1954: Up the snake, down the ladder
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 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.
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.
“The Packard—Ne Plus Ultra of Automotive House Organs” (in two parts), 2021
Spellbinder: The Life of James Nance, by Stuart Blond
The 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.