Road Trip Classic: 1955 Packard Clipper Custom – Prairie Schooner On The Oregon Trail


If you’ve been following this road trip series, you probably know that we’re now in Idaho, on our return leg, after having “rounded the horn” at Seattle with a side trip into Canada. Today, we’ll backtrack a bit in order to review a car we found last week, during a supper break in Baker City, Oregon.

The Clipper line dates back to 1941—eight months before the attack on Pearl Harbor—and was the mid-market offering Packard President Max Gilman hoped would reposition Packard as a more mainstream brand. Sales for premium automobiles had faltered during the Great Depression, and Packard needed a new direction if it wanted to remain viable as a company.

Packard’s timing could not have been worse: U.S. automotive production ceased for the duration of the war, and while the 1941 design didn’t look terribly dated when  production resumed, Packard’s styling choices for the 1948 refresh were questionable, to say the least. The bulbous “bathtub” look had fallen out of favor with buyers, and after bitter internal disagreements management finally decided to ditch it in favor of something more modern.

Packard’s postwar cars were simply Packards, with Clipper used as a model name. When James Nance became company president in 1952, he realized that the Clipper’s mid-market positioning was dragging down the brand. His solution was to  spin off the Clipper as a unique brand, a process that was not finalized until 1956. Thus is our 1955 subject car a Packard Clipper—basically a transitional designation.

There were five trim levels available for the 1955 Clipper:

  • Deluxe
  • Super
  • Super Panama
  • Custom
  • Custom Constellation

Our subject car is one of 14,995 Clipper Customs produced for that model year.

 Howard “Dutch” Darrin was central to the design of the early Clippers—it was unclear in my brief research whether he had a hand in the ’53-’55 models.

One feature unique to the Clipper Custom was its torsion-bar suspension; other trim levels made do with coils and leaf springs. Power steering was also an option.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can see that the postwar Clippers marked the beginning of the end for Packard. Managing a premium brand during a fundamental market shift is not easy. Few companies manage to make a successful transition, and while those that join the race to the bottom may hang on for a while, they ultimately hit the point of no return. The end comes quickly.

We’ve documented the postwar Packard cars, as well as the decline of the brand, in several other CCs: here, here, here and here. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry on the development of the Clipper, which you may also find of interest.

All photos by the author.