Between 1935 and 1956, the Packard Motor Car Company went from the top of the heap among American automotive brands to just another independent, struggling to survive on the scraps of the Big Three. This week, we take a look at the Packard Clipper, the “bathtub Packards” of the late 1940s, and how the once-great automaker lost its way. We also examine one of the company’s odder experiments, the 1948 Packard Station Sedan.
PACKARD CHANGES DIRECTION
At the start of the Great Depression, the Packard Motor Car Company was the default choice for American luxury car buyers. There were cars that were more expensive or more exotic, but Packard had an aura of blue-blooded respectability that no other domestic automaker could match. A big Packard was not a sign of material accomplishment so much as a badge of class status, bolstered by graceful but restrained styling, impeccable quality, and exacting engineering.
The arrival of the Depression left Packard in an increasingly precarious position. While Packard’s old-money clientele were less affected by the economic collapse than were the middle class, even the very wealthy were becoming wary of displays of conspicuous affluence. Packard sales began to drop, leaving the company in the red.
President and chairman Alvan Macauley recognized that if it were to survive the decade, Packard would have to broaden its market. He promoted Max Gilman, the gruff, no-nonsense head of Packard’s New York distributor, to general manager and appointed former GM executive George T. Christopher as assistant vice president, responsible for overseeing the development of a new middle-class car, the One Twenty.
The One Twenty, launched in January 1935, brought Packard within the reach of upper-middle-class buyers for the first time. While far from cheap, it was priced to compete with Buick and handily undercut both Cadillac’s LaSalle “companion make” and the Lincoln Zephyr. The One Twenty was followed less than 18 months later by a new Packard Six, the marque’s first six-cylinder engine since 1928. Both the One Twenty and the Six were solid, high-quality cars, sharing the styling of the “senior” Packards on a slightly smaller scale. These “junior” Packards were a great success, making 1937 the company’s best-ever sales year. Of the 87,000-odd cars Packard built for the 1937 model year, about 95% were Sixes and One Twenties.
Macauley assured the press, public, and stockholders that Packard had no intention of abandoning the prestige market, but Gilman, who became president in April 1939, had other ideas. Gilman and Christopher saw the senior cars as inefficient and outmoded. They were expensive and labor intensive to produce — the Main Plant, where the senior models were built, had nearly as many workers as the newer plant that built the junior cars — and their sales were very low. Sales of the Packard Twelve hadn’t topped 1,000 units a year since 1933 and the Super Eight’s annual volume generally hovered below 3,000 units.
The era of the great hand-built Classics was ending in any case. Cadillac had dropped its own V-12 and V-16s models by the end of the 1940 model year and many other high-end nameplates had already expired. The market for truly bespoke bodywork had all but vanished; the new trend was to factory-built luxury cars with off-the-rack prices. Although Packard still cataloged a few “factory customs” carrying names like LeBaron and Rollston, most were little more than expensive trim packages, analogous to the “designer editions” that AMC and other manufacturers launched in the seventies.
Packard’s slow-selling 12-cylinder cars were quietly dropped in 1939. When the Eighteenth Series bowed in 1940, the senior models were little more than stretched versions of the junior cars, differing mainly in interior appointments and hood length. Even their new designations — One-Sixty and One-Eighty — suggested their commonality with the middle-class One-Twenty and six-cylinder One-Ten. The result was higher volume, but a serious erosion of Packard’s old-money reputation.
Playing in the middle-class market demanded that Packard become more competitive in both engineering and styling. Previously, Packard’s central imperatives were continuity and attention to detail, not innovation or fashion. The marque’s typical customer was very conservative and tended to react poorly to anything too new or too flashy. Packard stylists therefore had to walk a narrow line, updating the company’s look just enough to stay current without alienating existing buyers.
Until the early thirties, Packard styling — known within the company as “body art” — was the purview of engineers and draftsmen, who generally borrowed designs — sometimes but not always under license — from independent coachbuilders. Ray Dietrich (of LeBaron and Murray) became a design consultant in 1926, but it was not until January 1932 that Packard established a real in-house styling department. Its director was Edward Macauley, the 32-year-old son of Alvan Macauley.
By the rather reactionary standards of Detroit society, Ed Macauley was something of a playboy. He loved jazz, was a fair saxophone player, and was very fond of motorcycles and sports cars. He had no formal artistic training of any kind, but, like Edsel Ford, he was a good critic and a decent administrator. To his credit, he was well-liked by Packard designers, engineers, and workers, his warmth, conviviality, and lack of pretension helping to overcome the undisguised nepotism of his appointment.
Since Macauley was an administrator rather than a designer, the real creative force behind Packard design became chief stylist Werner Gubitz. Gubitz, a German immigrant who had joined Packard from Dietrich Inc. in 1927, was actually three years older than his boss, but Gubitz was a quiet introvert, quite different from the bon vivant Macauley. Gubitz’s early designs showed the strong influence of Ray Dietrich (and for a time Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, a Packard consultant in 1931–1932), but Gubitz’s own sensibilities became more apparent as the thirties wore on, gracefully evolving Packard’s traditional themes in carefully measured steps suiting the marque’s conservative character.
THE PACKARD CLIPPER
This cautious approach to styling advancement served Packard well until the arrival in 1938 of the Cadillac Sixty Special. Styled by Bill Mitchell, the Sixty Special was a high-priced fashion leader with many design features that were considered groundbreaking at the time. Despite the reservations of some Cadillac executives, who feared it would be too big a leap for the brand’s existing customers, the Sixty Special became a great commercial success and had a galvanic influence on the American luxury car market, demonstrating that luxury car buyers were far more fashion conscious than most automakers had believed.
The Sixty Special evidently made Max Gilman very nervous, as did his and sales chief Bill Packer’s awareness that GM planned an even more radical new look for 1941. In late 1938, Packard management ordered Ed Macauley to launch a crash program to develop a Packard rival for the Sixty Special.