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

(first posted 4/24/2012)    In 1912, the White Star Line launched its biggest and most luxurious ocean liner ever, the R. M. S. Titanic.  An engineering marvel said to be unsinkable, the ship fell victim to a perfect storm of mishaps that resulted in its sinking to the bottom of the sea with virtually no trace, one hundred years ago last week.  Is there a better automotive parallel to the Titanic story than the 1955-56 Packard?

I still remember the first time that I saw a picture of one of these cars.  How, I wondered, did Packard go out of business?  I had seen enough Studebakers and other orphans to know that a car brand usually went away after building cars that were, somehow, a little strange.  Or maybe just outside of the mainstream.  Cars that failed to follow the prevailing styles and features offered by the Big Three never seemed to last long.

But the big ’56 Packard seemed to be the very picture of a modern luxury sedan in that time period.  It had a modern shape, it had all of the modern styling cues.  It had modern engineering.  And come on – wasn’t Packard one of the oldest names in the business?

As I got older and read more, I came to realize that the 1956 Packard was not what killed Packard.  Rather, a series of miscues and unfortunate events over an extended period beginning during the Second World War led to death by a thousand cuts.  Or, we could say that these multiple circumstances sort of came together to form an iceberg.  We can debate just when Packard hit the iceberg.  But it was certainly before these final magnificent cars hit the showrooms.

Packard had been a grand old company that built things the old way – exquisitely engineered and meticulously crafted.  This order stayed in place largely until WWII, with the exception of the junior models like the 120, the Six (CC here)/110 and the Clipper.  But the senior cars came to be less and less of the company’s focus, particularly once George Christopher succeeded Alvin MacCauley as president in 1937.  After the war, the senior cars were gone and what before the war had been the lower priced Clipper became the company’s top postwar offering (CC here).

The postwar era brought an entirely different concept to the high-end car market.  Instead of huge custom crafted cars designed for James the chauffeur to manhandle through city traffic while Col. & Mrs. McBigBucks rode serenely in back, the new age was a more democratic concept designed for the wealthy driver who wanted to arrive at the Club quickly, comfortably, and with style.

While Packard and Cadillac started 1946 with some sort of rough parity, the ensuing five years could not have sent the two companies in more different directions.  Cadillac’s engineers got to work on a new ohv V8, new generations of the Hydra-Matic, and styling that would entice the new captains of commerce (and more importantly, their wives) into Cadillac showrooms everywhere.  Packard?  Uhhh – no.  Top quality and impressive engineering?  Absolutely,  in a high button shoe kind of way.  The old prewar straight 8 was a wonderful (if old fashioned) engine, and the home-grown Ultramatic transmission was quite an accomplishment from an independent automaker.

Most have forgotten that Packard was the only independent automaker to engineer and build its own automatic, and did so years before either Ford or Chrysler accomplished the same task.  The Ultramatic was classic Packard: a simple but elegant solution that involved a basic torque converter (like Buick’s Dynaflow)  that locked up for its “second gear”.

By the 1948-49 models, Cadillac would begin pulling away from Packard at an ever-increasing pace.  Make your choice: high style and the most up-do date engine in the industry.  Or a prewar Clipper that appeared to have gained a lot of weight.  My father told a story about how my grandfather bought one of these late 1940s Packards.  When he got it home, my strong-willed grandmother lit into him something fierce.  Dad never forgot the sound of his mother yelling “a Packard!  Why in the world would you buy a PackardNobody drives Packards anymore!”

George Christopher left the company in 1949.  His successor, Hugh Ferry, accomplished precisely one thing in his two years at the helm – he hired James Nance from Hotpoint.  By the time Nance came aboard in 1952, it was probably too late to save the ship.  Cadillac and Chrysler had world class engines in their cars, and Lincoln was trying to revive with a serious driver’s chassis.  All Packard had to show was a new 1951 body that was stylish only when parked next to one of K. T. Keller’s Chryslers.  But to Nance’s credit, he (and Forrest McFarland’s engineering department – which included a young John DeLorean) gave it a good try.  And this car is the result.

The new 1955 V8 was an impressive piece of engineering, that by 1956 came either in 352 or 374 cubic inches, making it the biggest V8 in the industry.  In this Patrician, the big 374 put out 290 horsepower with a single 4 barrel carb, while the Caribbean with dual quads was good for 310.  These engines had some teething problems in 1955, but seem to have been sorted out by the next year, and have since proved to be close to indestructible.  Not bad for what may be the shortest-lived American V8 engine since World War II.

The other big engineering news was the Torsion Level suspension.  Unlike the system on the 1957 Chryslers, the Packard system involved all four wheels.  It used long torsion bars that linked the front and rear of the car, and was coupled with an automatic load leveling system.  Published road tests of the time heaped praise on the Torsion Level Packards, which both rode and handled better than most anything else on the road.

The Ultramatic was now the Twin Ultramatic, and offered a low gear in addition to the torque converter, making kind of a three speed unit (sort of a Powerglide with a lockup torque converter).  The new transmission featured optional electric pushbutton control.  There was also the new Twin Traction limited slip differential, pioneered by Packard.

In addition to new engines, new transmission and a new suspension system, Packard also began building its own bodies (necessitated by Chrysler’s purchase of Briggs Manufacturing, Packard’s old body supplier.)  The need to lease the Briggs Body plant from Chrysler led to one of the few missteps with these cars.  Nance determined that costs could be cut by moving all production of these vehicles to the much smaller Briggs plant.  In practice, the new production line led to bottlenecks and some quality glitches in 1955, which may have come back to haunt the company the next year.

Although the 1955-56 body appeared new, it was actually a very thorough updating of the 1951 shell.  While it continued to suffer from the prior car’s high beltline, the 1955-56 Dick Teague design was a modern interpretation of what a Packard was supposed to be.  And a very attractive luxury sedan.

For a more in-depth treatment of the car’s development, check out this 1976 piece in Special Interest Autos magazine (here) that covers the topic thoroughly.  It is fair to say that from Nance coming aboard in 1952 to the debut of the 1955 line, Packard accomplished the nearly impossible, and in record time.

This big Patrician was the top end sedan, priced right up there with the Cadillac 62.  These cars were available with all the luxury features expected at the time, including air conditioning, power windows, locks, seats, and lots more.  These were big, solid, well-built cars that were Packards through and through.

Which brings us back to the question of the day: if this was such a great car, why did Packard only sell about 18,000 of them?  Although this nearly doubled Imperial’s 10,000 units, it was well below the 50,000 cars of a newly energized Lincoln, let alone the 154,000 Cadillacs that hit the streets.

Was the problem the Clipper?  Yes, the Clipper, Packard’s downmarket little brother.  Unlike the junior Packards of the 1930s, the low priced postwar Packards were nothing more than dumbed down/stripped down versions of the high end cars.  Instead of being the ancestor of the modern Lexus (as had been the case before the war), Packard became the ancestor of the modern Lincoln.  Prestige and snob appeal (necessary in this market) were leaking out at the bottom faster than they were being added at the top.  And if not enough people desired Packards, there wasn’t much appeal to trickle down to the Clipper, even if it had become a separate brand name by 1956.  Compared to the high-end Packard’s 18,000 cars, the cheaper Clipper’s 10,000 units made for an outright flop.

I have a bit of a drive to get to my mechanic, and I was making that drive a couple of weeks ago when I spied this car sitting in its driveway, minding its own business.  Before this car, I can recall seeing exactly one 1956 Packard in the wild – and it was a Clipper parked on the street when I was about 12.  I still remember it, because I was trying to figure out what a Clipper was.  I knew that it had to be a model name, but the Packard name had been removed from the car that year.  Anyway, the Patrician’s magnetic field compelled me to pull into the driveway of its owner, Mick Widmeyer, who was doing some spring garage cleaning.

I introduced myself (and Curbside Classic) and started gushing over his car.  Mick was kind enough to allow these photos as we chatted.  He has only owned this Patrician for less than a year and has historically not really been a Packard guy.  However, he loves old cars and something about this elegant old sedan appealed to him.  He tells me that a registry that tracks old Packards indicates that there are slightly more than 100 of these Patricians still in existence.  So, although this car is more common than the 1958 Packardbaker that was featured recently (CC here), this is still one rare car, particularly in this condition.  This appears to be a genuine original car that has racked up just over 100,000 miles in its life, and looks as nice up close as it does in the pictures.  This example appears to lack the optional electric pushbuttons for the Twin Ultramatic, but in a car eligible for its own AARP card, this is probably a good thing.

This big old Patrician makes me a little misty.  Not that I ever had one, but there is something sad about an old-line maker of top quality cars going down the tubes, particularly so soon after turning out such a competitive (and compelling) big sedan.  But the sad truth is that the car was too little, too late.  It took every resource that Packard could muster to get back into the same ballpark as Cadillac in 1955-56, but by the time it got there, it was left with no gas in the tank as Cadillac (and Lincoln, and Imperial) cruised forward with more sophisticated and more modern offerings.  Studebaker is usually cast as the villain here, but would an independent Packard have been able to finance a new line of 1957 cars on its own?  The answer doesn’t really matter, because the deteriorating economy and stiffened competition of 1957-58 would surely have finished Packard off every bit as effectively.

Just like with the Titanic, there were a few artifacts that floated ashore.  The name and logos would go onto a few Studebakers for a couple of years, and the Twin Traction differential would put supercharged Stude power to the pavement into the 1960s.  John DeLorean would go on to a stellar career at Pontiac (although he would eventually hit an iceberg of his own.)  But these were just traces of a proud old-line company that, for all practical purposes, finally sunk below the waves at the end of the 1956 model year.  Fortunately, cars like this are like those few survivors on the lifeboats, and can help us remember the glory that once was Packard.