Gear Head Tuesday – The Bitter End of Packard

Gear Head

Hat Tip_2

Hat tip to “Eddie E.” for inspiring this post.

Check out Eddie’s blog: Disaffected Musings


Ad for the 1958 Packard Town Sedan

Over the course of this blog’s “Gear Head Tuesday” posts, we’ve covered the sad story of Packard’s demise – and what we missed when Packard was unable to produce the Predictor-inspired 1957 models. Most Packard aficionados consider the true end of Packard as having come on 25 June, 1956 when the last Detroit-built Packard, a Patrician Touring Sedan, VIN 5682-4775, came off the assembly line at the Conner Avenue plant.

Packard’s last gasp was in 1958 – a sad end to this once-great marque. The house fell on Packard when the company’s president, James Nance, was unable to finance the all-new ’57s. Packard’s merger with Studebaker had been disastrous for Packard. The merger was not structured to Packard’s favor. Studebaker shareholders were favored in the deal. Studebaker even got it’s name ahead of Packard’s in the merged company. Because Studebaker was favored in the merger, much overhead that should have been dispensed with continued to drain the company’s coffers. For only one example, both Packard and Studebaker kept their respective proving grounds open.

Sales collapsed across the market in 1956 compared to banner year 1955, but sales especially fell at Studebaker-Packard. The quality issues that blighted the ’55 Packards further hurt the sales of the ’56s. The early 1956 problems with Packard’s “Twin Traction” limited slip differential – an industry first – further harmed Packard’s 1956 sales. To balance inventories, Packard closed the factory for the entire month of February, 1956. When the financial institutions refused Nance’s pleas for funding, Packard closed its Detroit facilities on 25 June, 1956. Over time, Packard’s once-grand factory (designed by Albert Kahn) – on East Grand Boulevard – became a world-wide symbol for the decline of Detroit.

Defense contractor Curtiss-Wright gave Studebaker-Packard a rescue of sorts, a rescue that primarily benefitted Curtiss-Wright. Curtiss-Wright wanted Packard’s new facility at Utica, MI and Studebaker’s Chippewa plant for its own defense work. Nance had built Utica not only to assemble Packard’s new V-8 engine and Twin Ultramatic transmissions – but also to build Packard’s Defense contract jet engines and other Packard Defense work. The cash flow from the jet engine contract would have done much to fund the all-new ’57 line. In fact, the major justification for building Utica was Packard’s defense work. Seldom remembered today is that Nance wanted to expand Packard’s aviation and marine engine business beyond Defense work. Those power plants would have been built at Utica.

In what most certainly had to be a deliberate ploy to destroy Packard, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, former GM chairman Charles Wilson yanked most of Packard and Studebaker’s Defense work. This precipitated the crisis that led to Nance being unable to finance the new ’57s.

Boeing B-47

Packard power! The B-47 bomber was powered by Packard-built jet engines.

With the Detroit operations shuttered, a “Packard Clipper” cobbled together with pieces from the Packard parts bin and pasted onto a Studebaker President Classic body was marketed for 1957.

This “Packard Clipper” was offered in two body styles – a 4 door sedan and a 4 door station wagon.  The  most notable pieces from the Packard parts bin used on this “Packardbaker” were  the “boomerang” taillights used on the ’56 Clipper.


The 1956 Packard Predictor show car (above) inspired the unbuilt 1957 Packards (below).

'57 Four Hundred

For 1958, stylist Duncan McRae had the very unenviable task of trying to create a Packard silk purse still based on the sow’s ear Studebaker President body – and had no money to spend in doing so. The ’57 and ’58 “Packards” were intended to be stop-gap cars in the hopes that a Packard worthy of the name would soon be offered. It was not to be – even the Facel-based Packard idea went nowhere.


Instead of the Predictor-inspired Packards, for 1957, we got these “Packardbakers.”


For 1958, the so-called Packard’s body styles were expanded from the four door sedan and four door wagon to include a new two door hardtop and the Studebaker Golden Hawk-based Packard Hawk. (If the roofline of the hardtop reminds you of the Chrysler hardtops of the same era, it is because it was reportedly designed by Chrysler stylist Virgil Exner’s son. The hardtop body was also offered as a Studebaker President and Commander.)


Ad for the 1958 Packard station wagon. Only 159 were built.

1958 Packard wagon-rear


Returning from a trip to Europe, Curtiss-Wright boss Roy Hurley ordered Stylist Duncan McRae to make the Studebaker Golden Hawk look like a Ferrari. The result was the Packard Hawk which, to McRae’s surprise, Hurley ordered into production. 588 were built.

'58 Packard Starlight

Probably the best looking of the 1958 “Packards” was the Starlight hardtop of which 675 were built. Our friend John argues that a slightly larger development budget could have made the car more handsome.

Both 1957 and 1958 were recession years and the only car Studebaker-Packard built that sold in any volume was the bare-bones Studebaker Scotsman. What to do about Packard? Harold Churchill was now president of Studebaker-Packard. The Scotsman inspired him to have the Lark developed. Money that might have gone to tooling a we’re-fooling-no-one 1959 Packardbaker needed to be spent on the Lark, all the more so because with 1958’s abysmal sales, the company was hemorrhaging cash. Thus on 13 July 1958, the decision was made that there would be no 1959 Packards. Packard only sold a total of 2,622 1958 model year cars: 1,200 sedans, 675 two-door hardtops, 588 Hawks and a mere 159 station wagons. The last “Packard” was produced on 19 August 1958.

The two very last “Packards” built were not cars at all, but were two specially-ordered Studebaker trucks badged as Packards that were sent to Argentina. Packard had closed its truck building operations in 1923.

“This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”
T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


The 2 very last Packards produced were not cars but specially-ordered trucks that went to Argentina.


The old gas station photos series as posted at Curbside Classic continues:

Shell station-Italy



Add yours →

  1. rulesoflogic 21/08/2018 — 06:45

    Great post as always. The Curtiss-Wright episode is yet another example of desperate times driving desperate actions.

    Thanks for the shout-out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gary Lindstrom 21/08/2018 — 08:07

    Another good article from you. Thanks! It might be mentioned that ALL 1957 Packards came with a supercharged 289 cid V8 (275 HP) and only the Packard Hawk model used this engine for 1958.

    I owned a 1958 Packard hardtop sedan for nine years. We liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right you are, Gary, about the supercharger. I’ve always thought all of the ’58 Packards should have had the supercharged engine as a way of differentiating them from the Studebakers. Given the grim situation facing Studebaker-Packard at the time, though, it probably would have made little, if any, difference in the number of Packards sold.


  3. rulesoflogic 21/08/2018 — 08:32

    I believe that the 1957 Packard was the first make to offer only supercharged engines in their cars.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. MICHAEL CENIT 21/08/2018 — 09:23

    Good story, I always believed the 57 was a pretty good “Clipper”, not a good Packard. If Packard would have continued to build the senior stuff in Detroit and the Clipper in South Bend, they would have be better off. The senior buyers would have felt better not having the Clipper made side by side with the senior line on the same body.

    The 57 was a good middle priced car, but not good enough to carry the whole line. As for the 58, the only thing I can think of is “what were they thinking”


  5. Good read and very educational. I have read some of this but parts were new. Yes, yes yes it would have been nice to see some of the dreams hit the road…… But…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even with all the problems Nance faced, he stuck to his effort to return Packard to its former glory and to make Studebaker the volume brand it should have been. Despite all the stars aligning against them, they came SO close to pulling it off …


  6. kimmargosein 10/06/2019 — 15:04

    Sorry to get in late on this. This comment covers all of your “decline and fall” threads. The gist is “if only Packard did this, or if only Packard didn’t do that”. Simply, the day of an independent carmaker that made 100k or so cars per year and did most everything in-house were over. They simply could not afford the r and d, marketing, etc over such short production runs. Remember, the mid-price and luxury marques could use inner sheet metal parts, window glass,etc and access to the bottomless parts bins of the low price marques. It’s fun to analyze the mistakes these independents made but let’s face it, even if they did everything right, the best they could hope for is to stumble along for another couple years, producing cars that 50 years later, people will ask not “why did they only make so few” but “how did they manage to sell so many?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent summary of the situation! The proof of your statement is found in the history of American Motors. Romney elected to go his own way and not complete the merger with Packard and Studebaker. In the short term, it worked pretty well for them – but where are they now?


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