Why Packard Failed (1): Patrician and Its Relatives 1951-53

Why Packard Failed (1): Patrician and Its Relatives 1951-53

The song had ended, but the melody lingered 0n

“Patri­cian and Its Rel­a­tives” first appeared in Col­lectible Auto­mo­bile, Decem­ber 2021.

“Packard is back and cook­ing,” wrote Tom McC­ahill, irre­press­ible road tester wrote for Mechanix Illus­trat­ed. “These are good auto­mo­biles, big, fast and capable…they also have a touch of that old glam­our that the big, open Eights had in the Twen­ties, when I was in col­lege own­ing a fifty-dol­lar crate and dream­ing that some­day I’d have a Packard.”

It was a nice acco­lade, typ­i­cal of “Uncle Tom’s” loqua­cious boos­t­er­ism. He wasn’t alone in hop­ing Packard’s first all-new post­war redesign her­ald­ed a revival. Only two decades before, Packard had reigned as the car of choice for those who had “made it”—a very vis­i­ble dec­la­ra­tion of what their own­ers thought of them­selves, and want­ed the rest of us to think of them also. Why not again?

Yet even McC­ahill admit­ted only to “a touch” of the old allure, and a touch was not whol­ly sat­is­fy­ing. In real­i­ty, though no one knew it, the 1951 Packards began the long wake for America’s once-dom­i­nant lux­u­ry brand. Spo­rad­i­cal­ly through 1956, Packard would lurch back toward past glo­ry. But the dam­age was already done, and its efforts would prove too lit­tle, too late.

Early errors

In Packard: A His­to­ry of the Motor­car and the Com­pa­ny, George Ham­lin and Dwight Hein­muller defined the prob­lem. By the late Thir­ties, they wrote, tech­nol­o­gy had rev­o­lu­tion­ized the indus­try: “The day when you could buy a Packard and be guar­an­teed to go far­ther, faster, qui­eter than any­one in a car cost­ing half or even a third as much had sim­ply van­ished. This was of course true for Lin­coln and Cadil­lac too. But the dif­fer­ence, inso­far as the suc­cess of the prod­uct was con­cerned, would be mea­sured in each company’s salesmanship.”

Blur­ring the dis­tinc­tions between lux­u­ry mod­els and what Packard called “juniors” was not good sales­man­ship, Ham­lin and Hein­muller added. By 1937, the gap between top and bot­tom “did not approx­i­mate the tra­di­tion­al com­pa­ny pric­ing norm, and the gap had been closed prin­ci­pal­ly by the high­er-priced cars mov­ing down­ward rather than the low­er-priced ones mov­ing up.” In 1946, for exam­ple, that gap had closed to $3000 ($32,000 in today’s mon­ey). In 1951 it was bare­ly $1000.

1951: Thinning out “that goddam senior stuff”

There was noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly wrong with chief design­er John­nie Reinhart’s “Con­tour Styled” ’51s, though he regret­ted their high belt­line and had want­ed more glass. Yet Rein­hart brought the fend­ers up even with the hood and deck before most of the indus­try. Mechan­i­cal­ly, Packard’s nine-main-bear­ing 327 straight eight was sound­ly engi­neered, and Ultra­mat­ic, its home­grown auto­mat­ic, one of Detroit’s finest. The prob­lem, for those who yearned for the Packards of their youth, was—well—everything else: It was no longer clear how the com­pa­ny viewed itself, or how the pub­lic viewed the company.

“Noth­ing hap­pens until some­body sells some­thing,” pro­claimed Jim Nance, des­tined to be Packard’s pres­i­dent from mid-1952. But since the 1930s Depres­sion, when Packard had moved sharply down-mar­ket with the One Twen­ty and Six, sell­ing some­thing had proven tricky. The 1935 One Twenty—a cheap Packard, but hard­ly a cheap car—had saved the firm from bank­rupt­cy. The rather cheap­er 1937 Six, priced to gar­ner even more sales, was arguably a step too far from tra­di­tion. Since then, Packard had not built much of what one man­ag­er called “that god­dam senior stuff,” and by 1951 that stuff had almost disappeared.

Incred­i­bly for 1951, Packard offered only one true lux­u­ry car: the 127-inch wheel­base Patri­cian 400 (“400” was dropped lat­er) at $3600. With a nine-main-bear­ing 327 cubic inch straight eight, it was trimmed with Wilton car­pets, col­or-coor­di­nat­ed broad­cloth and footrests for rear seat pas­sen­gers. Smooth and sol­id on the road, if no jackrab­bit with stan­dard Ultra­mat­ic, it was avail­able only as a four-door sedan, at once the most pop­u­lar and least excit­ing of body styles.

Patrician versus Cadillac

And the Patri­cian was cheap­ened: the pre­ced­ing Cus­tom Eight’s vel­vety “Mosstred” car­pets, Mar­shall coil springs, pro­fuse wood­grain­ing and glit­tery dash were all gone. So too in mid-year were cloi­son­né wheel cov­er medal­lions. Gone too was the leg­endary 356 straight eight, although there were sound rea­sons for this: the 327 had high­er com­pres­sion, com­pa­ra­ble smooth­ness and a bet­ter pow­er-to-weight ratio. Nev­er­the­less, like the col­laps­ing price gap between Packard mod­els, there were now only 39 cubic inch­es between a ple­beian 200 and the top of the line.

Against the Patri­cian, rival Cadil­lac arrayed its hot-sell­ing Six­ty-two sedan, con­vert­ible and two hard­tops includ­ing the swank Coupe de Ville. Packard sold 9001 Patri­cians, Cadil­lac over 80,000 Six­ty-twos, a third of which were hard­tops or con­vert­ibles. Cadil­lac also built 16,000 long-wheel­base Six­ty Spe­cial sedans. Packard had noth­ing comparable.

Anoth­er so-called senior Packard was the 300, an aus­tere four-door with the five-main 327, sup­posed suc­ces­sor to the famous Super Eight. Its drab inte­ri­or hard­ly pro­claimed lux­u­ry. While Cadil­lac was aban­don­ing its low­est-priced Six­ty-one, the 300 sol­diered on, by no stretch a lux­u­ry Packard. There were also a few 1951 com­mer­cial chas­sis, but only to 300 spec, with no long-wheel­base vari­ants. Cadil­lac had that small but lucra­tive mar­ket almost to itself, build­ing over 5000 long sedans and extra-long com­mer­cial chassis.

The ’51 line did offer a hard­top, the May­fair, and a con­vert­ible, at $3200-3400. By Packard’s def­i­n­i­tion they were junior cars, rid­ing a 122-inch wheel­base, albeit pow­ered by a five-main 327. Their com­peti­tors were Oldsmo­bile and DeS­o­to. Cadillac’s sporty two-door mod­els sold for $500 more, car­ried mod­ern over­head valve V-8s and out­sold the Packards five to one. The lack of an up-mar­ket hard­top would con­tin­ue to hurt.

1952: Big Jim and the quest for relevance

James J. Nance had not been Packard’s first choice in its search for new, dynam­ic lead­er­ship. Still, Nance’s rep­u­ta­tion augured well. He had turned Gen­er­al Electric’s Hot­point into a best-sell­ing appli­ance brand. His whose tenure at Packard was high­ly antic­i­pat­ed. GE bought 25,000 shares of Packard stock—“the kind of com­pli­ment that counts,” For­tune wrote.

James J. Nance in Wash­ing­ton, 1953 (Nance Col­lec­tion, Cleve­land State University)

Packard got Nance as part of a larg­er, behind-the-scenes deal. As he told George Ham­lin and this writer in 1976: “I wouldn’t have gone into it just to take over Packard.” Nash’s George Mason, a vision­ary among his peers, was plan­ning to merge Nash, Hud­son, Packard and Stude­bak­er. His role, Nance said, was “to bring in Stude­bak­er,” while Mason acquired Hud­son, “then fold all four into what George was already call­ing Amer­i­can Motors.” This explains how Nance saw Packard: a lux­u­ry divi­sion com­pet­ing with Cadil­lac, leav­ing the god­dam junior stuff to oth­er makes.

Nance’s expla­na­tion has been chal­lenged by sub­or­di­nate AMC fig­ures, but they weren’t present in ple­nary dis­cus­sions. Ham­lin and I had no rea­son to believe that Nance fab­ri­cat­ed the sto­ry. It fits George Mason’s mindset.

Nance had his work cut out. The 1952 Packard line was no more lux­u­ri­ous than 1951, with the same array of most­ly mid­dle-priced mod­els, the Patri­cian, 300, and a few com­mer­cial chas­sis. Sales were down by 14,000 units. Job one was sales, and that was Nance’s specialty.

Nance spe­cial­ized in stem-wind­ing speech­es rem­i­nis­cent of a coun­try par­son. Buy­ers over 40, he thun­dered, “still think of Packard as a qual­i­ty car…. But to the younger per­son of say 35, Packard doesn’t stand for any­thing…. Ask what Cadil­lac stands for, and every kid on the curb­stone can tell you. ‘That’s the best, mis­ter.’” Packard was “get­ting a mis­er­able 3.5%” of the lux­u­ry car busi­ness, Nance fumed: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be in a horse race and get left at the quar­ter pole.”

1953: pursuit of luxury

The swanky 1953 Caribbean, styled by Dick Teague, hand­i­ly out­sold Cadillac’s Eldo­ra­do, and prospects tem­porar­i­ly looked good. (Mr. Chop­pers, Cre­ative Commons)

The opu­lent Packards once mocked by 1930s man­age­ment now seemed poised for a come­back. For 1953 Nance moved quick­ly to sep­a­rate lux­u­ry from mid­dle-priced mod­els in the pub­lic mind. Gone was the 200-300-400 nomen­cla­ture. Juniors were now Packard Clip­pers, reviv­ing a mod­el name from 1947. The May­fair and con­vert­ible, still nei­ther fish nor fowl, at least ben­e­fit­ted from reflect­ed glo­ry in the new Packard Caribbean, a $5300 con­vert­ible inspired by the Pan Amer­i­can showcar.

Styl­ist Dick Teague devel­oped the Caribbean’s spe­cial fea­tures: ful­ly radiused rear wheel cutouts, senior tail­lights, a hood scoop, wire spoke wheels, a “con­ti­nen­tal” spare tire and min­i­mal bright­work. Spec­i­fi­ca­tions were no dif­fer­ent from the stan­dard con­vert­ible, but as a pres­tige line-leader, it was a good job, built up from con­vert­ibles by Mitchell-Bent­ley in Ionia, Michi­gan. Sales were 750, dou­ble those of Cadillac’s $7700 pres­tige-lead­ing Eldo­ra­do. Giv­en Nance’s resources, it was a wor­thy assault on his rival. But it still rode the 122-inch wheel­base, and even Ultra­mat­ic was optional.

Deplor­ing Packard’s loss of the high-price busi­ness, Nance decreed a come­back with three new lux­u­ry ’53s. They com­prised a Der­ham-bod­ied for­mal sedan, and a brace of long-wheel­base mod­els built by Hen­ney. The eight-pas­sen­ger “Cor­po­ra­tion lim­ou­sine” and “Exec­u­tive sedan” sold for $2000 more than Cadillac’s 75 coun­ter­parts. The Der­ham, with its padded top and oval back­light, was Packard’s first cus­tom body since 1942. The limo and Exec­u­tive were the first long-wheel­base bod­ies cat­a­logued since 1949.

“America’s New Choice in Fine Cars”

The slo­gan for 1953 was pro­claimed with suit­able fan­fare and Nance-dri­ven improve­ments. Four bar­rel car­bu­re­tion boost­ed horse­pow­er. Pow­er steer­ing (Packard’s own) joined 1952’s pow­er brakes. Air con­di­tion­ing, which Packard had pio­neered before the war, was back on the option list. Nance him­self came up with the “three-way radio” (man­u­al, push­but­ton and selec­tor bar tun­ing). Fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea, he’d con­tact­ed GM Del­co, find­ing they had one ready to go. He made a sup­ply deal, and had it in Packards five months before Cadil­lac: a nice jump on the opposition.

One couldn’t argue with suc­cess, and most stock­hold­ers didn’t. The new lux­u­ry mod­els sold spar­ing­ly, but that they were there at all was tes­ti­mo­ni­al to Nance’s deter­mi­na­tion. Adver­tis­ing assumed a decid­ed up-mar­ket look, and the results were agree­able. Cal­en­dar ’53 saw 81,000 cars, up by a third and the best since 1950. Packard’s share of the lux­u­ry mar­ket increased, and pre-tax prof­its at $10 mil­lion were the high­est in his­to­ry. It began to look like things were turn­ing around.

Con­clud­ed in Part 2 (1954-56)

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

2 thoughts on “Why Packard Failed (1): Patrician and Its Relatives 1951-53

  1. Richard – thanks for shar­ing your informed per­spec­tive and for cre­at­ing this site.

    Set­ting aside the “Big 4th” sce­nario, I find very thought-pro­vok­ing the ques­tion of whether an Inde­pen­dent could have sur­vived on their own in the 50s and 60s. The argu­ment that it was impos­si­ble due to lack of scale was dis­proven by Bee­tle, Ram­bler, Mer­cedes-Benz and oth­ers. Per­haps what those who argue “impos­si­ble” are real­ly say­ing is that it was impos­si­ble to com­pete mod­el-for-mod­el with the Big 3. On this I agree. Small play­ers need­ed to make do with few­er cars – and need­ed to make those cars stand-outs that achieved good scale in the seg­ments that they com­pet­ed in.

    In this light, the 1951 Packard “24th Series” is a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­gram to ana­lyze and poke at. The clay mod­els for its lead vehi­cles – the ‘200’ 2 and 4-door sedans – were not final­ized until Octo­ber 1949. There­fore, Packard had the ben­e­fit of see­ing what Buick and Cadil­lac would sell in the next sev­er­al years, and how the mar­ket ini­tial­ly react­ed to them.

    Had Packard care­ful­ly tracked com­pet­i­tive sales it would have dis­cov­ered that the long wheel­base Buick 52 & 72 and Cadil­lac 62 sedans were sell­ing incred­i­bly well despite their high­er prices rel­a­tive to the short­er-wheel­base sedans sell­ing along­side them. The mar­ket was sig­nal­ing its pref­er­ence for rear seat spaciousness!

    Giv­en this real­i­ty, very late in 1949 one can make an argu­ment that Packard should have made a last-minute piv­ot and gone all-in on the 127 chas­sis. To hold the 200’s August 1950 launch date (Packard’s finan­cials were falling apart due to the slow-sell­ing 1950 mod­els) the 200’s design could have been retained, with only its front and rear doors being length­ened by 2.5 inch­es to stretch its wheel­base from 122 to 127 inch­es. At this point, the 2-door Club Sedan would have been dropped.

    Had Packard tak­en these actions they would have end­ed up with a car sim­i­lar to the orig­i­nal Clip­per in its abil­i­ty to be dressed up or down depend­ing on inte­ri­or trim and engi­neer­ing specs. In base form it prob­a­bly would have retailed for no more than $50-100 more than the orig­i­nal 122 wheel­base sedan, and in Patri­cian trim it would have been priced between Buick 72 and Cadil­lac 62, rather than above 62 as the Patri­cian 400 had. I like the mar­riage of the 200’s more round­ed rear fend­ers and ver­ti­cal tail­lights to the rest of the car’s tall and round­ed forms, par­tic­u­lar­ly its wind­shield and backlight.

    If one were to add up the body tool­ing cost for the 24th Series – three roofs, two front door sets, two rear doors sets (with shar­ing of door out­er stamp­ings), three rear fend­er sets, three side glass/door frame sets, two deck­lids, two wind­shields, three back­lights – it would rough­ly amount to the equiv­a­lent of two bodies.

    This being the case, Packard would have had mon­ey to tool a sec­ond body, the only caveat being that it would have need­ed to sell well. Not at the same vol­umes as the tall 127 sedan but def­i­nite­ly at or above 10,000 units per year, else Packard would nev­er recoup its invest­ment. I think this mod­el would have been Packard’s big oppor­tu­ni­ty to real­ly stick it to Cadillac. 

    A mar­gin­al­ly prac­ti­cal 127 wheel­base 4-door car with style-for­ward design includ­ing a hard­top roof (fixed and remov­able post ver­sions), 3-piece open and one-piece for­mal back­light options, 300/Patrician 400 “bulls nuts” tail­lights, and elim­i­na­tion of “High Pock­ets.” Think 1924 Packard Sport Mod­el with 2-inch sec­tioned body. Low­er than Hud­son, it would have thrown Cadil­lac off balance.

    High-priced spe­cial­ty mod­els large­ly based on exist­ing stamp­ings and cre­at­ed with lots of body shop work could have includ­ed a 149 wheel­base 8-pas­sen­ger sedan and EDL and a 122 wheel­base 4-pas­sen­ger Speed­ster, plus a few 149 wheel­base Dual-Cowl Sport Phaetons for the parade circuit.

    A pri­ma­ry goal of the 54th Series would have been to quick­ly make enough mon­ey to tool the V8 for 1953 as had orig­i­nal­ly been planned, and to prof­it even in the Kore­an War vol­ume-con­strained 1952 mod­el year.

  2. RML nailed the demise of Packard in one word, “the gap”. “The Gap” got oth­ers also, Oldsmo­bile, DeS­o­to, Mer­cury, ETC. The key per­haps was the 51 mod­els, if the line­up was more like the 53’s Packard may have faired better.

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