Curbside Classic: 1958 Packard Hardtop – The Last Gasp

(first posted 2/20/2012)    1958 Packards are not really Packards. A series of poor decisions and lack of funds resulted in an unfortunate merger with Studebaker and what may be the very first badge-engineered car. The 1957 and 1958 Packards were meant to be a stopgap model until an all-new model could be introduced, a Packard worthy of the name. Sadly, it was not to be and the ’58 ‘Packardbakers’ were the last. It was a sad ending to one of the finest luxury car makers in the United States and arguably, the world.

At the end of World War II, Packard was in good shape. Lots of lucrative war contracts had left them healthy and they were eager to begin automobile production and continue their success. They had one of the most modern looking car designs, the 1942 Clipper, and even though the 1946 and ’47 models were little changed, they were very attractive and fresh for a prewar design.

Then the ’48s came out. They basically took the ’47 and filled out the sides, resulting in a modern envelope-style body, but also looking rather, shall we say, fat.

These Packards continued through 1950 with minor changes, and included a wood-trimmed Station Sedan that is very collectible these days.


Redesigned ‘three-box’ style Packards, designed by John Reinhart, came out in ’51 and were very modern looking and stately, appropriate for a Packard. The 1951 250 Mayfair was Packard’s first hardtop and the Caribbean custom convertible was introduced in 1953. Despite the new design and features, all Packards continued to use the old straight eight, at a time when OHV V8s were all the rage. Many other medium-priced and luxury makes had V8s by this time, and Packard was caught without one.

By 1954, Packard sales had been on a downward trajectory for a few years, and although they were not in debt at the time, it was decided to merge with Studebaker Corporation. The thought was that with a broader product line and more factory space, Studebaker-Packard could cover a greater share of the market and better insulate themselves from the Big Three’s sales war of 1954. It’s a long and involved story, and many books have been written on the subject. Richard Langworth’s Studebaker 1946-1966: The Classic Postwar Years gives a good account of it, but in a nutshell, Studebaker was using some creative accounting and Packard didn’t look hard enough at the books. The net result was Studebaker was able to go on for another twelve years or so, at Packard’s expense.

Despite all the trouble, a very heavy facelift of the 1951 bodyshell and new V8 resulted in a very attractive Packard for 1955, the Caribbeans in particular. But rushed assembly lead to very un-Packard like quality, and the resulting disaster turned off the last few loyal Packard buyers. In 1956, an agreement was reached with Curtiss-Wright to try to get the company back on solid ground. One of the conditions was the closure and sale of the Packard facility. Ultimately, the Detroit Packard factory, a hugely impressive facility that had been building cars since 1911, was shuttered in 1956 after 28,835 genuine Packards were produced for the model year. But Packard was not done yet. It may have been better if they were.

There were plans for an all-new 1957 Packard, based on the Predictor dream car. Many designs were drawn up and a running prototype was built. Sadly, funds were lacking and the whole project was unfeasible. Plan B was to purchase the tooling for the 1956 Lincoln from Ford Motor Company and restyle it into a Packard, but that fell through as well. As S-P intended to continue the Packard name, it was decided to issue a Packard based on the 1957 Studebaker President, their fanciest model at the time.

I don’t think anyone intended this to be a proper replacement for the ’55-’56 models. The ’57 was actually fairly attractive, although clearly based on a Studebaker. It was available only as a Clipper, in sedan or wagon versions.

Every ’57 Packard was equipped with a 289 V8 with McCulloch superchager, good for 275 hp, the same engine used in the Studebaker Golden Hawks. Despite the power and upgraded interiors, most people weren’t fooled, and only 4,809 were built. Then came the ’58…

The 1958 Packard was one of the busiest designs of the Fifties. Due to lack of funds, fiberglass headlight pods and fins were tacked on to the largely carryover ’57 sheetmetal. The design of the 1958 was handled by Studebaker stylist Duncan McRae. I have no idea what he was thinking.


The wildest design feature was a fin-on-a-fin rear quarter design. While the 1957 Clipper had quite a few Packard design cues, and actually used ’56 Clipper taillights, the 1958 had no resemblance whatsoever.

Quad headlights were new, as well as a two-door hardtop. While the Golden Hawk-based new-for-’58 Packard Hawk retained the 275 hp supercharged engine, the ‘regular’ Packard sedan, wagon and hardtop used a normally-aspirated 225 hp 289.

The 1958 Hawk (photo above) was the only Packard with a model name, as the other three models were just plain Packards, not a good sign. Studebaker-Packard was in really bad shape by ’58, and the recession that year made a bad situation even worse. Packard sold a total of 2,622 cars: 1,200 sedans, 675 two-door hardtops, 588 Hawks and a mere 159 station wagons.

I’m sure it didn’t help when that rare ’58 Packard owner found himself sitting next to an ultra-basic Studebaker Scotsman at a stoplight, using the same basic body as his luxury Packard. After the train wreck of 1958, Studebaker decided to go in a completely different direction and modified the ’58 body shell to become the new compact ’59 Lark. With that, the Packard name was retired, although the corporation’s name remained Studebaker-Packard until 1962. A sad ending for a great marque.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this 1958 hardtop in downtown Rock Island, sitting next to a transmission shop. It hasn’t been here long, as I pass by here often. It’s hard to get a sense of the gaudiness these cars had, as this example is missing its chrome and gold mylar side trim, and three of its four fins.

While I was taking the photos, a man driving by stopped and wanted to know what kind of car this was. It turns out that he knows the guy who owns this Packard, and hopes he gets it fixed up one of these days. We talked Studebakers and Packards for a while, then went our separate ways. I hope the owner restores this too. It’s definitely not the grandest Packard ever built, but it is the last of its kind and worthy of being preserved. Good luck finding parts though.