CC Forgotten Future: 1957 Packard

(first posted 4/17/2017)    The tragic story of the downfall of Packard has been told many times. In this Forgotten Future installment, we look at the Packard future that almost came to pass.

In the early 1950s, Packard was facing multiple headwinds. The end of the post-World War II seller’s market led to a large price war in 1953 and 1954 which Packard, with its higher per-unit costs, was ill-equipped to compete. Simultaneously, the end of the Korean War meant the cancellation of many large military contracts, which were largely responsible for keeping Packard (and the rest of the independent automakers) afloat at the time. Packard’s limited engineering resources meant that they were always playing catch-up with the Big 3 on innovations like automatic transmissions, hardtop roofs, and V8 engines. And the lower-priced Clipper models were insufficiently differentiated from the senior Packard line, tarnishing the luster of the entire Packard brand.

By 1954, things were dire for all the independents. Hudson and Nash merged to form American Motors, and Studebaker soon merged with Packard in the same year. In 1955, the vehicle lineup from the Big 3 was almost entirely all-new, with the industry then on a 3-year product refresh cycle. Packard was still selling mildly warmed-over models from 1951. Jim Nance, president of Studebaker-Packard, was desperate to release all-new Packards in 1955, but couldn’t swing the estimated $25 million it would cost, so the redesign got pushed off to 1956.

Losses continued to mount at S-P in 1956, so the all-new Packards got pushed off to 1957. By mid-1956, Studebaker-Packard was facing liquidation, only to be saved by a last-minute “management agreement” with aircraft engine maker Curtiss-Wright (really a thinly veiled acquisition, but with no money changing hands).

At this point, rising red ink ceased all Packard production in Detroit, and the plants were slated to be sold. Packard assembly had shifted to South Bend, and the 1957 and 58 Packards ended up being mildly facelifted Studebakers. Not surprisingly, these “Packabakers,” which were created to fulfill contractual obligations with Packard dealers as much as anything else, flopped in the market.

1956 Packard Predictor Concept

But this is all well-trod ancient history. The Forgotten Future part of this story starts with the 1956 Packard Predictor, a concept built by Ghia, created to drum up some interest in the Packard brand (since there was little actual excitement in the showroom).


1956 Packard Predictor Concept

1956 Packard Predictor Concept

Packard never really had a proper logo, so the “Circle V” symbol on port hole windows was Dick Teague’s attempt to create a timeless symbol for Packard, like the three-pointed star was for Mercedes. The Predictor would prove to be very influential (just not for Packard), obviously influencing the design of future Edsel and Lincoln models.


1957 Packard Clipper Rendering

First up, the 1957 junior-line Clipper, which originally was to have been built on a facelifted version of the 1951 body. Notice the wide “fish mouth” grille, which eventually did find its way to the 1958 Studebaker-based Packards.


1957 Clipper clay model

Eventually, the decision to use the carryover platform for the Clipper was dropped, and it was decided that the Clipper would share the same all-new platform as the 1957 senior Packards. The clay model above shows what this Clipper might have looked like.


1957 Clipper styling buck

Work on the 1957 Clipper had made it all the way to the styling buck phase, as shown above. You can clearly see the family resemblance to the 1956 Clipper, with the hooded headlights and wide, horizontal barred grille with a large wheel in the center.


Here we see the 1957 Clipper being benchmarked against a 1956 Oldsmobile. While the Clipper appears to be lower and wider than the Olds, it certainly isn’t more attractive. Notice that the Clipper styling buck does not appear to have a steering wheel, or an interior.


Meanwhile, work continued afoot on the 1957 Senior Packards, shown in a sketch above. Packard tried to incorporate as many of the Predictor styling cues as they could, leaving out some of the more expensive features like the hidden headlights and T-top roof.

The main differentiators from the Clipper would have been the vertical grille section, quad headlights, fully skirted wheels, and the lack of leading front fender fins.


1957 Packard clay model

The clay model above shows how Dick Teague tried to blend some of the styling cues of the Predictor concept with a traditional-shaped Packard grille. Realize that Edsel was still under wraps at this point, so it is uncertain how aware Ford was of its styling, which ended up looking very similar.


1957 Packard clay model

This four-door clay looks a lot like the then-forthcoming 1958-60 Lincolns, especially in the roofline. I for one like the exaggerated “cathedral” taillights, and the way the grille lines continue around the side and back of the car.


Above is a scale model of the 1957 Packard 400, which gives you a pretty good idea of what a fully trimmed example would have looked like. The vertical grille in the middle wasn’t actually a grille at all, but a spring-loaded vertical bumper.


“Black Bess,” only known prototype 1957 Packard

Unlike the 57 Clipper, the 1957 Packard actually made it as far as a roadworthy car. One test mule was made, named “Black Bess” (because of its all-black paint and blackwall tires). The build quality of Black Bess was far too rough to be considered a proper prototype, but at this point it is safe to say that the look would have been locked in. I don’t even think the Packard engineers were very enthralled with their efforts: When the 1957 Packard program was shut down, Black Bess was cut up and destroyed.

So would these cars have saved Packard? Sadly, I think not. By the 1950s, Packard cars had developed a reputation for being somewhat stodgy, and these very conservative (by 1950s standards) designs would have done little to change that perception. The fact that the car that these Packard concepts most closely resembled (the 1958-60 Lincoln) also flopped in the market is a pretty good indicator that these would have seen the same fate.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1955 Packard Four Hundred – Bravely Facing Forward

Curbside Classic: 1956 Packard Patrician – Please Proceed to The Lifeboats

Curbside Classic: 1958 Packard Hardtop -The Last Gasp