Curbside Classic: 1937 Packard Six – Prestige on the Installment Plan

In the months before the 1928 U. S. presidential election, Herbert Hoover’s campaign slogan was “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”    Even at the peak of the decade known as the roaring twenties, it is not likely that the cars that Hoover was referring to were Packards.  But as the great depression settled into the 1930s, Packard management must have remembered the slogan, and asked “why not a Packard in every garage?”  This car was the result.

In 1937, it seemed to all be about price.  The bottom had fallen out of the economy in 1930 and remained in a free fall though 1933.  With the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, a wave of optimism swept the country as everyone expected a swift return to prosperity.   But much like in recent years (on a smaller scale), the first six years of the Roosevelt administration were more successful in theory than in actuality.

The depression lingered for a long while, and by 1937, many venerable auto manufacturers were dead or dying, particularly those who sold to the upper crust.  Pierce was gone, as were Stutz and Marmon.  E. L. Cord’s empire of Auburn, Cord and Dusenberg was still dribbling a few cars out the doors, but was about to lose consciousness for good.  Luxury car makers that remained were part of a bigger company, like Cadillac and Lincoln.  Except for Packard.

In the 1910s, Packard (along with Pierce and Peerless) was one of the famous “Three Ps” of luxury cars.  The 1916 Packard Twin Six started the cylinder race that eventually resulted in V-16s from Cadillac and Marmon.  But the 1930s, with its depressed economy and new sky-high income tax rates on the wealthy, saw fewer and fewer people engaging in such conspicuous consumption as the purchase of a Packard.

Few readers younger than, maybe ninety, have a firsthand idea of how prestigious the Packard name was in the 1930s.  Packards were built with the best of engineering, virtually handcrafted, and were sold to old money.  But this market all but disappeared during the ’30s and for Packard, it was adapt or die.  So, in 1935 (after a couple of half-steps), Packard expanded its reach to the upper end of the medium priced market with the very successful Packard 120.  Two years later, Packard went still further downmarket with this car: the Packard Six.

The development of these cars received extensive treatment by Aaron Severson in his piece at Ate Up With Motor (here), so there is no need to cover that ground again.  Let’s just say that the old-school Packard of 1927 under the patrician Alvin MacCauley was a very different company from the Packard of 1937 where a former Buick man experienced in volume production named George Christopher was poised to take over.

The received wisdom whenever discussing Packard is that the introduction of junior models in the 1930s set in motion the company’s eventual downfall two decades hence.  Sometimes conventional wisdom is conventional because it is true.  But not always.

The new 1937 Packard Six started at $795.  Although this price class was unheard of for Packard, this was not a cheap car.  Instead, this was a six cylinder car on a fairly compact 115 inch wheelbase that sold for about the same price of an entry level Buick Special ($765).  Only the Buick gave you eight cylinders and a 122 inch wheelbase.  The $100-150 premium over most mid-price sixes like Oldsmobile or Studebaker was not an insignificant amount in 1937, when one of the low-priced three could still be had for under $500.

In short, you were getting a car comparable to a higher-level Pontiac or Dodge and were paying Buick prices for it.  But you were not buying a car.  You were buying a Packard, and everyone understood that a Packard was going to cost you more.  Because it was a Packard.

This car is best understood as the 1930s analog to the modern Lexus 350 series.  The small Lexus is not an inexpensive car.  Instead, it compares with a lot of very good but less expensive cars in all but one attribute: the quality (real or perceived) of the Lexus name, along with the benefit of sales and service from the Lexus dealer.

We talk a lot today about branding.  Some of us (myself included) sometimes wax poetic about the genius of Alfred Sloan’s carefully constructed divisional structure at GM that provided “a car for every purse and purpose.”  But in this instance, Packard’s reach downward with this car (and the eight cylinder 120) probably killed GM’s LaSalle (starting at $995 in 1937), despite the brand being jointly advertised with Cadillacs.  In truth, the Packard Six probably also stole a significant number of sales from Buick and Chrysler.

And it all worked because there were still the senior models in the same catalogs selling for big bucks to Packard’s traditional customers.  Packard’s  1937 Super Eight (CC here) cost $2,450, and the Twelve was higher yet.  The Six was not a strippo senior car, either.  Instead, it shared almost nothing with the larger series beyond its looks and its famous name.  Packard’s 1930s approach still works today for Lexus, where the 460 series makes deposits to the bank of brand equity that the less costly (and very different) smaller models cash in on.

Packard’s demise is a story for another day.  But I think it is safe to say that without the Packard 120 and the Packard Six, the company would have been out of business well before the onset of the Second World War.

In the area around my neighborhood, there is a supermarket, a mexican restaraunt and a McDonalds.  Those three parking lots have provided a disproportionate number of my Curbside Classic finds.  This little gem was sitting in the McDonalds parking lot as I passed it one Sunday last fall.  It seems appropriate that I should find the mass market Packard in the place for mass market food.

I believe that I used to know the owner of this car, although I have lost touch with him and he may have sold it by now.  I did not have a chance to find out, because Mrs. JPC and I were on our way somewhere at the time.  If the car had been less special than this one, I would not have taken the time that day to stop.  But how could I NOT have stopped for a Packard.  With more time to spare, I might have gone inside and asked the man who owns one: “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?”  I suspect that the answer would be “Of course not.  Who would choose a Buick when you can have a Packard.”

I must say that the styling on this baby Packard uses all of the traditional styling cues from its big brothers to maximum effect.  This car looks every inch a Packard, and most people my age or younger would have no idea that this was the value leader of the line.   I do not know if the paint is original, but the silver color gives a car of this era a very expensive look.  Top to bottom, I find this to be a very tasteful and dignified car, which is no doubt where the stylists were headed.

So, back to the question.  Did the Packard Six begin the company’s long, slow death that concluded two decades later?  Ever the contrarian, I must vote “no.”  My verdict is that with the Six, Packard provided a well-engineered, well-built car that was very expensive for what it was, and kept the company in business through the 1940s, so that it could make fatal mistakes with its high-end cars.  But that is a story for another Curbside Classic.