Gear Head Tuesday – Late to the Party: The Packard V-8

Gear Head

Packard V-8

Late to the Party – The Packard V-8

Wherein we discuss motors, styling and the end of the Detroit-built Packards 

Packard was known as the “Master Motor Builder”. This reputation began in 1916 when Packard introduced its Twin-Six, one of the earliest V-12s. The “Master Motor Builder” reputation was furthered in World War I when Packard produced the Liberty V-12 for aviation applications in the war. Packard’s straight eight engines were – and still are – highly regarded for their durability and smooth operation. In World War II, Packard marine V-12s powered the PT boats. And it was Packard that figured out how to mass produce the enormously complex Rolls-Royce aviation Merlin V-12, an engine made up of more than 14,000 parts. Despite its reputation as being Detroit’s Master Motor Builder, Packard didn’t bring a V-8 to its passenger cars until 1955. Why?

Postwar, the V-8 craze had swept Detroit. Everyone HAD to have a V-8. But Packard lagged, sticking with its tried-and-true straight 8 through the end of the 1954 model year. Ford had begun the V-8 craze with its “flat head” V-8 in 1932.  In the pre-war years, Cadillac used a flat head V-8 which was continued after the war and through the end of the 1948 model year. Packard stubbornly stuck with its straight eights.

In 1949, Cadillac and Oldsmobile really ignited the V-8 era with the introduction of their modern overhead valve V-8s. The 1949 Cadillacs introduced sleek new styling that made Packard’s post-war “upside down bathtubs” look even more like what the pejorative name suggests. 

Packard’s Golden Anniversary year was 1949. To mark their 50th  anniversary, they revised their “bathtubs”, introduced in 1948, with a mid-year facelift and also introduced their Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission. But the cars continued to be powered by the pre-war straight eight.

Packard was run by George Christopher. Christopher had come to Packard from General Motors where he had worked at both Pontiac and Buick. He was regarded across the auto industry as being a production genius. Packard hired him to launch their lower priced “120” series in the mid-1930s. Packard, like all other auto manufacturers had been hard-hit by the Depression. The company realized they needed a lower priced, volume car to carry the company overhead. The 120 was that car and it saved Packard in the Depression. Christopher modernized Packard manufacturing and the car was successfully brought to market.

While Christopher may have saved the company during the Depression, he also sowed the seeds for the company’s destruction. He developed a hatred for Packard’s luxury car business and was determined to take the company down-market. Down market did not mean down into the low price class like Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth, but into what we now call the near-luxury class with Christopher’s old home, Buick, being his particular target. Packard’s board sat back and let this happen.

It was in this scenario that Packard came out of World War II with an automatic transmission – the only independent manufacturer to do so – but no V-8. Again, we ask “Why?” I have a theory about this, though I’ve never found any proof either to back it up or refute it. The theory is that Christopher knew that Buick was developing its own automatic transmission, the Dynaflow, while Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Pontiac got GM’s other automatic, the Hydramatic. Christopher also knew that while Oldsmobile and Cadillac were getting the new overhead valve V-8, Buick (for the time being) was sticking with its straight eight. With Buick being Christopher’s target, he shut down Packard engineers (and customers) who were clamoring for a V-8 but plunged Packard into the costly development of Ultramatic.

A comparison of the styling of the ’49 Packard with the ’49 Cadillac and ’49 Buick shows how GM had leap-frogged Packard in styling:

1949 Packard




While Buick didn’t get it’s V-8 until 1953 in its upper series cars, the ’49 Buicks (like their Oldsmobile and Cadillac cousins) got fresh new bodies that made Packard’s “bathtubs” look dowdy. In 1949, as well as introducing overhead valve V-8s in Oldsmobile and Cadillac, GM set down a new styling marker by introducing the “hardtop” body style in it’s top three makes.

Long time readers will recall that I’ve always been critical of the ’48-’50 Packard styling. However, Packard’s post-war styling needs to be viewed in the context of the times rather than from a Monday Morning Quarterback look backwards. Note that the Packard’s body is more of a true “envelope” style whereas the flashy ’49 GM product still have pontoon rear fenders that are not flush with the body.

The styling of the 22nd and 23rd Series Packards (1948-1950) was actually very much in vogue with the times – the envelope look in reaction against non-flush fenders and exposed running boards of pre-war cars. Packard was not alone in this: the postwar Nash, the Hudson “Step-downs” , the “which way are they going?” ’47 Studebakers and the new Kaisers were all of the envelope school of styling. But where was Packard, the Master Motor Builder, with its V-8?

The answer to that question is: with Christopher running the show, Packard wouldn’t get a V-8 until Buick did.

The Packard board belatedly awoke from its slumber and realized Christopher had to go and fired him in 1949. Packard sought the replace Christopher with James Nance, the marketing wunderkind who was running General Electric’s Hotpoint division. Nance demurred and Packard put their Controller, Hugh Ferry, into the president’s office. Ferry was a good man, but didn’t want the job and did little to nothing to get the V-8 development program going. Packard finally landed Nance in 1952. Nance turned the engineers loose and the development of their V-8 began.

Launched for the 1955 model year, the new Packard V-8 was typical of Packard in that it was over-built. It was not a radical design as had been speculated in the automotive press, but it was engineered from the beginning with expansion in mind. The bore centers were spaced 5″ apart, making the possibility of the engine displacing 500 cubic inches a reality. For 1955, the V-8 was offered in two displacements: 320 cubic inches and 352 cubic inches. Both engines shared a 3.5″ stroke. The cylinder bores in the 320 measured 3.815 inches and the 352s had 4″ cylinder bores. The 320 powered the Clipper Deluxe and Super while the Clipper Custom got a de-tuned 352. A 352 with more output powered the Senior Packard Patrician Touring Sedan and Four Hundred hardtop. The 500 Caribbeans built were powered by 352s fitted with dual four barrel carburetors. In the short-lived component sharing plan with American Motors (as part of the merger that never happened), Packard 320s powered the senior Nashes and Hudsons.

Construction details of Packard’s new V-8 included a beefy cast crankshaft with six counterweights, fully machined combustion chambers with generous squish/quench area, and symmetrical cylinder heads with siamesed exhaust ports. The planned but unbuilt ’57 Packards would have had V-8s displacing 440 cubic inches.

Indicative of the rushed development of the V-8 was an oil pump on the ’55 352s installed in the Senior Packards that caused improper lubrication and no end of headaches for Packard which had other quality issues related to being forced into moving production from its home on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit to the cramped former Briggs body plant on Conner Avenue. (That story is a “Gear Head” topic all its own …) The 320s and the 352 supplied to Studebaker had a less problematic oil pump. Nonetheless, it was a black eye Packard didn’t need as it fought to recover from the damage done to the company by Christopher.

For 1956, Packard punched the new V-8 out to 374 cubic inches for the Senior Packards and all Clippers were powered by 352s. The 352 with a four barrel carburetor powered the ’56 Studebaker Golden Hawks, which was the fastest production car in America at the time.

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about the weight of the Packard V-8 vs. the Studebaker 289 V-8 as applied to the ’56 Studebaker Hawks. The Sky Hawk got the Studebaker 289 while the Golden Hawk had the Packard 352. The Golden Hawk has the reputation of being nose-heavy because of the big Packard V-8.

The fact of the matter is that there was very little difference in the weight of the Studebaker 289 V-8 in the Sky Hawk and the Packard 352 in the Golden Hawk. How could this be when there is such a discrepancy in the size of the engines?

The answer lies in the fact that the Studebaker V-8 was the most over-built V-8 of the era. At the time it was developed, Studebaker engineers used guidance from the Kettering Institute that predicted that oil companies would soon be supplying ultra high octane gasoline. Acting on this, Studebaker designed its V-8 to be able to run on high octane gas and use compression ratios as great as 14:1. The result was a rugged, beefy engine – but it had small bore spacing as called for by the anticipation of the high compression ratios. Thus, at 289 cubic inches in 1956, the Studebaker V-8 was very nearly at the limit of how many cubic inches it could displace. Overbuilt as it was, the Studebaker engine weighs nearly as much as the Packard V-8.


Packard Power! The ’56 Studebaker Golden Hawk was powered by the Packard V-8

There were two other problems with the Packard engine in the Golden Hawk, neither of which were Packard’s fault. You likely recall that Raymond Loewy’s design firm had been contracted to Studebaker. One of Loewy’s mantras was that “weight is the enemy”. The Studebakers of that time had weight pared from their bodies in many ways. As one example, Studebakers were more narrow than their competition. Forgotten today is that their interior volume was completely competitive. The difference was in the thickness of the doors and body in cross section. As an extension of this “weight is the enemy” philosophy, for ’53 Studebaker tried the infamous “Flex Frame”. By the time the ’56 Golden Hawks went into production, the frames had been beefed up by using thicker steel, but the overall “weight is the enemy” thinking still rendered the cars susceptible to being nose heavy with V-8 engines installed. The Packard V-8 in the Golden Hawk was actually only a few pounds heavier than the 289 in the Sky Hawk – but what made the Golden Hawk more prone to being nose heavy is the Packard engine sat taller and more forward in the engine compartment than the Studebaker V-8 in the Sky Hawk. Adding to the weight issue, most of the Golden Hawks were built with Saginaw Power Steering which added another 100 pounds to the nose of the car.

Packard had built a new plant in Utica adjacent to its proving grounds to build its new V-8 engines and modernized Ultramatic transmissions. (Most of the space in the plant was allocated to Packard’s defense work and marine engine applications.) When the roof fell in on Packard in 1956, Curtiss-Wright stepped in to give Studebaker something of a bail out while Packard was kicked to the curb. Curtiss-Wright wound up with the new Utica plant. For reasons unknown to us now, the negotiations apparently did not include Studebaker being able to continue production of the Packard V-8 or automatic transmissions at Utica and the Packard V-8 died along with the company in 1956. As of 25 June 1956, the Master Motor Builder was no more.

Packard V-8 Caribbean

The Packard V-8 installed in a ’55 Caribbean and fitted with two four barrel Rochester carburetors.

 While we are on the subject of Packards, check this post out.


Another old gas station from the post at Curbside Classics:

Curbside Classic country store
A country store in East Derry, NH selling Jenny gas. Note the Nash the Hudson “Step Down” and the Dodge pickup truck.


Add yours →

  1. The “sleek new styling” of the all-new postwar Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles was introduced on the 1948 models, not 1949. Buick did not share these bodies until 1949, when Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles were face-lifted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember the cars from the 50’s, Packard was out of reach for this kid, so my eyes were on the 55 chevy v-8 that year. I enjoyed the history and opinions. Amazing in life, the what it’s?

    I am still dumb struck from our trip thru Detroit a couple years ago to see that massive Packard plant a hollow mess of graffiti and no telling what else. The local websites discouraged any walking or standing of ‘tourists’ more than 3 blocks from GM. What a story of loss!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stuart Blond 28/08/2018 — 19:07

    Packard’s management authorized production of the V-8 engine in March of 1953. Serious discussions were taking place before then, however. Robert J. Neal quoted the minutes of the Operating Committee meeting of January 2, 1951 in his book, Master Motor Builders: “A preliminary cost study of the V-8 engine for use in the 26th Series [1953] has been completed by the Manufacturing Division, and Mr. Reifel reported that it indicated a tool cost of approximately $13 million with a slight increase in piece cost.” “By January of 1952,” Neal wrote, “the committee had approved spending $1.2 million for the development of the necessary machine tools to set up a modern new engine production facility. By the end of 1953, $3 million had been spent on design, tooling and prototype production of a new V-8 engine, and the company was contemplating further outlay of some $14 million before complete production facilities would be in place. Necessary funds to complete this process were not committed until 1954… There is ample evidence that the engine was designed and prototypes built by early 1953.”

    Liked by 1 person

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