You would be forgiven for mistaking this modest-looking sedan as a low-end Dodge, Pontiac or Mercury. A Packard? The very name conjures images of exclusive cars from the classic era, like this illustrious coach-built V12, or perhaps its last gasp luxo-boat, the 1956 Caribbean. But finding this lowly 1951 Model 200 sitting curbside just a few blocks from my house was actually more fortuitous (and likely) than finding a glamorous one. Because in the history of this fabled brand, this car played quite a pivotal role: it brought Packard down.
In 1899, James Packard bought a one-cylinder Winton, and wasn’t fully pleased. When he wrote Winton a letter with his recommendations for improvements, Winton responded by telling him to go…build your own car. Packard acted on that, and Winton disappeared before long. And although James Packard personally didn’t stay around long, his founding commitment to excellence became its enduring legacy.
In 1912, the 48 horsepower Six put Packard in the big leagues. Its reliability, quality and refinement solidly established the Packard reputation. And the brilliant “Twin Six” V12 of 1916 not only cemented it, but also put it clearly ahead of Cadillac’s new V8 from just one year earlier. The cylinder race was on.
In those early decades, the definition of luxury was rather different than today. Sure, size and comfort were a factor, but the greatest luxury was mechanical quality, refinement and reliability. If you valued those highly in a time when they were still far from universal, and you could afford it, you were quite likely a Packard owner. And you became part of Packard’s famous advertising slogan “Ask the man who owns one”.
And it wasn’t just cars either; Packard built trucks and commercial chassis for the most demanding and discriminating buyers. Packard was the closest thing to an American version of Mercedes-Benz, pre 1990. And it became a very prosperous company, consistently outselling Cadillac from 1925 until WW II, except for a couple of years in the Depression.
All the remaining independent high-end car makers except Packard were wiped out during the Depression. Packard was sitting on a huge cash reserve, and kept building its exquisite big cars. But it was not sustainable, so Packard made the fateful decision to expand into the mid-market with the 1935 Model 120, which cost one sixth of the V12. And two years later, an even cheaper six cylinder 115/110 appeared. It would be like Rolls Royce selling a $65k car today.
These junior Packards were excellent cars in their own right. And they sold very well; suddenly the most desirable brand in the land was affordable to a large portion of the middle class. Packard sales exploded from 8k in 1934 to 122k in 1937, and it became a top ten mass producer. But the junior models diluted Packard’s exclusive image for the truly wealthy. Cadillac began to look much more desirable as well as more stylish, thanks to Harley Earl.
Since GM had lots of brands covering all the pricing levels, Cadillac was relatively more isolated from the pressure to go down scale. Now if Packard had created a new mid-level brand, it might have spared itself the brand erosion. Packard historians will argue about this to their graves.
During WW II, Packard built the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin V12 aero engine that powered the fabulous P-51 Mustang fighter, among others. It came out of the war years as the only debt-free independent car maker. Packard was now holding its last hand of good cards, and how it played them in the post war boom was critical.
Just before the war, in 1941, Packard introduced a new mid-level car, the Clipper, its stab at progressive and aerodynamic slab-sided styling. It was handsome, and sold well. Packard decided to bet the house on it, literally. It ditched the old junior and senior Packard models, which were sitting on pretty ancient chassis anyway, and based (and named) all its postwar cars on the Clippers. That left it without distinctive top-tier cars, further eroding its image. And to try to keep volume high, Packard aggressively pursued the commercial market with taxis, ambulances, etc.
During the pent-up sellers’ market right after the war, everything got ripped out of the manufacturer’s hands. But that eased by 1948-1949, just as the Big Three unveiled their all-new cars, like the handsome 1948 Caddy. Instead of springing for expensive new body dies, Packard heavily disguised the old Clipper for the critical 1948-1950 years. It came off looking heavy and bloated, and was dubbed the “pregnant whale”. Packard’s situation was becoming precarious.
This is where our Curbside Classic comes in. Packard bet a huge chunk of its remaining cash on a completely new car for 1951, the last all-new Packards ever. A reasonably handsome car, yes, but not exactly distinguished in any way. And it was still powered by the flat-head straight eights that dated back to the thirties, while the competition was romping (even at Le Mans) with new OHV and hemi V8’s.
Packard offered two versions of this venerable lump of cast iron; I’ve heard they weigh over a thousand pounds. The 288 cubic inch (4.7 liter) version in this low-end 200 Series churned out 135 hp. A longer stroke 327 cubic incher (5.4 liter) for the higher end cars managed 150 hp. Yes, they were inefficient, heavy and outmoded by 1951. But straight eights do have their charms. Inherently balanced for both primary and secondary vibrations, it runs as smooth as melting butter.
With all that cast iron, low compression and mild state of tune, you literally can not tell that this engine is running unless you look at the fan. It was the Lexus V8 of its era (minus the power). And backing it up was a mighty smooth transmission, the fabled Ultramatic. It was the only automatic fully developed by one of the independent makers; Studebaker, Nash, and Hudson all out-sourced their slushboxes.
The 1949-1954 Ultramatic was essentially a one-speed; low range was only used for steep ascends or descents. A torque converter amplified the big eight’s twist sufficiently for starting; somewhere between 15 and 55 mph, depending on rear-axle gearing and throttle position, a lock-up clutch engaged direct mechanical drive. That meant no pumping losses at speed. It basically split the difference between the very slushy and inefficient one-speed Buick Dynaflow, which always stayed in fluid drive, and the efficient but rather hard-shifting original four-speed fluid coupling Hydramatic.
It’s all-too obvious that this Packard is anything but luxurious. Its interior is downright taxi-cabbish. Prices started at $2300 ($18k adjusted). This Series 200 of 1951 was the final and most extreme case of the dilution of Packard’s image that started with the series 120 in 1935. Packard’s sales slumped badly, and in 1952, an energetic new President, James Nance was hired to salvage the fast sinking Clipper ship.
His solution was a retreat from the low end of the range and the taxis and commercial cars, and focus on competing with the higher end Cadillacs. The new 1955 models were just a clever reskin by Dick Teague of the old ’51 body, but did sport more flair (and chrome). An all-new OHV V8 brought it up to power parity with the competition. And a radical “Torsion-Level” suspension option put it firmly (or softly) ahead: it was the first active suspension in these parts.
Long torsion bars interfaced the front and rear suspension on each side, and electric motors adjusted their tension according to load weight. It was considered more effective than GM’s experiments with air suspensions at the time. It’s probably a bitch to keep working fifty years later, though.
In 1956, Nance finally did what should have been done in the thirties: he made the lower-priced Clipper a separate brand from Packard. But it was a classic case of too little, too late.
Packard was already overwhelmed by its “merger” with Studebaker in 1954. In reality, Packard bought and bailed out Studebaker, without realizing how bad the situation was in South Bend. Studebaker was running low on cash, and its fixed overhead was way out of line with its falling sales. The white knight now got swallowed whole by the princess in distress.
Packard had planned all-new ’57 models, but ’56 sales crashed, so the only option left was for Packard to use Studebaker body shells, thinly disguised. The pathetic 1957 “Packardbakers” were an ignoble ending to this once high flying brand.
Capitalism is creative destruction, and premium brands are particularly vulnerable. The Depression killed numerous high flyers. Packard and Imperial are long gone. Lincoln and Cadillac are shadows of their former selves.
Undoubtedly, there will always be a market for conspicuously upscale cars. But in the most developed countries of the world the symbols that are used to project success are changing. In Western Europe, the Mercedes S Class is increasingly a social liability, unless you want to be presumed a Russian or Eastern European mobster.
It’s happening here too. In the biggest wealth-generating area of the US, Silicon Valley, as well as other places like LA, a Tesla Roadster is the social statement equivalent to this Packard boat-tailed Roadster in the thirties, a Caddy Biarritz in the fifties, a MB SL in the seventies, and a Porsche 911 Cabrio in the nineties. Nothing ever stays the same, especially when it comes to the toys, fashions and badges of the rich.