel of John Bridges’ prototype ’57 Packard Hawk

By 1957, it was almost mandatory that all American cars would have tail fins to accent the rear fenders. For my Hawk, I chose a restrained design similar to that year’s Chrysler. To accomplish the design changes to the 1957 Studebaker Hawk, I kept in mind the tooling cost that Studebaker-Packard would have incurred for major body changes. I only had to cut the existing hood and add a new fiberglass section, which fitted the front clip without modification. I removed the old fiberglass hood hump and added a special Packard-like hump, blending it into the front section. Changes to the interior included special door panels, a center module for the padded instrument panel, extra padding in the two-tone seats, and color-coordinated window trim. I smoothed the old ribbed trunk and added a “circle and V.”


The rear of John Bridges’ Packard Hawk prototype. While it very much resembles the ’57 “Forward Look” Chrysler rear treatment, it works very well for this proposal and it is clearly an update of stylist Richard Teague’s famous “cathedral” taillights on the ’55-’56 Packards.

Had similar design changes been made in 1957 to the Studebaker-built Packard Clipper sedans, I believe that the Studebaker-Packard Corporation would have sold a lot more cars than they did. Maybe better design could have saved Packard, after all.


Above: One of 588 made, the catfish-mouth ’58 Packard Hawk. In our opinion, John’ Bridges’ proposal is altogether more handsome.


An appropriate metaphor for the Studebaker-Packard merger:
(Hat tip: “B-Squared”)



Add yours →

  1. How sad this story. For what was once the world’s most respected automobile to wind up as a car no one wanted.
    I have only had 2 Packards in my lifetime, a 1940 120 and a 1953 Cavalier.

    The Cavalier turned out to be a huge piece of junk that I hated almost immediately. The 120 was a wonderful car. Both had been bought used. The 120 I bought somewhere in the early 50’s, the ’53 Cavalier in 2013.

    If Packard could have kept the classic look and quality, it would still have been alive today, but the bean counters saw to that.


  2. Jack Darnell 13/09/2016 — 07:18

    Enjoyed the article and perspective. From the first designs after WWII someone lost the ‘red’ off their candy. I completely agree with this statement taken from the article:
    To me, the front end of an automobile is the most important part. It expresses the car’s personality and identity.
    EQ.. It is amazing what the mind holds but someone else may say it and you get the Oh $hit moment. He is right!
    Anyway, the Packard or Studebaker from the 50’s would be a nice car to own and drive.


  3. Predictor’s “nose” was not intended so much to be an actual grille, but rather was an energy-absorbing vertical bumper (yes, another prediction that came true). It was spring-loaded and designed to retract to absorb impacts, and then rebound to the original position (see the Predictor history in The Packard Cormorant magazine back issue) It was the answer to what happened to the Request grille work upon an actual impact.

    Comparisons of Predictor to Edsel are really moot… academic since Packard had been planning a vertical grille theme for some time prior. The Request was clear evidence of this plan. And Edsel debuted for 1958 model year. Packard already had their look dialed in by 1956. So had the real 1957 Packards made it to market, the 1958 Edsel probably would have received a lot more massaging in its appearance! Otherwise who would have looked derivative from whom?

    And… impractical or not, Predictor was one of the most popular and most imitated concept cars of all time with styling swipes from it still going on well into the 1970s.

    Finally, the never-built-but-intended Detroit 1957 Packards were basically Bill Schmidt-styled cars rather than Richard Teague. Bill even kept one of the original models for himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 13/09/2016 — 18:43

    Paul, another excellent article, however, I take exception with the statement that Packard bought Studebaker! Studebaker was the dominant entity–It was STUDEBAKER Packard, not PACKARD Studebaker, and Run predominately By Studebaker Management, not Packard management. Just my humble comments, Gordon


    • Paul Delaney 14/09/2016 — 21:24

      Humble, yes and mistaken, as well. Packard CEO, James Nance purchased Studebaker and ran SP until grotesque union deals in South Bend and insufficient capital to finance future product, brought the house down.


  5. Robert Burton 17/09/2016 — 19:01

    I was in in high school then, had sketched similar ideas on the Stude coupe: Packard grille on Hawk,hood, bullet bumper protruding from side grills, predictor fins tacked on, Thunderbird or Predictor roof. My idea was to drop Hawk line and produce Packard line on coupe body. Tool for a 4 door hardtop on coupe body when funding is available, also V12 based on Stude V8. Have a convertible badged as a Caribbean. Packabaker sedans and wagons would be marketed as Clippers, as planned.


  6. kimmargosein 23/10/2016 — 21:16

    Sorry, but this is worse than the fishmouth Hawk. It reminds e of the VW Beetle with Rolls Royce grille that was popular in the 70s.


  7. Nikolaus Bautista 02/03/2018 — 18:16

    Do you have photos of the Sedan, that Mr. Bridges made?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Packard-Stuedbaker merger/purchase was doomed from the beginning ! At the time of the union, Packard had money in the bank. Studebaker was borrowing money to make payroll. In the past, Stuedebaker bought out other auto companies, only to liquidate for cash! A Studebaker man ended up as Chairman of the board of directors. This insured Stuedebaker control of assets.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. el Packard Clipper 1941-1047 es una obra de Arte!!!demasiado bello para la mayoria de la gente de los Estados Unidos .que solo aman los Ford y los Chevrolet!!!VIva Por Siempre The Packard Motor Cars!!!


  10. Why has no one made a new Packard that is technically modern with modern styling? The guy that made a modern interpretation of the ugly bathtub Packards was foolish. So much money was wasted. A 1948 Packard just looked old compared to the new 1948 Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles top line cars. And Packard’s total mistake of updating a pre WW2 Clipper instead of building a new, modern 1948 Packard was an idiotic move as well. They had the money then to stay relevant, and they didn’t choose to do so. That’s when things went to hell and there was no coming back. The 1951 models looked dated when new and aged poorly. There were so many management mistakes after WW2. Packard made automobiles that people wanted to be seen in. It was the car of movie stars and Presidents. Why couldn’t that happen again? America desperately needs such a car today.

    Liked by 1 person

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