Why Packard Failed (2): The End of the Road, 1954-56

Why Packard Failed (2): The End of the Road, 1954-56

1954: Up the snake, down the ladder

Con­clud­ed from Part 1. This arti­cle first appeared in Col­lectible Auto­mo­bile, Decem­ber 2021.

The prod­uct mix that had done fair­ly well in 1953 con­tin­ued. Senior Packards had a flashy new dash, option­al four-way pow­er seats and air con­di­tion­ing, and a spe­cial nylon mate­lassé inte­ri­or for the Patri­cian. Hen­ney con­tin­ued to build long-wheel­base mod­els, along with funer­al coach­es and flower cars on the com­mer­cial chas­sis. While no Der­ham for­mal sedan was cat­a­logued, some Patri­cians were so con­vert­ed at the Der­ham shops. Edg­ing toward the sta­tus of a sep­a­rate make, Clip­pers were dis­tin­guished by more dis­tinc­tive styling and referred to main­ly by the Clip­per name.

The Patrician’s new 359 nine-main bear­ing, 212 hp eight also found its way to the Caribbean, con­vert­ible and hard­top (now the Pacif­ic). That made them lux­u­ry cars by every mea­sure except wheel­base. They were priced accord­ing­ly: around $4000 for the Pacif­ic and con­vert­ible, $6100 for the Caribbean. The lat­ter lost its rear wheel cutouts while gain­ing a curi­ous two-ton­ing strip along the rear fend­ers. (Cadillac’s Eldo­ra­do, more “prod­i­fied” in 1954 and reduced by $2000, out­sold it five to one.) Late in ’54, new Gear-Start Ultra­mat­ic offered the choice of the tra­di­tion­al leisure­ly torque con­vert­er accel­er­a­tion or start­ing in low and auto­mat­i­cal­ly shift­ing to high.

Ford’s blitz, Studebaker’s curse

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, just as the ‘54s were announced, car sales fell bad­ly. On top of that came the infa­mous Ford-GM sales war, when Hen­ry Ford II vowed to out­pro­duce GM or sink try­ing. GM replied in kind. That meant ship­ping cars to deal­ers in greater quan­ti­ty than they ordered. What it did was seri­ous­ly to crip­ple Chrysler and the inde­pen­dents. Their deal­ers could not com­pete with give­away prices offered by Ford and GM deal­ers crowd­ed with inven­to­ry. Packard’s 1953 sales ral­ly stopped cold as pro­duc­tion fell to under 28,000 for the year.

The lack of a V-8 was part of this, and ner­vous deal­ers were com­plain­ing. Only Pon­ti­ac and Packard still offered in-line eights in 1954. An urgent V-8 pro­gram was under­way. “We have no choice,” Nance groused. “Mak­ing one is the only road to a mod­ern car. Every­thing fol­lows the prod­uct.” He meant that every one fol­lowed the prod­uct. And a V-8 was the essen­tial prod­uct for high-priced cars now.

On 1 Octo­ber 1954, Packard pur­chased Stude­bak­er in South Bend, Indi­ana. One week lat­er, in an irony Jim Nance would pon­der in lat­er years, George Mason died. His suc­ces­sor, George Rom­ney, had his own vision for Amer­i­can Motors. It did not include part­ners. So here was Nance, pur­su­ing Mason’s dream of merg­ing the inde­pen­dents, which had died with him. Buy­ing Stude­bak­er was deci­sion at last, tak­en at the worst pos­si­ble time. Packard’s chief finan­cial offi­cer, Wal­ter Grant, stud­ied Studebaker’s accounts and returned to Detroit “ashen-faced.” Instead of the 165,000-unit breakeven point quot­ed in sale nego­ti­a­tions, Stude­bak­er need­ed 282,000 cars a year to be prof­itable. The clos­est it had come was 268,000 in 1950. “It was a kick in the gut,” Nance said lat­er. “Their labor costs were sub­stan­tial­ly out of line.”

1955: One last try

The 1955 Four Hun­dred, a true lux­u­ry hard­top, but sev­en years too late. (Pho­to by Rex Gray, Cre­ative Commons)

The 1955 senior Packards, a deep facelift of the aging Rein­hart body, were nice­ly improved. Onto that old shell, styl­ist Dick Teague graft­ed “cathe­dral” tail lights, peaked front fend­ers, an ornate grille and wrap­around wind­shield. Hen­ney had expired and long-wheel­base mod­els were gone. So were the Der­ham for­mals, though Nance had tried to devel­op one. The under­whelm­ing, mid­dle-priced Cav­a­lier was gone, and not missed. What remained, how­ev­er, were a dra­mat­ic Caribbean and Patri­cian, and the new Four Hundred—at last a senior hard­top on the 127-inch wheelbase.

Attrac­tive in the over-dec­o­rat­ed mid-Fifties sense, they were blessed with pow­er. Packard’s long-await­ed V-8, a short-stro­ker of 352 cubic inch­es, deliv­ered up to 275 hp in the Caribbean. For faster starts, Twin Ultra­mat­ic, an evo­lu­tion of Gear-Start, offered the tra­di­tion­al torque con­ver­tor start or start­ing in low, shift­ing to 1:1 and then to direct dri­ve. Spe­cial torque con­ver­tor vanes enhanced per­for­mance on Caribbeans and Four Hun­dreds. It was good trans­mis­sion, though not up to the torque of the new V-8. Poor­ly ser­viced, or abused in stop-light grands prix, it often proved troublesome.

“Different from any other car”

The real mar­vel for 1955 was “Tor­sion-Lev­el” sus­pen­sion, designed by a bril­liant engi­neer named Bill Alli­son. Long tor­sion bars lon­gi­tu­di­nal­ly con­nect­ed the front and rear wheels. A com­plex elec­tri­cal lev­el­ing sys­tem adjust­ed for load. (We kids liked to pile into a Packard, rid­ing up and down as the sus­pen­sion com­pen­sat­ed). Effec­tive­ly inter­link­ing all four wheels, Tor­sion-Lev­el offered extra­or­di­nary ride and han­dling, stan­dard on the seniors and upper-priced Clip­pers. Road testers loved it. Floyd Cly­mer pro­claimed the Patri­cian “dif­fer­ent from any oth­er car…You can dri­ve into a cor­ner at high speed with this car and the body remains almost level.”

Such praise seemed to vin­di­cate James Nance’s efforts to revive Packard’s lux­u­ry tra­di­tion. But in one respect, as the ’55s start­ed pro­duc­tion, he’d made a car­di­nal error. Since 1940 Packard bod­ies had been built by Brig­gs. In 1954 Brig­gs was bought by Chrysler, forc­ing Packard to build its own bod­ies. Bad­ly advised, Nance set­tled for a cramped body plant on Con­ner Avenue, Detroit. Resul­tant pro­duc­tion slow­downs and qual­i­ty-con­trol prob­lems bedev­iled the ’55s and enraged deal­ers. Chief com­plainant was Nance him­self: “One Patri­cian was so bad I couldn’t begin to item­ize…. It was lit­er­al­ly nec­es­sary to use a crow­bar to get one of the rear doors open.”

A “con­di­tion­ing line” was set up to cor­rect defects, but the short­age of flaw­less cars found deal­ers receiv­ing too many dull green or blue jobs, instead of what they real­ly want­ed: fire opal, tour­ma­line or rose quartz. Glitzy styling, V-8 pow­er and Tor­sion-Lev­el could not com­pen­sate for such laps­es. Packard and Clip­per did pro­duce 55,000 ’55 mod­els, 30% of them lux­u­ry senior mod­els. But any­thing would have been bet­ter than ’54. Nance had hoped for dou­ble that, and worse news was ahead.

1956: End of the luxury Packards

Conner’s prob­lems were even­tu­al­ly sur­mount­ed and iron­i­cal­ly the ’56s were much bet­ter built, with a sharp facelift, vivid paint jobs and a new Caribbean hard­top. Their bored-out 374 V-8 packed an indus­try-high 310 bhp in the Caribbean, which fea­tured unique seat cov­ers that could be removed and reversed from fab­ric to leather. Still, between Studebaker’s well-known strug­gles and Packard’s past qual­i­ty prob­lems, cus­tomers were desert­ing in droves. Scarce­ly 10,000 seniors were built for 1956—last of the “true” Packards.

Too late, but a superb last gasp, a hard­top was added to the Caribbean line in 1956. (Rex Gray, Cre­ative Commons)

Nance made stren­u­ous efforts to finance a line of all-new cars with lux­u­ry Packards tru­ly dis­tinc­tive from the rest, but lenders had grown cau­tious. The Detroit plant closed, and Packard end­ed life as a glo­ri­fied Stude­bak­er, built in South Bend in 1957-58. Nance hung around long enough to place his top col­leagues, which was great­ly to his cred­it. Of course he was blamed for the deba­cle; the man at the top always is.

Why Packard failed

In real­i­ty, Packard’s cru­cial mis­takes occurred years before. After the war, when a com­pa­ny could sell any­thing on wheels, Packard could have revert­ed to type, rebuild­ing its rep­u­ta­tion as a lux­u­ry automak­er. Instead it pur­sued the low­er-priced mar­kets that had saved it in the Depres­sion. One can under­stand the reasoning—but there was no Depres­sion now, and fierce com­pe­ti­tion soon engulfed those mar­kets. In ret­ro­spect, if mid­dle-priced cars were essen­tial, there had been a bet­ter way: an entire­ly sep­a­rate make not bear­ing the Packard name. But no one in 1945 could visu­al­ize that in the face of an Amer­i­can mar­ket clam­or­ing for cars.

Stem­ming from this mar­ket­ing mis­take was a series of prod­uct deci­sions that flew in the face of Packard’s proud her­itage. Instead of build­ing on the time­less styling of the 1942 Clip­per, still fresh after the war, man­age­ment decreed a facelift that looked fine in 1948 but didn’t age well. Adver­tis­ing was schiz­o­phrenic. Packard fre­quent­ly changed agen­cies, some extolling lux­u­ry but most devot­ed to 200s or Clippers.

“Love me, love my dog”

Prod­uct mis­takes came thick and fast. While Cadil­lac was cre­at­ing the icon­ic Coupe de Ville, Packard built a sta­tion wagon—a very fine one, but a wag­on? Packard need­ed a lux­u­ry hard­top in 1948, not 1955. While Cadil­lac was cor­ralling the lim­ou­sine mar­ket with its Fleet­wood 75, Packard was edg­ing away from it. Soon after the war, Cadil­lac adopt­ed a mod­ern V-8 and hall­mark styling. “Cad fins” were so pop­u­lar they became acces­sories for oth­er makes. Packard stayed too long with fast-aging designs and inline engines. It was real­ly a case of “love me, love my dog.” The pub­lic, or at least some of it, had always loved Packard. But they didn’t love the dog.

Nance and his col­leagues didn’t know it, but even before they bought Stude­bak­er, the song had end­ed. The melody lin­gered on in 1956, with impres­sive pow­er, snazzy styling. Tor­sion-Lev­el was inno­v­a­tive, typ­i­cal of the engi­neer­ing that had built Packard’s rep­u­ta­tion since the 1900s. But the end final­ly came for the cars Tom McC­ahill knew as a boy, and we would nev­er see their like again. 

Further reading

The Packard—Ne Plus Ultra of Auto­mo­tive House Organs” (in two parts), 2021

Packard Tales and Mem­o­ries of Bud Juneau,” 2021

Why Stude­bak­er Failed: In the End, It is Always Man­age­ment,” 2020

Dutch Dar­rin, Part 2: The Packard Adven­tures,” 2017

Spellbinder: The Life of James Nance, by Stuart Blond

PatricianThe most com­pre­hen­sive account of Nance’s tenure at Packard is in Stu­art Blond’s new two-vol­ume biog­ra­phy, which is strong­ly rec­om­mend­ed for car enthu­si­asts old and new. Stu­art, my suc­ces­sor as edi­tor of The Packard Cor­morant, has con­struct­ed a fas­tid­i­ous account of a Hor­a­tio Alger sto­ry, and how Nance end­ed up at Packard with the tough­est chal­lenge of his career.

Part 1, 1900-1954

Part 2, 1955-1985

6 thoughts on “Why Packard Failed (2): The End of the Road, 1954-56

  1. Packard became a laugh­ing stock with its weak trans­mis­sion and odd sus­pen­sion that failed at the most inop­por­tune times.I always thought the 1956 Patri­cian was the best look­ing car of that time and with a stan­dard and over­drive would be a great road car.I bought a 1955 Patri­cian in 1958 for $880 and it was a bad idea. Weak brakes were anoth­er prob­lem even when prop­er­ly adjust­ed. Weighed and found want­i­ng, Packard was dead by self inflict­ed wounds.

    Glad you’re so sure of your­self. Actu­al­ly the dam­age was done long before 1955-56, as I tried to explain. But trans­fer­ring pro­duc­tion to the small, cramped Con­ner Avenue plant in 1955 def­i­nite­ly affect­ed qual­i­ty. Ultra­mat­ic was one of the best ear­ly auto­mat­ics, but adopt­ing it to high-pow­ered V8s was tricky and caused reli­a­bil­i­ty prob­lems. As for brakes, all Amer­i­can cars of that era were over­bod­ied and under­braked. The ’55 Patri­cian was a noble effort, but it was still a facelift of the aging 1951 “high pock­ets” body, and the pub­lic could see that. -RML

  2. “Packard’s Speed­ster”: This brings to mind my for­mer self who has lov­ing mem­o­ries of speed­ing across Cana­da on the open road with Dan dri­ving his first Porsche. This hap­py mem­o­ry is very vivid, but now I can bare­ly stand dri­ving with him even on coun­try roads. When I hear the accel­er­a­tion from his heavy foot, I tense up. Oh well.

    Also I enjoyed the arti­cle on why Packard failed. The Marx­ists, or what­ev­er they are call­ing them­selves these days, have zero under­stand­ing of the entre­pre­neur­ial risk oth­ers have tak­en in the past to ben­e­fit the life we have today. Sad­ly, most have ulti­mate­ly failed as times change, which I feel is the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice to the cause.

  3. Richard, I hope you write “Why Hud­son Failed”! One of the chap­ters should be pret­ty easy to com­pose, only needs two words: The Jet.

    The sad thing about the four Inde­pen­dents is that by 1955-56 they col­lec­tive­ly only need­ed one com­pet­i­tive small body shell and OHV Six, and one com­pet­i­tive large body shell and OHV V8. The mon­ey they wast­ed going it alone could have eas­i­ly pro­duced these. For­tu­nate­ly for Nash/AMC and due entire­ly to Rom­ney, it had that com­pet­i­tive small car in the ’56 Rambler.

    I don’t think there was a pure lux­u­ry play for Packard with the advent of all-steel bod­ies. Even in the 1920s with its wood com­pos­ite bod­ies, Packard need­ed the Six for vol­ume. The ’48 Cadil­lac 62 and Oldsmo­bile 98 shared a com­mon body shell, economies of which set pric­ing for both. The 60 Spe­cial shared this shell too, moved for­ward 7 inch­es rel­a­tive to rear axle, and used a unique backlight/roof cutout. A few years lat­er, Buick replaced Oldsmo­bile as the shar­ing part­ner with Cadil­lac. For Packard to match these pro­grams it need­ed to estab­lish sim­i­lar pric­ing band­width and scale, and the deal­ers need­ed a vol­ume car.

    Reread­ing one of the books on my book­shelf by a fine gent with ini­tials RL… I see that Hud­son spent $16M to cre­ate the ’48 Step-Downs. Three years lat­er, Packard spent around $18.6M (“Packard 1951 To 1954” by Robert J. Neal). Giv­en those infla­tion­ary years, the two pro­grams were rough­ly equiv­a­lent in cost, so the real­i­ty was that Mono­bilt was no more expen­sive to cre­ate than BoF. As to restyling cost, again not much dif­fer­ence if the ’54 Hud­son is any indi­ca­tion. And the real­i­ty was that Cadil­lac didn’t restyle its cars much at all from 1950-53, though it did con­vert the CdV to long deck for ’52.

    Giv­en that Alvan Macauley was open to merg­er in the late ‘40s, hav­ing allowed Mason to offer a pro­pos­al to Packard in Feb­ru­ary 1948, I can envi­sion a sce­nario where Packard and Hud­son merged imme­di­ate­ly after the war, with Mono­bilt becom­ing a joint pro­gram and Brig­gs becom­ing history.

    With Clip­per as guid­ance, Packard’s styling con­tri­bu­tion could have been to change Hudson’s tra­di­tion­al (and anti­quat­ed) body pro­por­tion mind­set from 2-1/2 box to 3-box, the sedan’s green­house from 6-win­dow to 4-win­dow, and the sedan’s rear over­hang to a longer one that used the coupe’s longer decked. The short­er roof coupe would need to sit on a short­er wheel­base if it were to share the sedan’s deck­lid and end panel.

    Packard would have used a longer axle-to-dash to pack­age its big Eights, and cre­at­ed its own front appear­ance and inte­ri­ors, all of which would have enabled it to focus exclu­sive­ly on the lux­u­ry mar­ket. Ultra­mat­ic would arrive in ’49, a V8 in ’51 if a reac­tion to the ’49 Olds/Cadillac V8s, or ’53 if it took ’51 Chrysler’s V8 to final­ly get EGB off its duff. Deal­ers would dual where it made sense.

    Paul- Good thoughts. These are deep waters. Doesn’t it come down to the same thing? Too many “inde­pen­dents” thrash­ing around, dupli­cat­ing efforts and com­pet­ing with each oth­er. If only they’d lis­tened to George Mason in 1948. Ah, if only! RL

  4. Would Packard for 1955 have done bet­ter with the new V8 and mod­i­fied body, or a car­ried-over 359 Eight pow­er­ing a spec­tac­u­lar, all-new new body? By mid-1953 after the sell­ers mar­ket had end­ed, it had come down to a bina­ry choice.

    Con­sid­er­ing the suc­cess of Lincoln’s longer, low­er, wider bod­ies for 1956, I would argue the lat­ter. A stel­lar look­ing 1955 Packard show­room, still with Tor­sion-Lev­el, would quite pos­si­bly have gen­er­at­ed sales suf­fi­cient to fin­ish the tool­ing for the V8 and launched it in ’56.

    How­ev­er, there were two com­pli­cat­ing fac­tors. The first was that Hud­son had approached Packard around August 1953 express­ing a will­ing­ness to merge, with Hud­son the weak­er bar­gain­ing part­ner. The sec­ond was that Chrysler informed Packard in Octo­ber 1953 that it had pur­chased Brig­gs and that Packard had to exit the Con­ner body plant by the end of the year (that date was quick­ly extend­ed to the end of 1954).

    Con­sid­er­ing every­thing, includ­ing the help­ful addi­tion of Hudson’s deal­ers, I think Packard’s best option might have been to merge with Hud­son. Why? Because Hud­son already had a body oper­a­tion and a low­er car, under­pin­ning of which would have giv­en the new Packard-Hud­son com­pa­ny a run­ning start on an all-new, low­er body for ’55. Frank Spring’s X-161 4-door pro­to­type hint­ed at the possibilities.

    The new com­pa­ny would have billed itself as a mar­riage between the Mas­ter Motor Builder and the Mas­ter Body Builder, and the com­pa­ny would have had a strong case to make to investors, mon­ey of which would have helped to car­ry the com­pa­ny through a dif­fi­cult 1954 mod­el year and to tool the ’55s.

    The fact that Hud­son also sold a poor­ly designed com­pact car (the Jet) could have also proved help­ful, its great­est val­ue per­haps to under­pin a cool look­ing, afford­able 2+2 coupe 10 years before Mustang.

    Packard-Hud­son would have also been in a strong posi­tion to bar­gain with Nash for an advan­ta­geous merg­er. Or per­haps Nash would have redi­rect­ed its merg­er ener­gies towards fast-weak­en­ing Stude­bak­er, with both ships quick­ly right­ed with the ’56 Ram­bler redesign.
    Thanks Paul, for tak­ing the trou­ble to offer a thought­ful what-if. I think myself it’s unlike­ly. The per­son­al­i­ties weren’t right: Nance only came to Packard because Mason told him he’d pick up Hud­son while Nance got Stude­bak­er. (If Ed Bar­it at Hud­son approached Packard in 1953 it must have been an after­thought, since Mason had been pur­su­ing Hud­son since the late 40s.) That was the flaw in Mason’s plan, because Stude was an alba­tross best left out, impos­si­ble to break even. Prod­uct-wise, Hud­son was in even worse shape than Packard, with a body dat­ing three years before Packard’s and almost impos­si­ble to restyle, com­pet­ing close­ly with the mul­ti­tude of cheap­er Packards—and los­ing deal­ers. The home­ly Hud­son Jet was no com­pe­ti­tion to Ram­bler. Nance knew that sales-wise, a V8 was cru­cial, but by 1955 it was too late. If Packard had revert­ed to pure lux­u­ry in 1946, kept Clip­per styling through 48, did your snazzy restyle in 49 and a V8 in 50, then maybe. You are astute to sug­gest the X-161 might have devel­oped into a pop­u­lar 2+2 sporty car well before Mus­tang (or the Square­bird). But it was nev­er more than a wist­ful dream. I think I must now write “Why Hud­son Failed.” —RML

  5. Stu­art Blond has told a very inter­est­ing sto­ry about James Nance. It took two vol­umes because Nance’s life of mar­ket­ing, and why he made those deci­sions, is very involved from one com­pa­ny to anoth­er. In vol. 2, Stu­art explains that Nance was a warm human being, who cared for the work­ers at Packard and Ford He want­ed Packard and Edsel to suc­ceed in the marketplace.

  6. Fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle on Packard and cars of the 50s like Stude­bak­er. I heard about these cars from my father who was (unfor­tu­nate­ly for him) a part own­er of a DeS­o­to deal­er­ship in New Jer­sey. My father always bought when­ev­er pos­si­ble an Amer­i­can made car.We had a 1954 Ford for over 20 years. It still ran great in the ear­ly 1970s but due to some rust (From salt­ed roads) it was almost impos­si­ble to get passed by the NJ DMV (they had phys­i­cal inspec­tions in those day). Of course today there is prob­a­bly no such thing as an Amer­i­can made car just a hybrid of inter­na­tion­al parts. Very inter­est­ing and com­pre­hen­sive article.

    Thanks. In 1955 I want­ed my Dad to buy an Aero-Willys. No way, he said, “they’re going out of busi­ness, it would become an orphan.” So he bought a DeS­o­to….. —RML

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