By on October 20, 2009

Packard it in!

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.

CC 42 020 800In 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.CC 42 043 800

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.

CC 42 028 800During 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.CC 42 026 800

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.

CC 42 039 800Long 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. CC 42 033 800The 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.

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48 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1951 Packard 200...”

  • avatar

    My dad bought a ’55 Packard Patrician in ’63 and we drove it for years to pull our camper. The ride (including the active rear suspension) was incredible. Just because we could, we kids would set our open Coke bottles on the back seat floor and never tipped one over. The fabric interior was still in descent shape when we sold the car five years ago. However, the body rusted finally at creases, seams and chrome. The dash was chrome, glass and, believe it or not, brass. It alone sold the car. Many happy memories.

    By the way, they made a two-door in ’57 that would make one hot looking rod!

  • avatar

    The Ultramatic transmission that was mentioned received some development and tweaking by none other than John DeLorean, when he worked at Packard.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    “Ask the Man Who Owns One” was the slogan, actually, sorry to nit-pick. Back when this slogan was first used, most Packard were actually not driven by owners, but by hirelings. It was indeed, a different day then. The Packard, Pierce-Arrow or Peerless owners let their automobiles announce their station in life.

    Very nice article. The proposed 1957 cars would have helped save the company, had the promised funds materialized (no thanks to the rug being pulled out from James Nance by bankers who’d gotten cold feet). Look how successful the lower, wider and highly finned 1957 Chrysler offerings were… (they were successful).

    But I don’t think these John Reinhart designed cars are really the ones which brought Packard low; I think the cars that actually saved Packard from doing a “Pierce-Arrow” and disappearing into the mists of time during the depression, sowed the seeds of the destruction of Packard.

    That would be the 1936 Packard 120. Designed by a hired ex-Pontiac engineer, for mass production.

    Ironically, Pierce belatedly tried the same trick, and planned to use Reo Flying Cloud bodies pressed by Hayes (Grand Rapids Michigan) and a cut-down engine (probably a six cylinder version of their big eight?) but couldn’t pull the money together to do it.

    The other irony is that Studebaker bought Pierce-Arrow and ruined them, before selling the business off to New Yorkers during the depression and then ruined Packard, too.

    At the time of the “merger” some Packard stockholders warned about what had happened to Pierce…. nobody listened.

  • avatar

    A great review of not only a 1951 Packard, but the company that made it. I do like the upmarket version of this bodystyle, even if the engine was outmoded by that time.

    It’s interesting to note that the person who pushed for Packard to move aggressively downmarket, and wanted the company to abandon true luxury cars – he referred to them as “that g—-mned senior stuff” – was a former General Motors man, George Christopher. He was recruited by Alvan Macauley of Packard to prepare the firm for production of the 120.

    His goal was volume for the sake of volume, and after the war, he became obsessed with pushing production to 200,000 units per year. He therefore paid lip service to the true luxury market, and pushed cheaper Packards.

    Cadillac, meanwhile, stuck with the luxury market, brought out exciting new styling (with tailfins), a hardtop and the new ohv V-8.

    By 1950, Cadillac was definitely the nation’s premier luxury car.

    Christopher also insisted that Packard stick with the “bathtub” models through 1950, even after it was apparent that they sold because cars were in short supply, not because it was an appealing vehicle. He didn’t want to spend the money for a restyle.

    Chasing volume for the sake of volume, being pennywise and pound foolish, ignoring what competitors are doing…sounds like Cadillac after about 1965. Interesting that it was a former GM man who brought Packard to ruin. It really was too far gone for James Nance to save when he joined the company in the early 1950s.

  • avatar

    Actually Studebaker developed their own automoatic transmission, but out-sourced the manufacturing to Borg Warner. It had a lock-up torque converter just like the Ultramatic.

    Ford paid Studebaker a license fee to have Borg Warner make their automatic transmission in 52, and called it the Ford-O-Matic. But they didn’t pay for the lock-up torque converter. This feature disappeared, not to return again until the 80s.


  • avatar

    Actually Pierce-Arrow was a goner before Studebaker bought them in 1928. They dumped a bunch of money into Pierce, then wound up selling Pierce for a fraction of what they paid. The engines that Studebaker money paid for kept Pierce afloat for a while. Sound like Ford and Aston Martin, or Jaguar?

    The reason that I’m a font of information about Studebaker is that I wrote my dissertation about Studebaker and Ford. It also helps that I live a few blocks from the premier Pierce-Arrow authority and historian in America, Sinclair Powell.


  • avatar

    I think that it’s inevitable that luxury brands will fade with time unless they can find a business model that permits low volume and a restricted market. As soon as an item becomes too widely available it looses its cachet of exclusivity. That’s certainly the lesson of Packard and all of the examples from the final paragraph.

  • avatar

    So if I get this right, Packard bought Studebaker. But in the end it proves to be bitting on too much than he can chew and get choked by this merger process. Hasten the demise of Packard.
    Is a bit of a tying Gordian knot in the marriage ceremony.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Yes, Packard purchased Studebaker. Studebaker management misled (i.e. lied outright) about the break-even point of South Bend Main, and Packard management was in such a panic that they didn’t do due diligence. Packard would have been far smarter to have done due diligence, at which time they would have run away from Studebaker.

    The “Independent” (read: not GM, Ford or Chrysler group) car companies were essentially murdered by the Ford vs GM sales push in 1953. Ford wanted #1 again and GM fought back. GM and Ford dealers were sent un-ordered new cars and were forced to pay for them, then broomed the excess cars for $50 over wholesale, essentially making it impossible for the competition to survive. Chrysler nearly bought the farm during this time, too.

  • avatar

    Packard made quality cars for a shrinking number of people who could tell the difference. Style trumps substance every time.

  • avatar

    Interesting company. So yeah image concise pompous citizens acted similarly back then also. I’m glad I’m not so possessed by dysfunctional definitions of what matters in life.

  • avatar

    Jay Leno has a Packard in his collection (of course, what doesn’t he have in his collection?), and there’s a nice video of it online at Jay Leno’s Garage. I believe Carpenter is right, the slogan was “Ask the man who owns one” according to Jay Leno as well, and I believe he even has an advertising poster with that slogan in his garage. By the way, I think that is a great slogan, particularly for a luxury or even near luxury car brand.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    BTW the Duke won.

  • avatar

    Delightful article on a delightful car. Until yesterday’s clue, I had never noticed the lower fender crease that was unique to the 200 model.

    An interesting side note involves the Packard-Studebaker merger. In the late 40s, George Mason of Nash-Kelvinator suspected (rightly) that the independents would not be able to survive in the long term after the post WWII sellers market ended. His brainchild was a 4 way merger between Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard. He saw a true GM/Chrysler competitor with economies of scale and good coverage of the market from top to bottom. Unfortunately, Mason died before he could further his vision. Nash and Hudson did merge about 1953 or 54, and the resulting American Motors had about a 20 year run before hard times set in again. The Studebaker-Packard merger (which occurred about the same time) was spectacularly unsuccessful (from Packard’s vantage point, at least).

    It is curious that of all of the independents after WWII, it is little Willys that still soldiers on through Jeep.

    Final note – I have always suspected that the cessation of the production of real Packards after the 56 model year contributed in some way to Chrysler’s 1957 successes. Packard buyers were always impressed by engineering, and where better to go in the 50s than Chrysler. I think that this showed up in 57 Imperial sales figures most particularly.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Old Man Winton had the last laugh. GM bought Winton in 1930 as a counterpart of its purchase of Electro-Motive (“might as well buy the engine supplier, too”), and it formed the core for development of the world-bestriding 567 series diesels.

  • avatar

    @blowfish: So if I get this right, Packard bought Studebaker.

    Sort of; it’s a complicated story that gets even more complicated by what is thought to have happened in the background.

    Supposedly the federal government put pressure on Packard to buy Studebaker; this had something to do with defense contracts held by either Studebaker and/or Packard. When Packard did due dilligence, Studebaker conveniently forgot to mention that their breakeven point hadn’t been reached for years. At one point things got so shaky that the government insisted that the Curtiss-Wright Corporation take over management of S-P, and as a consequence two things occurred: First, defense production carried out by S-P was shifted to C-W (which was on sound financial footing) and second, Packard’s plants were closed. Packard production was moved to Studebaker’s plants in South Bend, but in reality these were merely tarted-up Studebakers.

    But that might have been okay, because supposedly there were complicated negotiations going on that would eventually merge Studebaker-Packard with Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson, to create an even larger AMC that was even larger than Chrysler was at the time. The hope was that a new line of Packards would come from this merger. Unfortunately, George Mason of Nash-Kelvinator died suddenly, and George Romney wasn’t interested in having S-P join AMC (some say that Romney got cold feet because “God told him not to,” but that could be anti-LDS gossip).

    The article compares Packard’s quality and engineering to that of pre-1990 Mercedes-Benz. Ironically, S-P was the distributor of M-B’s automobiles in the United States during the 1950s and into the 1960s.

  • avatar

    The arrangement whereby Studebaker-Packard distributed Mercedes cars in the late 1950’s helped quite a few Studebaker and Packard dealers to become Mercedes dealers and stay in business much longer than they might have.

    I tended to notice Packards when I was a kid, because my father had a 1950 sedan. He picked it up at the factory in Detroit, and had problems with the cooling system driving it home. It was generally a reliable car though, and I ended up selling it for him in the early sixties with around 200k miles on the original engine and once-rebuilt Ultramatic transmission. I used to razz Pop by telling him he should have waited a year and gotten a nice-looking ’51 model instead.

  • avatar

    Brought Packard down by going down market?

    I guess that makes this the “Cadillac of Packards”.


  • avatar

    I don’t believe that the federal government pressured Packard to merge with Studebaker; the companies came up with this plan on their own.

    The federal government did make life for the merged company miserable by yanking several key defense contracts from the company when it needed them.

    Curtiss-Wright entered the picture because Studebaker-Packard was basically bankrupt by mid-1956, and no other company was willing to touch it.

    Nance had shopped the company to Chrysler and Ford – neither wanted it. He proposed having GM back a loan to Studebaker-Packard, which would calm the insurance company fears that the money would never be repaid. (The insurance companies’ refusal to loan Studebaker-Packard money for the tooling of its proposed 1957 models was the death blow to the company.)

    GM refused, on the grounds that if Studebaker-Packard still failed (a good possibility), it would be accused of murdering the competition; if the company succeeded, GM could have been accused of controlling the competition. Sounds far-fetched today, but GM had around one-half of the total car market in 1956, and the last thing it wanted was an antitrust investigation.

    Finally, Nance proposed using the tooling for the 1956 Lincoln – given that Ford was already preparing an all-new, unit-body Lincoln and Continental for 1958 – as the basis for a new Packard. Ford backed out of that one, too.

    AMC wanted nothing to do with Studebaker-Packard, as George Romney disliked James Nance, and he was smart enough to realize that Studebaker-Packard was so terminal that it would have probably dragged AMC down with it. The Rambler, meanwhile, was already showing signs of sales strength in 1956.

    Given that all other avenues were exhausted, and 1956 was a presidential election year, the Eisenhower Administration looked at the Curtiss-Wright hook-up as the firm’s salvation. At that time, a direct bailout of the type we witnessed recently for GM and Chrysler was not politically acceptable, especially for a Republican Administration. (And note that a majority of Americans, both Republican and Democrat, opposed the recent bailouts of GM and Chrysler.)

    Curtiss-Wright wanted the tax write-offs available to Studebaker-Packard, because of its huge losses, and the defense contracts it still held.

    The Packard car died because sales had collapsed during 1956, and the Detroit plants used to build it were inefficient and overly costly even when they did achieve decent volume (about 50,000 units in 1955). The Packard plant was also too cramped, and quality control was a nightmare. Severe quality problems with the 1955 models played a role in the sales collapse for 1956 (bad publicity regarding the financial state of Studebaker-Packard didn’t help, either).

    Roy Hurley, the hard-nosed head of Curtiss-Wright, wasn’t about to spend any serious money reviving a line of cars that buyers had largely rejected in 1956. Hence, the grotesque 1957 “Packardbakers” that were based on the 1957 Studebaker sedans.

    It’s unlikely that Nance’s proposed 1957 Studebakers and Packards would have succeeded even if his company had received the money necessary to build them. They really weren’t anything different from what the Big Three were offering at that time, except for having less attractive styling (there are photos of surviving prototypes). Studebaker-Packard would have remained an also-ran in the sales race. AMC showed the way to salvation for the old independents by carefully targeting a market segment that the Big Three had largely ignored.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Well said, geeber. I also know that one Board member, a Mr Zurschmede (sp?) actually asked the “unaskable” question when it came down to the decision to close Packard’s plants.

    “Why Packard?”

    Why, indeed.

    South Bend Main had worse labor troubles than Detroit.
    South Bend Main had an unreachable break-even point.
    South Bend Main was outside of the Detroit area where suppliers were closer at hand.
    Studebaker bought in bodies, Packard’s plant was the ex-body plant and they built their own.
    The newest engine plant and engine design was Packard’s, the Studebaker engine was outdated (even though only 5 years old) and could not be increased in displacement much more, and was nearly as heavy as the very heavy, but much larger displacement, Packard V8’s built in Utica, Michigan.
    Packard had only recently partially shuttered the big old East Grand Boulevard plant in Detroit, which could have been re-opened for car assembly
    for Studebaker.

    Studebaker-Packard had also been building some Hawks at the smaller, much more modern Chippewa Avenue South Bend (pickup truck) plant – in 1956.

    Zurschmede and the others knew that it would have been possible to close South Bend Main, use Packard V8’s, take the then being developed Packard V12 and cut it in half for a V6, and build Studebakers based on Packard Clippers instead of Packard Clippers based on Studebakers.

    Then in 1958, come out with the new bodies.

    The 1955 Clipper V8 was 320 cubic inches and the tooling could have been re-used for Studebaker; a V6 would have been 240 cubic inches, Packard could have retained the 1956 374 cubic inch unit.

    The Hawk and pickups and heavy trucks (from Mishawaka Indiana) could have continued with Packard engines.

    Coulda, shoulda, woulda. The rest of the board didn’t even give Zurschmede the dignity of any response whatsoever.

  • avatar

    Big Packard fan here. It’s really hard for young people today to understand just what niche the marque occupied in the period 1925 to 1941. The only surviving member of the 3 Ps (Packard, Pierce and Peerless) this was the car chosen overwhelmingly by the American aristocracy. In that time span, Packard represented Class with a Capital C. Rather traditional engineering and styling, nothing too radical, Packard even eschewed the annual model change, preferring instead to refer to its cars by Series (much like Mercedes with the W codes.) A Packard from the 30’s, Junior or Senior, is a joy to work on. Everything is so well engineered, well assembled and the parts are of the best quality.
    I’m going to disagree with the premise that the 120s and successors killed Packard.
    Packard made boatloads of money during WWII building aircraft engines (Rolls V12 Merlins under license) and huge marine straight 8s for US PT boats.
    Ask a current owner of a P 51 Mustang whether he would prefer a Rolls Merlin or a Packard Merlin. The Packard versions were much better built, to far finer tolerances.
    (To be fair, Cadillac did well with defense work also. The M5 tank used 2 Cadillac flathead V8s and 2 Hydramatics to power the tracks. That experience helped make Hydramatic as durable as it was in the postwar period.)
    No, Packard’s big failure was in not investing that warchest in new technology to keep up with Cadillac and Lincoln.
    Six years in the case of the overhead valve V8.
    They lost too much momentum, and got squeezed out by the Ford-Chevrolet overproduction of 1953-54. (It’s definitely what killed Studebaker, Packard’s reluctant partner.)
    And although Packard was d.o.a by then, the ’55 and ’56 topline models were very competitive with the Lincolns, Chryslers and yes, Cadillacs of the period. But the word-of-mouth street cred was all gone. Packard died in 1956, not 1958.

  • avatar
    Bill Owen

    The 1957 prototype Packard was called Black Bess. I have a picture and recent story here for those who might find it interesting.

  • avatar

    @willbodine is absolutely correct — before WW2, the Packard brand said “old money.” Something like a Duesenberg was too flash, a Cadillac a bit too common (although the V-16 Cadillacs certainly made an impression on the monied class).

    geeber also makes an important point, which is that Packard (principally George Christopher) made a deliberate decision not to retrench in the upper-crust segment. If Packard hadn’t abandoned the senior cars completely, I don’t think the One-Twenty would have seriously harmed their brand image. The One-Twenty was priced in the same league as La Salle or the more expensive Buicks, which was hardly the A&P store brand.

    See also:

    As for the Studebaker merger, I think it had a lot to do with AMC. George Mason had approached Jim Nance about making Packard part of AMC, but Mason died about six months after AMC’s formation, leaving George Romney in charge. Nance and Romney didn’t get along at all; they were both very ambitious, and neither respected the other at all. (Romney said Nance considered him the guy who used to carry George Mason’s briefcase.) Nance screwed AMC on a reciprocal deal involving engines and AMC’s new stamping plant, which soured any chances of a merger (although some 1955-56 Nashes and Hudsons had Packard engines). I suspect the Studebaker deal was to some extent Nance’s riposte at Romney, a merger that would put Nance in control.

    Studebaker’s proxy statements dramatically understated their break-even point. It’s not clear if it was deliberate or just incompetent, but it was a horrible mess, and if it happened now, it would result in a false conveyance lawsuit.

    See also:

  • avatar

    From the “What Might Have Been” file…

    Packard chairman James Nance was approached by Nash Motors about a merger in 1952; Nance was interested until he realized he wasn’t going to be the top dog in the combined company. So like the spoiled kid who was told he couldn’t be the pitcher, he took his ball and went home. Two years later, he committed professional suicide by merging Packard with Studebaker instead.

    Instead of Nash and Hudson (who Nash ultimately merged with) competing with each other in the same market segment, Nash and Packard would have each contributed strengths the other lacked. Packard would’ve contributed its new V-8 engine to the partnership (Nash ended up purchasing Packard’s engines for the Ambassador for a couple of years), and not ruined its reputation for quality trying to build its own bodies when Nash had the most modern body plant in the country. Most of all, in 1952 both Nash and Packard had some cash to ride out the coming storm, unlike the partners each ultimately ended up with.

    Packard would have been able to maintain most of its purity at the upper end of the market. The Clipper line could have been more visibly separated from Packard, maybe sharing the Nash body shell with some Packard components. With the extra cash Packard and Nash would have brought to the merger, they would have probably been able to afford that new body for Packard for 1957.

    Finally, the redesigned Rambler was just around the corner and would’ve eventually become a cash cow for the company, instead of the boat anchor the Studebaker line had become.

    Would an American Motors made up of Nash and Packard have made it to today? Probably not; Chrysler was a much bigger company and even they almost went under during the 1980-82 recession. But it would’ve bought Packard another 20 years to live, if not more….

  • avatar

    From the “What Might Have Been” file…

    Packard chairman James Nance was approached by Nash Motors about a merger in 1952; Nance was interested until he realized he wasn’t going to be the top dog in the combined company, so like the spoiled brat who was told he couldn’t be the pitcher, he took his ball and went home. Two years later, he committed professional suicide by merging Packard with Studebaker instead.

    Instead of Nash and Hudson (who Nash ultimately merged with) competing with each other in the same market segment, Nash and Packard would have each contributed strengths the other lacked.

    Packard would’ve contributed its new V-8 engine to the partnership (Nash ended up purchasing Packard’s engines for the Ambassador for a couple of years), and not ruined its reputation for quality trying to build its own bodies when Nash had the most modern body plant in the country. Most of all, in 1952 both Nash and Packard had some cash to ride out the coming storm, unlike the partners each ultimately ended up with.

    Packard would have been able to maintain most of its purity at the upper end of the market. The Clipper line could have been more visibly separated from Packard, maybe sharing the Nash body shell with some Packard components. With the cash both Nash and Packard would have brought to the marriage, they probably would have been able to afford that new body planned for the ’57 Packard.

    Finally, the redesigned Rambler was just around the corner and would’ve eventually become a cash cow for the company, instead of the boat anchor the Studebaker line had become.

    Would an American Motors made up of Nash and Packard have made it to today? Probably not; Chrysler was a much bigger company and they very nearly went under during the 1980-82 recession. But it would’ve bought Packard another 20 years to live, if not more….

  • avatar

    Thanks for another interesting CC!

    Packard has always had a place in my heart … my father grew up on Lambert Street, 1 block from the Packard plant (even though his father worked at Hudson and (later) Chrysler) …

    As a boy, the plant reminded me of one of those midieval town walls … and, at least from my grandparents place, it cast a long shadow, not only blocking the sunset, but employing many of the adjacent residents … after the plant went down, the neighborhood declined, until finally, in 1966, my grandparents moved back to Grand Rapids … the neighborhood slowly became a place of streets, empty lots and few homes …

    Checking on the status of the facility, I see that in summer this year, not long after the guards were pulled, the looters moved in (stealing what little was left after years of decay, and alternative use … warehouses, paint-ball battlefield, dumping ground), then the vandals (who had been at it all along), then the arsonists who set the carcass ablaze…

    btw, Packard did not build the RR-Merlin, it built the Packard-Merlin … the subtle difference is that the base RR engine had been redesigned by both Ford and Packard to make it suitable for high-volume mass production and durability (as well as other technical improvements) … even RR engineers who were sceptical as to this being possible came away convinced after seeing the performance of the Packard-Merlin in the field and the production processes used to achieve this.

    Many interesting contributing factors to Packard’s demise are discussed here, but, in addition, I would be interested to hear from the B&B as to what role the hubris of Packard management played in its demise.

    @relton: Where can I get a copy of your disertation?

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Thank you, Paul, for this highly readable and concise overview of what happened to a great American brand.

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    That 1957 prototype looks like an Edsel.

    I think it would have flopped too.

  • avatar

    As an aside, regarding the Rols-Royce Merlin and its American versions built by both Packard and Ford, Rolls-Royce engines required many hours of extra labour to get the proper fit, the American companies informed them that they can not build engines to Rolls-Royce’s standards, they worked to much finer tolerances with a guaranteed fit, first time!

  • avatar

    Great choice Paul; I interviewed a guy this past summer with an incredible stock 1950 Packard.The car was ahead of the curve in its era for technology and engineering with an electric overdrive and boost reservoir for the brakes from a pump system tied into the fuel pump.He got a solid 23 mpg all day every day at 65-75 mph from this baby.It was an amazing vehicle up to and including the manually operated antenna via a knob in the headliner and the factory fire extinguisher.

  • avatar

    Thank you for another great history.

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    That 200 brings back memories of my piano teacher back in the 1950’s (they had a ’52, the last car they ever owned) who’s house was across the street from dad’s Chevy dealership. Tuesday evenings were a favorite of mine, as mom would pick me up from school, drop me off at the piano teacher’s, then across the street to dad who would (eventually) take me home for supper. In the interim, I had the entire dealership as my playground.

    A side note: Packard’s abandonment of the Senior series for the Clippers after the war wasn’t entirely their doing. There was this little matter that FDR had all the tooling shipped off to the Soviet Union as a gift to his good ally Joe Stalin, who was a big fan of the cars. Take a look at pictures of 46-mid 50’s ZIM’s (ZIL’s?). An exact copy of a 1941 Packard 180.

  • avatar

    Thank you for this pocket history of Packard it has brought to the fore Many happy memories so I will now pass on a few of them.
    1n 1912 my great grandfather decided to put his coach and pair of Matched Morgans out to pasture and He sent his coachman out to Packard to be taught to drive and care for and drive back to Conn. his new 48 hp six; he installed a 1000 gal fuel tank and a full sized inspection pit in what had been the coach house (the coachman now chauffeur still lived upstairs). Every 4 years like clockwork John would be sent to Packard to be trained on and drive home the Senior model of the day This continued past his death in 1938 till his wife died in 1948 neither of them learned to drive and neither did my Grandfather and his wife who continued to be driven in Packards also buying his last one in 1948. in 1952 he bought his first Caddy. (His Daughter(my Mother) received a 120 convertible her freshman year in 1938 which she drove till 1946 and she was a car nut her whole life (she was instrumental in my dad buying a 300SL gullwing in 1955 which she drove fast and well till 1979 and over 200,000 miles)
    I am sure my love of fine autos I got from her and she got it through her contact with Packards (and learning how to service them from her father and grandfathers drivers I gave the boxes of manuals Log books and spare parts complete from 1912 to a Packard collector almost 30 years ago and he must now also be gone I hope he sent them to a good home

  • avatar

    Packards were the Rolls Royces of their time. Many heads of state, even Stalin, owned versions of them.

  • avatar

    Robert Walter,

    Send me your E-mail and I will send you the text of my dissertation.

    [email protected]

    Studebaker is a fascinating story, and so is Ford. I feel fortunate to have been a small (very smal) part of automotive history for the last 40 some years.


  • avatar


    I was thinking, if where you live someone can keep a Packard as a daily driver then surely you can find a Kaiser Manhattan on the road there too.

    I would love to see that!

  • avatar

    Another case where I wish I could post pictures. I remember seeing a beautiful Packard Caribbean at auction several years ago. It really was magnificent.

    On the subject of straight-8s…apart from Alfa and Benz, did anyone ever build a light straight-8? They have reputation for being horrific boat anchors.

  • avatar

    It might be a low level model but its still appealing. I got to visit a mostly Packard private scrapyard a few years back that had a ton of this style and some earlier ones. A few pictures:

  • avatar

    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.

    Yeah, I had to sell my Clipper because of this.

  • avatar

    That gas cap door is very downmarket. Looks just like Chevy/Pontiac from the mid-50s.

  • avatar

    What’s interesting to me is how evergreen automobile brands are. Brands like Studebaker, Packard, Cord, and Duesenberg still have significant brand identification. It wouldn’t surprise me if some dormant brands have better brand identification than Hyundai and Kia in the US.

    It seems to me that one might be able to turn a profit by buying the rights to dead car brands (including Pontiac) based on licensing deals. All the brands I mentioned have diecast models on sale today. If companies making models, posters or repro parts of defunct brands are not currently paying royalties, owning the brand name and associated IP should give enough legal leverage to work out licensing deals – not unlike the way Republic Pictures reestablished control over It’s A Wonderful Life based on rights to the original story and music.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I had a 53 Packard, same body, 327 flathead 8 with a 4 barrel, and the ultramatic trans. It was a dinosaur. I was 14 and it was a woods buggy. I got it stuck in wet clay and a Cat 977 got mired trying to rescue it. The ultramatic would suddenly shift from Low to reverse on its own. I much prefered the 51 Ford I replaced it with.

  • avatar
    Jim Cherry

    The link to the prototype 1957 Packard shows they were serious about incorporating the design of the Packard Predictor in the production car. Unfortunate that didn’t happen, Packard’s history might have been much different. More here:

  • avatar

    A great write-up and well done comments.

    Kind of a shameless plug but you might want to look at my article “Studebaker’s Demise” at my web site

    It details the plight of Studebaker and Packard as they both reached for the one life preserver.

  • avatar

    stall, I went to your site and was very impressed. It’s terrific! I read your article on the Studebaker V8. There’s no email address or other contact info on the site, so I’ll have to use this post to ask your permission to quote some paragraphs for a piece in a Studebaker club newsletter.

    Most anyone interested in Packard’s history may be interested in seeing what became of the great Detroit assembly plant:

  • avatar

    People don’t realize that the company never did really go out of business. Studebaker Corp. had 7 divisions in 1967 when it merged with the Worthington Corp. to become Studebaker-Worthington. It only closed the Automobile division. Studebaker-Worthington then merged with Mcgraw-Edison in 1979.

    Autocar stopped building cars and switched to trucks which it still builds.

    And Graham-Paige never died either, they just stopped building cars and became a closed investment corporation that helped finance the building of Madison Square Garden.

    BTW, I own a 1953 Packard Cavalier that is a daily driver. Wonderful car that’s never let me down.

  • avatar

    The 1951 Packard is an amazing car and the first of the junior Packard’s. The car in this article was my car before selling it because of unfortunate circumstances.
    After losing the car, I found the love of my life and some time later she found the car again for me.
    The 51′ Packard is now mine again and the interior redone. It runs amazing to this day as is all factory parts still.
    I plan on a full restoration and cruising it every weekend.

  • avatar

    Good article and Great Comments!

    I own one of these 200’s pic here

    While I agree with much of what has been written about the decline of Packard, in part, due to “junior” models there was a great deal more behind their demise, forces internal and external.
    What is missing from all this is the fact the even this 200 was a very well thought out and built auto.
    For sure it did not set any styling or engineering benchmarks, nor did it inspire buyers to flock to Packard dealers.
    While I my be a little biased here having had the pleasure of owning mine for two decades now these Packards did live up to Packards high standards.
    Annual model changes are mostly marketing “change for change sake” sales aids and little, if any, real improvements.
    Yes, the engine in my 63,000 mile 200 still runs as smooth as legend brags.
    This engine has not been rebuilt or had any internal repair in its entire 63,000 mile life.
    Neither has the Ultramatic transmission or Differential. The original factory muffler lasted until 2010 and this spring the original water pump will need to be rebuilt for the first time. Everything in the dashboard is original and fully functional. Still 6 volt, still running points ignition.

    I always enjoy being the man who’s ask the question about his Packard.

    My .02

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