Charge of the Light Brigade: The Last Stand of the Packard Motor Car Company

As the 1950s dawned, the Packard Motor Company was down, but not yet out. In 1952, a hotshot salesman from the appliance industry named Jim Nance tried to turn it around with new tactics and new technology. He came close to succeeding, but it would be the venerable automaker’s last hurrah. This week, we look at the downfall and demise of Packard.

1955 Packard Four Hundred hardtop hood ornament

PACKARD AT THE CROSSROADS

In 1950, Packard was in state of flux. Over the previous decade, outgoing president George T. Christopher and his predecessor, Max Gilman, had turned away from Packard’s traditional position as a high-end luxury car in search of greater volume. The launch of the cheaper One Twenty saved Packard from collapse during the Depression, but eventually cost the company some of its past luster. That retrenchment, combined with dubious styling choices for Packard’s postwar cars, led to a sharp downturn in sales by the 1950 model year.

Saying that Packard had moved down-market demands some qualification. Even the “junior” Packards of this era were not cheap: A basic Packard 200 sedan cost started at almost $2,500 in 1951, about $350 more than an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight and over $100 more than a Buick Super. The top-of-the-line Patrician 400 started at nearly $3,700, almost $500 more than a Lincoln Cosmopolitan and over $130 more than a four-door Cadillac Series 62. The problem was a more subtle one. The “senior” Packards, once the standard-bearers of the marque’s prestige, were perceived as bigger versions of the middle-class cars, rather than the other way around. For a while, the Packard name had had retained a certain cachet, but that diminished as the identity of the senior cars became diluted. By 1950, Packard had premium prices, but a less-than-premium image. (Ironically, it was not unlike the position Buick, Cadillac, and Lincoln are in today.)

1950 Packard Custom Eight convertible front
The 1950 model year was the last of Packard’s frumpy-looking Twenty-Third Series. The “bathtub” Twenty-Second and Twenty-Third Series cars initially sold well, but when the postwar boom cooled, buyers looked elsewhere. This 1950 Custom Eight convertible is a very rare car; fewer than 80 were sold, with prices starting at just over $4,500.

Despite that uneasy position, Packard was not in bad financial shape. It had no debt, it had a reasonable level of working capital, and whatever else one might say of George Christopher, he had kept a tight lid on spending. Packard finally had an automatic transmission and the Twenty-Fourth Series cars that debuted in the fall of 1950 had all-new, modern styling, courtesy of styling director Ed Macauley and chief stylist John Reinhart. What Packard needed, the board thought, was inspired leadership.

ENTER JIM NANCE

Packard veteran Hugh Ferry, who replaced George Christopher as president on January 1, 1950, accepted that post reluctantly and one of his main objectives was choosing a successor. That successor would have to come from outside; Packard’s internal talent pool was very modest. Many of the board members were pushing 70 and many senior executives weren’t much younger. The closest Packard had come to a succession plan was in early 1948, when former chairman Alvan Macauley had tried unsuccessfully to recruit AMA executive George Romney as executive vice president.

1951  Packard Patrician 400 Derham sedan front
The Twenty-Fourth Series 1951 Packards were all new, with a new frame some 200 lb (91 kg) lighter than before. Packard would use this basic body shell and chassis through 1956 with several successive facelifts. This customized Patrician 400 sedan has a new nine-bearing version of Packard’s 327 cu. in. (5,361 cc) straight eight with 155 gross horsepower (116 kW).

In the spring of 1950, Ferry and the Packard board approached James Nance, the president of General Electric’s Hotpoint appliance division. Nance, then 50 years old, was already well known in the business world. In the past five years, he had made Hotpoint the nation’s third-largest appliance manufacturer and he was considered one of the most dynamic and talented sales executives in America — exactly what the Packard board wanted.

The board found Nance surprisingly receptive. A recent GE reorganization had effective demoted him from CEO to executive vice president, a bitter pill for someone as ambitious as Nance. However, Nance’s initial demands were quite high and the negotiations with Packard dragged on for nearly two years.

Part of Nance’s interest in Packard was the possibility of a merger between two or more of America’s remaining independent automakers. Even before accepting the presidency, Nance had preliminary discussions with Nash’s George Mason about a possible four-way merger between Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker. Nance saw the Packard presidency as a stepping stone to the executive seat of a new automotive conglomerate.

Nance became Packard’s president and general manager in May 1952, signing a five-year contract that gave him a starting salary of $168,000 a year, plus options for 100,000 shares of stock and a 15-year pension. Nance had insisted on the pension throughout the negotiations; not only would it benefit him personally, adding a pension plan would give him a useful tool for removing senior Packard staffers who had outlived their usefulness. (When he arrived, Nance promptly removed nearly 400 Packard executives, replacing some of them with colleagues from Hotpoint like Walter Grant, who became treasurer and vice president of finance.)

In an address to an informal group of Packard “key men” at the end of May, Nance confronted the issue that company management had generally been reluctant to face: that Packard’s once-vaunted reputation was now all but meaningless. He recognized the need for the volume the “junior” models provided, but he said that Packard had left itself in limbo, not quite a prestige brand, not quite a middle-class make. If the company was to survive, it could not afford half measures.

1951 Packard  Patrician 400 Derham sedan rear 3q
This 1951 Packard Patrician 400 is a customized formal sedan by Rosemont, Pennsylvania, coachbuilder Derham. Packard briefly cataloged a similar Derham sedan in 1953, priced at more than $6,500. Only about 25 were sold. The portholes on the rear fender (officially called “ventiports,” à la Buick, but often nicknamed “bottle openers”) were initially found only on senior Packards, but were extended to all models with the Twenty-Fifth Series (1952).

Nance thought George Christopher’s oft-repeated goal of 200,000 units a year was unrealistic, but he concluded that 150,000 units would give Packard comfortable insulation against future economic downturns. However, he felt it was vital to restore the distinction between the junior and senior lines. His initial plan called for reviving the Clipper name, which Packard had dropped in 1947, and separating it in size and appearance from the senior Packards. He originally hoped to launch an all-new Packard for 1954, followed in 1955 by an all-new and distinct Clipper. Nance also wanted to reduce costs, improve Packard’s advertising, and adopt far more aggressive sales techniques.

The plans for an all-new car for the 1954 model year were quickly postponed. Although Packard had done quite well in the 1951 model year, the little-changed Twenty-Fifth Series launched that November was down more than 35%. The decline was largely a result of the Korean War, in which the U.S. had been embroiled since the summer of 1950. The war led to renewed shortages of steel and other strategic materials, along with production caps and restrictions on consumer credit. The bright side was that the war brought an assortment of military contracts for jet and maritime engines, helping to keep Packard in the black.

Nonetheless, Nance made some progress. During his first year, Packard added about 400 new dealerships and culled some weaker franchises. Nance also renewed his conversations with George Mason, discussing the possibility of sharing parts, engines, and even production facilities. By the end of 1952, Packard had reason to be cautiously optimistic.

1953 Packard Cavalier  sedan front 3q
In 1953, Packard renamed its various series, reviving the Clipper name for the low-end cars (called 200 in 1951-1952). Mid-level cars, like this 1953 sedan, were Cavaliers, while senior models were Patricians. Clippers were 213.1 in (5,413 mm) long on a 122-inch (3,099 mm) wheelbase; Cavaliers were 218.2 inches (5,541 mm) on a 127-inch (3,226 mm) wheelbase. The Cavalier started at about $3,200, a lot of money in 1953 — it was within $20 of a Buick Roadmaster hardtop and over $400 more than an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight sedan.

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  1. Another low-volume automaker that ran into difficulty because they lost Briggs as a supplier of bodies: Jowett of Bradford, England. They didn’t go out of business, but they stopped making cars.

  2. If I could put my two cents in (ANOTHER excellent article, by the way)….

    Packard’s last real chance was right after the war; if they had dumped pinchpenny George Christopher and reestablished Packard as a true luxury marque, they might have had enough momentum to get through the 50′s.

    Demand for cars was such that Packard could’ve sold every car they could put together; if they had dropped the cheaper cars and sold only the high-end versions not only would Packard banked more profit per unit, they would’ve rebuilt the brand equity they lost before the war. By the time the market cooled, Packard would have been in a much stronger position even if they had gone ahead with their bathtub models.

    Having said that, my understanding about the Nash/Packard tie-up (prior to George Mason’s death) is that Nance was all for it until he found out Mason would be the boss; Nance would head what would become the Packard division but in Nance’s mind, that represented a step down. Therefore, he switched gears and went after a merger with Studebaker, where he could be the top dog.

    In turning Nash away, he not only lost the use of what was one of the most modern body plants in the country at that time, but also a merger with a relatively well-run outfit that still had some cash in the bank and some building sales momentum from their Rambler.

    Instead, he hooked up with a manufacturer in far-off Indiana, with severe labor troubles and a product line which was, to put it kindly, out of the mainstream at the time and not competitively priced, either.

    If they had hooked up with Nash and not Studebaker, would Packard have survived to today? As much as I would have liked to say yes, I must say probably not; Chrysler was much bigger and they very nearly went under in the early 80′s (it was only the K-car and minivan that saved them). But I believe it would have bought them at least another 20 years or so to live.

    1. George Christopher was a very competent manufacturing man — he was just completely out of his depth in marketing and product planning. He was not a good choice for the presidency, but on the other hand, Packard had a grievous shortage of competent managerial talent that they could have promoted. There was only one board member under 65, and while they had some talented engineers and designers, none of them was really a manager, either. That was why Alvan Macauley courted Romney in 1948; if Romney had accepted, it might have been a very different (if not necessarily better) story.

      Nance had no problem with Mason. He talked to Mason quite a bit before he even accepted the Packard offer, and they got along well. I don’t think Nance would have chafed at becoming president of a Nash-Hudson-Packard AMC, with Mason as chairman — particularly considering that Mason was in his early sixties by then, and even if he hadn’t died suddenly, would probably have retired within a few years, leaving Nance in charge. Nance’s problem was Romney, who had precisely the same ambition. Patrick Foster has suggested that Mason could simply have made Nance the president of Packard Division and Romney the president of a Nash and/or Nash-Hudson division, but in all likelihood, they would have been at war, the same way Lee Iacocca and Bunkie Knudsen clashed at Ford (and for the same reasons).

      Merging with Studebaker was not Nance’s first choice. Even given his conflicts with Romney, he would have preferred Nash and Mason to Studebaker; there’s evidence he had some reservations about the latter. However, Packard’s board had already made up their mind by the time of the AMC merger, and when Mason asked to address the board to discuss his merger plans (in February 1954), the board refused to hear him out.

      Packard’s reasoning was not wholly illogical. By late 1953, when the merger idea became serious, Hudson was clearly moribund; the board had floated the idea of merging with them, but concluded that they were probably terminal. Nash was doing better, but Nash’s sales volume and dealer network were significantly smaller than Studebaker’s generally was. Furthermore, Kenosha was hardly any closer or more convenient to Packard than South Bend, which was what kiboshed the idea of having Nash build Packard bodies.

      Once the AMC merger was in the works, the potential negatives were that much greater. AMC lost a horrifying amount of money in its first year — something like $40 million before taxes — and the combined volume of Nash and Hudson for that calendar year was not encouraging. Part of the Packard board’s objective was to convince the banks and insurance companies (Packard’s principal financial backers) that the company’s fortunes were going to improve. Studebaker was not in a great position (Roy Hurley later told [i]Fortune[/i] that the merger represented "two drunks leaning on each other for support"), but I doubt the financial community would have looked at a merger with AMC any more favorably, at least not in 1954-1955.

      Now, if Packard had clearly understood how bad Studebaker’s position really was, they might have thought twice, but the board had already decided that merger was their only hope of survival, and they had Lehman Brothers (which brokered the merger) giving them the hard sell on how well it was going to work. The consequence was that the board didn’t demand an independent audit of Studebaker’s operations, which was a stupid, stupid mistake.

      Nance didn’t dig in his heels and oppose the merger, but by the time the stockholders approved it, he was already beginning to suspect that Studebaker’s estimates of its break-even level were fishy. When Walter Grant returned with his estimates, the board would have had grounds for a false-conveyance suit, but they were convinced that they couldn’t survive alone, and decided to make the best of it.

  3. Interesting article.

    Another problem that Packard had was the lack of a consistent “look.” The company’s main trademark was the upright, “yoked” grille, and the first postwar design really minimized this feature. The subsequent redesigns in 1951 and 1955 didn’t bring this feature to the forefront. While 1951-56 Packards certainly weren’t ugly cars, they really didn’t stand out from the crowd.

    Cadillac, meanwhile, had its eggcrate grille, and added the famous “fishtails” for 1948, followed by the Dagmar bumper guards in the early 1950s.

    As a result, by 1951, everybody knew what a Cadillac was, and what it looked like – an important feature for people who are paying big money for a luxury car. There is no point in buying a car to impress the neighbors if they can’t immediately figure out what it is.

    Even today, 50 years later, people who aren’t particularly interested in cars can recognize a 1950s Cadillac and correctly identify it.

    Cadillac also aced Packard with the Coupe de Ville. When it came time to offer a new bodystyle in the postwar years, it’s telling that Packard went for a utilitarian wagon, while Cadillac rolled out a sexy hardtop coupe.

    At the big Hershey Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) fall meet, it’s not uncommon to see 1950s Cadillacs and Packards parked next to each other on the showfield. When parked side-by-side, it’s not hard to see why Packard really didn’t have much of a chance against Cadillac in those years. The Packards – even the 1955-56 models – look more than a little stodgy and upright, while the Cadillacs look long, low and sexy.

    I’ve often felt that the eclipsing of Packard by Cadillac also represented an important social change. Packards were bought by people who were part of the “old money” crowd, and really didn’t feel the need to flaunt their wealth. They appreciated mechanical refinement and quality craftsmanship. I’ve read that, in some cases, these customers requested that the factory remove all identifying badges on their new cars!

    The Depression, Roosevelt’s higher taxes, and the social revolution brought about by World War II swept away these people – or, at least, greatly diminished their influence. A new class of well-to-do customer emerged – one who was less likely to come from old money and therefore wanted a vehicle that made a more blatant statement to bystanders. These customers were more concerned about having the latest and greatest in features and performance than the ultimate in refinement. A tailfinned Cadillac with the new OHV V-8 was more to their taste.

    I wonder if there is even a place for a car like the Packard of the 1920s and 1930s in 21st century America.

    1. Packard didn’t really lag that far behind Cadillac on the pillarless hardtop. The Coupe de Ville appeared quite late in the 1949 model year, and the Packard Mayfair appeared with the Twenty-Fourth Series the following fall, so the gap was perhaps 15 months. It didn’t help, but at that point, the hardtop was still a novelty, rather than a market mainstay. Packard did suffer as the fifties went on from not having a full line of hardtops. Until 1954, when they added the Panama, they only had the one, which was quite expensive, whereas Buick and Olds offered them on every series, including the Special and Eighty-Eight.

      In terms of styling continuity, Packard was really hampered by the unpopularity of the 22nd/23rd Series cars. The “bathtubs” suffered from their structural kinship with the Clippers (which were far better looking) — they had all the wrong sort of continuity. They sort of resembled the Clipper, but a Clipper that had a bad thyroid problem. If they’d done an all-new car for the 22nd Series, building on the themes of the original Clipper, they probably would have done a lot better, but Christopher was convinced it would cost too much to do that. That left Ed Macauley and John Reinhart in an awkward position for the Twenty-Fourth Series; the 22nd/3rd Series had been such a mess that they were obliged (and probably ordered directly) to start from scratch.

      The Twenty-Fourth Series is not a bad-looking car, especially in Mayfair form, but I agree it’s pretty ordinary. I think it looks a little more modern than a contemporary Buick, which still had the bulbous hood and low fenders, but it’s generic. I also agree with John Reinhart, who lamented the fact that the engineers insisted on raising the beltline (their rationale was that it would reduce the size of the greenhouse, which would be cheaper to build). I think you’re right about their lacking a coherent idiom. That reflected the ongoing confusion about what they wanted Packard to be, which very definitely hurt them during this era.

      I have mixed feelings about the ’55-’56. I think Teague did an amazing job of making it look different (until I did this story, I thought it was a new body, which it wasn’t), and it has some interesting details, but it does seem a little tall and awkward.

  4. I grew up with the post war Packards. My father had a 42 Clipper fastback that he sold right at the end of war. At the same time His mother had a 38 v-12 that i remember well. It was like a locomotive. My maternal grandparents only had packards to the very end. So i learned to drive 50s Packards.

    I loved them. They were faster than given credit for especially the 56′s. The handling was spectacular when compared to Lincoln, Cadillac and Imperial. I was lucky enough to drive all of these cars in 56 and 57. The 57 Cadillac was a complete dog. Sloppy handling, poor mid range acceleration, and constant problems with transmission, brakes, electrical system.

    Packard just didn’t have a marketable image. I think the proposed 57′sd would have jolted the industry. Chrysler put out a sloppy product in 57. terrible paint jobs lots of aluminum trim. they had great engines and trannys but not much else. I still love Packards and have one-a driver.

  5. It is my understanding that that low-ball $50M estimate was made to bankers for the 1957 S-P interchangeability proposal that included not only Packard and Studebaker but Clipper as a separate brand. The actual tooling for a brand new 1955 Packard-only body would have been around $21M as it had been for the 1951 24th Series and as had been quoted to Nance around 1953 for a unique Clipper line. Compare this to the $8M (or more) Nance spent on the actual 1955 bodies. Yes it is more but not by five orders of magnitude, and think of the impact a new body would have had on the market. The Pan Am that I suggested would not have been a low volume $5000+ car as the Caribbean had been, it would have been a fairly high volume $3200 (8-cyl) to $4500 (V12) coupe and convertible with full 6-pass seating. The tremendous sales of the low-slung 1953 Studebaker coupes should have been clear evidence for Packard in late 1952 that the market wanted hot coupes. As I mentioned, the only nagging issue would have been what to do with the sedans.

    Nobody much talks about this but I’ll say it… and with all due respect to Packard’s design team at the time: they were far from the “best design team in the business” and I wonder if the Pan American’s biggest flaw was that it wasn’t invented by them. Richard Arbib demonstrated a deft, mature rework of the 1951 convertible in making the Pan Am. Nance should have hired him on his first day as president. As it was, the existing team’s 1955 design was, at best, average and the Predictor and related proposals for 1957/8 had the potential to be complete flops. Look at the vertical-grilled Edsel, squared-off 58-60 Lincolns and Mercury breezeway feature of the 60s. None of them made a strong positive impact in the market. What Packard’s designers were trying to do with these styling ideas, if it could have been done at all, would have taken many years to refine to a level befitting a true Packard – just as it took Alvin Macauley over a decade to finesse the plain 1924 Eight into the beautiful 1936 line-up of Seniors. In the mid-1950s Packard didn’t have that kind of time. The literature says Nance put on a full dress rehearsal to the bankers for the 1957 line-up. I have to wonder if they bulked in part because of what they saw, not to mention what they had already seen Nance do for 1955/6. His credibility then, as now, was arguably questionable.

    Packard’s V8 tooling bill also ended up being around $21M. I can’t find tooling costs for Studebaker’s or AMC’s V8s to compare but I do know that AMC used common production methods and design to keep costs down and that they brought the new V8 to market in 18 months because it was based on an existing Kaiser-Frazer design compliments of former K-F man David Potter who was now at AMC. I can’t believe Romney would have ever dropped anywhere close to $21M on such a program. The company redefined the art of penny pinching in those years and Nance should have taken note. I agree that an inline eight would not have played well in 1955 even if the showroom star was a new V12 with European overtones. What I can’t understand is why Nance couldn’t work out a deal with Mason to jointly develop a 1955 V8 in order to lessen the cost hit to his company. He didn’t need anything fancy, just a workhorse base engine, and transportation costs for engines aren’t high because many can be packed in a box car.

    A cost-efficient V8 and a dazzling V12, packaged in new bodies with low-slung design and endearing styling that screamed “expensive” could have driven volumes in the 40,000 – 50,000 range even with high margins and pricing never again below $3000. With this healthy revenue all those other goofs such as Conner and even Studebaker might have been washed away. In that respect, I see the product plan an being the main culprit. I also disagree that the V12 need have cost an exorbitant amount if carry over tooling and facilities had been maximized. As for valve train configuration, Nance himself asked engineering why they couldn’t do overhead cams like Mercedes (and one could add Jaguar). He knew the value such technology could have in the eyes of the customer. In hindsight, this was the time Packard needed to start separating themselves from the rest of Detroit. No more big dumb gimmicky cars as the 1957/58 proposals threatened. But no puny Teutonic euro cars either. Packard needed to carve a new luxury niche that spoke to the future of luxury. That Nance approved the torsion suspension showed that he was not incapable of such an alternative vision.

    1. Keep in mind that aside from the work previously done at Kaiser, AMC had the benefit of Packard’s experience. They underwrote about $3 million of the development costs, which presumably bought them access to Packard’s notes and materials. So, AMC may have done it cheaper, but they also weren’t starting from a clean sheet of paper.

      I’ll stand by my previous statement: even if Packard could have tooled an all-new body AND a clean-sheet V-12 engine for less than they spent on the V8 — of which I’m skeptical — it would not have been a great improvement on what actually happened. If they had still tried to consolidate production at Conner Avenue, they probably would have had similar problems with delays and assembly quality, with a similar effect. Furthermore, if it had meant saddling the bread-and-butter cars with the old straight-eight for another year, I think it would have been a commercial disaster. An attractive Pan American-derived hardtop might have been a traffic draw, but the point of traffic-builders is to encourage clientele who ultimately settle for the cheaper models. People with mid-line Cadillac money to spend might have come in to see the V-12 car, decided it was a little pricey (especially since who knew how long Packard was going to survive, etc.), learned the eight didn’t even have a V8, and walked out. If I were a Packard dealer at that time, I would have been really unhappy about that choice, and if Nance had done that, historians today would be writing that Packard would have survived if only they had built a V8, rather than wasting money on high-end prestige cars that couldn’t sell in high volume.

      I don’t argue that it would have been great if Packard could have somehow had all these things — the Torsion-Level suspension, a new V8, a high-tech V-12 for the senior cars, flashy styling — but they didn’t have and couldn’t raise that kind of money.

      I think it’s very likely that the insurance companies’ refusal to underwrite the 1957 body program had a lot to do with Packard’s losses in 1955 and the first half of MY1956. If Packard had made at least a modest profit in that period, it would have helped a lot. My point is that they could have done that with the bodies and engines they had — if they hadn’t tried to move all production to Conner Avenue in 1955, they would have broken even on their actual, historical MY1955 sales.

  6. As for valve train configuration, Nance himself asked engineering why they couldn’t do overhead cams like Mercedes (and one could add Jaguar). He knew the value such technology could have in the eyes of the customer. In hindsight, this was the time that Packard should have started separating itself from the rest of Detroit. No more big dumb gimmicky cars, which the 1957/58 proposals threatened. But no puny Teutonic euro cars either. Packard needed to carve a new niche that spoke to the future of luxury. That Nance approved the torsion suspension showed that he was not incapable of such an alternative vision.

    I think all this ties into a broader deficiency he had with product planning. He didn’t know what he wanted the day he arrived. As a result, he spent too long and ordered too much busywork figuring out a plan, then hustled everyone to enact it too quickly. And he got rid of too many old hands and replaced them with people green to the industry. There was never anything wrong with the old workers, only the directives they were given.

    1. I don’t disagree that an OHC V-12 would have been desirable, but again, I don’t see how an OHV, overhead-cam twelve would have been less expensive to develop than a pushrod V8; it certainly would have cost more to build.

      In Nance’s defense, he arrived at a point when Packard’s product planning and direction had been adrift for quite a few years. He recognized that very quickly, and he was critical of it, but he went from some quite ambitious ideas about restoring Packard’s luster to trying to make the best of what they had to work with in the short term, so that they might one day afford his grander ambitions. I also think he (and perhaps some of his senior people, whom he brought from Hotpoint) suffered from a lack of familiarity with the auto industry, not unlike Sherwood Egbert at Studebaker a decade later — ambition with a certain shortage of technical grounding.

  7. Keeping the V12 cost in check would have been like any other endeavor in the auto industry. When you create a product you are really creating two things: the product itself and the means to produce it. It’s that second element where there is opportunity to either keep costs in check or let costs run wild. Nance spent big on facilities, I would argue bigger than he could afford for Packard’s size. Some of the old timers in the company thought he was spending the company into an early grave. He should have listened to their wisdom.

    The reason why he spent big speaks to a broader issue and I think strikes at a prime reason why he ultimately drove the company down: he wanted to create a Big 4th (and run it) under the false assumption that bigness was the only way to survive. I say false assumption because history proved it not to be true. At the very moment Packard was failing miserably at trying to become a full-line producer, AMC was gaining strength by retreating to a one-product niche. VW, Mercedes and many others followed the same focused path to success. Packard forgot that a premium product and the high margins it delivered was the very formula the company had used to create itself, not to mention the way it became a powerhouse prior to the Depression. By the early 50s the Depression was an increasingly faint memory, Cadillac had dropped its lowest price car while still growing volume and share, and expensive imports were slowly beginning to gain momentum.

    I am not saying a Packard line-up based on big V8 power alone could never have worked, only that Nance couldn’t do his big V8 program AND make a Clipper brand AND buy Studebaker or some other volume brand AND do defense work AND fund all the other modernization programs he wanted. Chrysler, a company much larger than Packard in 1953, was barely – by the skin of its teeth – able to revamp its full line of brands in 1955. And to make the temporary success stick they had to spend big and do it again in 1957. Nance’s company was not in the same league yet he tried to create the same outcome. I could see him and Mason entertaining such an idea in 1951 when the Independents were still healthy enough to be a combined power, but probably by 1954 and definately by 1956 when Nance asked the bankers to fund the creation of such an empire, such a grand vision was hopeless and the bankers rightfully rejected him. The shame is, in 1952 he had the money and the time to get one good product out by 1954 or 55, a Packard through and through that would have reestablished the brand at both the pinnacle of the American luxury market and at a higher volume point just below. To me that smaller goal would have been the grander vision.

    1. The flip side is that the Packard old guard hadn’t come up with any better ideas. Most of the board circa 1950-1951 were in their seventies, and while they’d been dissatisfied with George Christopher, there was not an alternative vision. (I suspect that even if Nance had ultimately been wildly successful, a lot of the old guard would have had a similar reaction at the outset. It was a conservative company.)

      It appears that Nance was enticed by the idea of building an automotive giant; that was certainly the idea George Mason presented to him around 1950-1951. However, the merger with Studebaker was not Nance’s idea, and his enthusiasm for it appears to have been low. It was the Packard board — the same old-timers who looked dismayed at spending money on new engine plants — who pushed for it, because they concluded that greater volume was the only way they could survive. It was also the board that insisted on Studebaker, rather than Nash, which would have been Nance’s preference (at least prior to George Mason’s death). Could Nance have done more to oppose that deal? Maybe, maybe not.

      I agree that the Studebaker merger ended up being a mistake for both parties, and I’ve said before that I think that Packard would have been the easier of the two marques to salvage. The margin by which Packard failed in 1955-1956 was not irretrievable, but compounded with Studebaker’s losses, it might well have been a lost cost, either way.

      I also wholly agree with your final statement. We see that again in the example of MG. It was constantly being shoved to the background because it was a small-volume niche maker, and first the Nuffield Organisation, then BMC, then British Leyland tended to marginalize and/or ignore it in favor of higher-volume brands — but it ended up outliving most of the volume brands, and it’s far better known than almost any of them.

  8. Good points about the old guard. Packard’s ever-changing leadership was unfortunately quite consistent between the late 1930s and mid-50s in one particular area… product planning. They all stunk at it.

    I find your comments about Nance’s reticence over Studebaker to be fascinating and am curious where you learned of this. Ward’s and many other books on the subject suggest that Nance wanted Studebaker because he was preoccupied with obtaining a low-priced car to make Packard “recession proof” and he had a verbal agreement with Mason to bring all four brands under one roof, with him being responsible for acquiring Studebaker because Mason didn’t get along with the brass at South Bend. One of the big carrots for Nance personally was that he would eventually become top dog at AMC. Some Packard aficionados in other forums have even suggested that this was to happen in early 1955 but didn’t due to Mason’s untimely passing. Ward wrote that prior to acquiring Studebaker, Nance looked at Hudson in mid/late 1953 as well as Willys, Kaiser-Frazer and even Austin. All this said, there is always exciting new info on Packard that seems to surface just when the history has been laid to rest.

    1. Yes, Nance and Mason both had hopes of bringing Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker together, and it’s quite apparent that Nance was hoping to be in charge before long. Mason was 60 years old by 1951, so the likely organization would have made Mason chairman and Nance president, with Nance inheriting the whole show when Mason retired (or, as happened, died). The fly in that particular ointment was George Romney, who had quite similar ambitions.

      However, my read of Ward is somewhat different on the subject of the Studebaker merger. Nance did make the first such overtures to Studebaker in early 1954 (after, as you note, looking at Hudson, Kaiser-Willys, et al); however, Ward says about a month George Mason asked to address the Packard board with his proposal (which also would have involved Borg-Warner, Autolite, and Murray), and the board refused to even hear him. In March, Ward says Lehman Brothers started cheerleading the Studebaker merger quite aggressively. Nance still pushed for them to merge with AMC, but the board, which hadn’t been that interested in that idea to begin with, thought Studebaker was a much better bet, based on their lower debt load and an optimistic assessment of their costs and break-even levels.

      The impression I got from Ward’s narrative is that Nance was interested in Studebaker as part of a larger AMC deal, but once that prospect started to unravel in mid-1954, he began to have reservations — and for good reason. As I recall, when Nance sent Walter Grant to South Bend to recalculate the break-even level in October, it was essentially the culmination of his growing unease about Studebaker’s condition.

      At the same time, when George Romney was named EVP of AMC in May, he became a major deterrent to Nance’s interest in an AMC merger. Romney had previously been Mason’s special assistant, and by Romney’s own account, Nance had thought he was basically just a lackey, not an executive being groomed for higher positions. Romney being EVP meant that Nance’s eventual ascension, which previously seemed a pretty sure thing, was no longer guaranteed. The interactions between Romney and Nance were frequently testy, particularly after Mason’s death.

      So, did Nance want to merge with Studebaker? As part of a larger AMC organization, yes. On its own, as an [i]alternative[/i] to AMC, it appeared that he had his doubts. The problem was that the board had become convinced that a merger was their only hope of survival, an idea that Nance, in proselytizing an AMC deal, had probably encouraged. (The fact that they didn’t request an independent audit of Studebaker’s books makes the board’s enthusiasm pretty clear.) Even if Nance had done a complete 180 — and whatever his reservations, he still appears to have had hopes of salvaging the AMC deal — he couldn’t advocate [i]against[/i] it without cutting his own throat with the board.

      I know Romney subsequently said a lot in interviews about plans for a four-way merger. I don’t doubt that Mason and Nance had such discussions, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they were formal agreements; a lot seems to have been handshakes and general understanding ("if this, then that"). More to the point, I don’t know to what extent the Packard board was aware of or approved those plans. The fact that they didn’t even want to talk to Mason in February 1954 implies that the answer was “not so much.”

  9. Thanks, great recap and I now understand what you are saying about the timeline of events. Will circle back to Ward’s book with renewed interest.

  10. Had one other thought about Packard engine strategy for 1954/55. Nash converted its L-head 6 to OHV in 1956 which upped its power output from 100/110 to 120/130. Studebaker did the same in 1961 taking its 6 from 90 HP to 112 HP. In Nash’s case it was an important element to the company’s successful strategy. With Studebaker it was too little, too late.

    With this in mind, there was another alternative for Packard to those we have already discussed. It was not necessarily to convert the 288/327/359 to OHV, although that was an option. Such as strategy might be acceptable in the low priced field but not the luxury class. No, the real option was to do a new straight eight with OHC’s, using most of the existing engine line’s tooling. I mention this for 3 reasons:

    1) Nance had inquired about OHC technology and in fact mentioned Mercedes. He knew the power it might have in the marketplace.

    2) Mercedes came out with a winning OHC straight 8 about the same time and nobody ever questioned its greatness.

    3) The air of Duesenberg was probably still palpable.

    Let’s say Packard did this. I have no doubt they could have handled the technical challenges of vibration and noise. At that point it would have come down to marketing. Packard would have needed to tell its story on its own terms and play up the positives. Just because no other competitor would have had one doesn’t mean it would have been unacceptable. I think we need to remember that AMC also proved conventional wisdom wrong when it turned itself around despite having neither a large car nor “bigness”.

    1. An OHC conversion of the straight-eight, à la the Kaiser Jeep Tornado six of the early sixties, probably would have been within Packard’s means. I don’t know how well that would have gone over, though. Even customers who couldn’t tell you what a camshaft was could see the difference between a V8 and eight in line. There were undoubtedly people who remembered the Duesenberg, but even the memory of Packard’s own great cars of the thirties wasn’t doing them a lot of good by then. Whether it went over well or not, I don’t think it would have made much difference; it wouldn’t have changed any of the factors that brought Packard down.

      I don’t see a lot of relevance for AMC in this context. AMC’s turnaround had a lot to do with the demise of the other domestic compacts — other than a handful of Willys and a few leftover Henry Js, AMC had the field to itself by 1955. The compact market was not vast, but with no real rivals, it was big enough to sustain AMC, particularly since the Big Three showed no signs of moving into that range. It wasn’t until the recession that the compact field was big enough to sustain a lot of competition; if there had been more choices in that category in 1955, AMC might not have made it that far.

      AMC, therefore, survived by staying in an area the competition had fled, and dropping models that vied directly with its richer rivals. That wasn’t really an option for Packard at that point. The upper-middle-class bracket put them against Chrysler, Buick, and Olds, while the luxury market pitted them against Cadillac, Lincoln, and (from 1955) Imperial. Even if Packard had tried to retrench in the upper-crust luxury market, trying to reclaim its position as the American answer to Rolls-Royce or the senior Benzs, I don’t know that they could have sold enough cars to keep themselves afloat, any more than they could in the thirties, before the One Twenty. (The losses sustained by the Continental Mark II and Cadillac Eldorado Brougham aren’t encouraging on that point.) It was not the same situation as AMC.

  11. I agree that AMC was in a different situation in terms of the market they were competing in, so any comparisons along those lines are not instructive.

    Viewed from the broader perspective that both companies had extremely limited resources and time, both were seriously considering or were in the throes of merger, and both were faced with a make-break product decision, the similarities are quite striking.

    Both companies tried to merge with another company. The net result was that Mason bested Nance at the business game. He locked down better terms for his company and made the Hudson ownership pay dearly for their past mistakes, much more so than Studebaker was made to pay. Only with the dealership strategy did both men “tie” as both picked up newfound market coverage.

    Both companies developed a new V8. The net result was that Romney bested Nance. He cranked out a great motor in 18 short months and apparently for less, perhaps much less, investment than Packard shelled out. Neither the customers at the time, nor history, cared how it happened; only that it happened.

    Both companies needed a go-to new product that would pay the bills without the need for constant and expensive redesign. The net result was that Romney bested Nance. He pulled ahead timing for the Rambler from 1957 to 1956, updated the car’s base engine to OHV for next to nothing, and told his designers to go to town on a ground-up new body and suspension. Nance spent most of his wad on the V8 and forced his designers into a compromised design around the 1951 body shell. He did order a nice suspension and should be applauded for it. But as the market has oft demonstrated, customers value style first, followed by power and other things like ride comfort. Buick sales exploded in the late 40s and early 50s despite the fact that their own brethren sold V8s while they continued to rely on their old pre-war straight eight. Worse for Packard, it created a styling crisis that would have been expensive to correct in that the 55/56 were non-starters as the design team was already looking ahead to a complete about –face for 1957. Think about that. No continuity from 47 to 48. None from 54 to 55. None from 56 to 57. Sounds like Lincoln of that era and look what it did to that brand. One could argue that Cadillac was forcing annual design changes but I would counter that that only applied to the hapless who couldn’t dial in something more timeless. Packard design was hapless and Nance was the de factor design lead.

  12. I’ve been reading the back and forth between you and Paul with great interest!

    My overall impression (based upon reading the Ward book)is that Jim Nance did the best he could do with what he had available to him.

    I agree that Packard HAD to have a V-8 for 1955 to even hope to compete. Therefore, that’s where Nance put scarce dollars.

    Packard’s styling department did a fantastic job with the 1951 body shell, in my opinion.

  13. Had another thought based on the discussion we’ve been having at this link:

    http://packardinfo.com/xoops/html/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=5918&viewmode=flat&order=ASC&type=&mode=0&start=0

    The idea is based on a supposition that Packard needed both new styling and a V8 to really compete with Cadillac. They had the V8 for 1955 but could only afford a partial redesign for that year. My assessment on how it all went down is that 1954 ended up being a wasted year that racked up big losses and lost momentum. In retrospect, what was needed was for 1954 to generate good profits to help achieve a longer range goal. My thought was that Nance, who arrived in May 1952, had a small window of opportunity to order a full redesign of the bodies for 1954 using most of his cash reserves, but still leaving enough to keep all the engineering development on track. Then, with the money earned during the 1954 model year, he could have funded the final development of the V8, Torsion-Level Ride and Twin Ultramatic for 1955.

    As I opined in both this and the other link, Packard had a chance to sweeten the Contour Styling theme for 1954 by getting rid of the chrome and lowering the height, rather than doing yet another about face on styling (and a compromised one at that). The Pan American image that I showed could have made a great 2-door coupe and convertible while a somewhat higher sedan and extended wheelbase formal sedan/limousine along the same lines could have rounded out the range. The Pan Am was an award winner so the hard work of figuring out a good design was all but complete.

    Regarding pricing, if you look at the tremendous volumes Cadillac generated in those years (and 1954 was no downturn for the division), Packard could have competitively played in the $3,300 to $4,300 market exclusively and still generated good sales volumes – with high margins. All predicated on class-leading styling, which I believe the Pan Am theme represented. The basic plan would have been to score big in ’54 with styling to pay for ’55s technology. A nice side benefit would have been that the new bodies would not have been launched the same model year as the new engines. OEMs usually try to avoid this combo if possible because it inflicts too much chaos on engineering and the plant.

    The net result would have been that it 1955, Packard would have had a class-leading line-up competing in both the $3,500 segment (1955 market: 120,000 units) and the $4,000+ segment (1955 market: 187,000 units). That Packard only captured 15,000 units of the latter and none of the former speaks, I think, to issues greater than strictly poor quality or late introduction. Hot styling sold cars then as now and Packard, in that respect, was lost mid-pack in the field in 1955.

  14. Very interesting ideas, however, other factors were at work as well.

    As you say, hot styling sells cars, but is one among several factors. The 1955 cars were styled well enough to sell well initially. It was not until the quality issues resulting from the fact that the cars were a.) rushed to market with untested new technologies (i.e. the V-8 and new ultramatic), and the continuing bad press about independents in general and Packard in particular heated up after sales faltered that undermined the confidence of Packard’s market, which was always a conservative group within the overall automobile market.

    If the Briggs business had been handled more quickly in 1953, and the new body, engines, and transmission better prepared for market, much of this would have been avoided, and perhaps both 1955 and 1956 could have been good years along with the rest of the industry. Then perhaps the body styles could have been updated, as GM’s were, and capital preserved for a new generation of bodies for 1958. (Though it seems that the market was a bit saturated at that point, and that would not have been a good year in any event.)

    1. [quote]The 1955 cars were styled well enough to sell well initially.[/quote]

      That was the point I made. The ’55s may not have been the prettiest cars in the world, but they did have a lot of interest to buyers, and had Packard not stumbled with the transfer of production (both in quality control and the actual availability of cars), the 1955 model year would probably have been a pretty good one. Whether that would have been enough to convince the company’s backers to invest in new bodies is an open question, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt…

  15. Great points and Studebaker was a boat anchor too. That said, Chrysler had quality issues in ’57 that were right up there with Packard yet its cars continued to sell. The public is prone to forgiveness when they really want a car and equally prone to nitpickiness if the car does little for them emotionally.

    Let’s say Packard nailed the quality perfectly in 1955. Where would that have left them? Maybe 80,000 – 90,000 units that year rather than 68,000, less in 1956 because the industry pulled back. And still mixed too heavily in the middle priced field with low profit margins, barely able to pay for the ’55 reskin that cost almost as much as a new body program, and facing a huge bill to retool for 1957, not 1958, to remain competitive with an onslaught of sexy new, lower cars from the Big 3. In a nutshell, right back in the hole again, and with a crop of questionably styled square birds waiting in the wings.

    In 1955 Packard was one of four players in the $4,000+ luxury car market. There is no reason why they couldn’t have captured 1/4th of the luxury car market that year. As it was, the ’55 Patrician was incapable of doing so no matter how perfect its quality. For Packard to steal share from Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial it had to look better than them. Style it the same and market share stays the same. What happened to Packard’s traditional styling taste, the one that combined fine tailoring with swank that served them so well in the Twenties and into the Thirties?

    1. I agree with you on the financial side. Even without Studebaker, the best-case scenario for Packard would probably have left them in the same situation as Kaiser: perennially undercapitalized, making enough to get by, but lacking the resources for a competitive retooling schedule — not really a tenable long-term position.

      I have to disagree on the impact of styling in the luxury car market. By that logic, Lincoln and Imperial should have done a lot better than they actually did. A ’57-’58 Imperial was arguably better looking than a contemporary Cadillac, and certainly better looking than the contemporary big Lincolns, but its sales were tepid. The ’61 Continental has received countless critical plaudits (although honestly it’s always left me cold), but Cadillac outsold Lincoln by nearly seven to one; even if Lincoln had offered a greater range of body styles, etc., it’s hard to see that margin improving to more than about five to one. Would a more stylish Packard have done better at that point? I kind of doubt it.

      To some extent, Lincoln and Imperial suffered the same dilemma Packard had acquired, namely, a hazy luxury image and a lack of snob appeal. The Lincolns of the late forties and early fifties looked more like big Mercurys than luxury cars, and their design and engineering was aimed more at Oldsmobile and Buick than Cadillac. As for the Imperial, even hardcore Mopar fans have a hard time not reflexively saying "Chrysler Imperial," and the fact that Chrysler had previously marketed the line that way certainly didn’t help.

      Snob appeal is a complicated equation. Fine detailing, like the Packards of the early thirties, is a part of it, although I think it has more to do with [i]meeting[/i] buyer expectations than creating them. If style and price alone created prestige, heads of state would be riding around in Maserati Quattroportes, rather than Rolls-Royces or big Mercedes.

  16. One couldn’t really stretch out in the back seat of a Maserati. The Rolls, Ghia Imperial and Cadillac 75 were the top rides back then for old world Head of Stating, later joined by the extended Lincoln and M-B 600.

    My argument for creating buyer expec
    tations as a means of achieving competitive victory goes back the 1938 60 Special and follow-up 1940 Series 62 torpedo sedans. It was those two cars that enabled Cadillac to finally, definitively topple Packard after decades of simply meeting expectations (Sixteen excluded). That’s the magnitude of firepower Packard needed to unleash in the mid-50s to get back in the game. To be more specific, in the 30’s the Holy Grail in the luxury market was a 3-box sedan, lower height, a manageable wheelbase and a reasonable (for a fine car) price. In the mid 50s it was, apart from a V8, ultra lowness and a high level of sophisticated, intricate and sassy styling. It is here where Packard had a small window of opportunity because Cadillac didn’t get its height down until 1957, Imperial until 57 and Lincoln until 58. Hudson of course had lowness but also potato styling. So yes, I think Packard had a chance. If it worked for Cadillac, why couldn’t it work for Packard? They had a 2-3 year buffer period to get out in front of everyone.

    The height discussion aside, styling is always subjective. That is, until enough people weigh in. Then it becomes objective data. I can’t prove why Cadillac sold so many cars back then but I will submit that only Cadillac maintained true styling continuity throughout the time period in question. The others smattered themselves all over the map to a point where the public couldn’t lock down a solid vision of each brand. Cadillac styling from 1941 on was very much like Packard from 1906 to 1939: it looked consistently like it was supposed to look.

    Beyond consistency, there was the question of styling merit. To my eye, Earl had a knack for imparting subtle shape and drama in a way that none of his competitors could do. Lincoln was nothing more than a big Ford until 1958 when it went solo with a poorly detailed design. I agree that the 61 Lincoln was a bit cold. One could argue that Lincoln didn’t lock down “the Lincoln look” until 1966 and didn’t hit its full styling stride until the early 70s. Nobody can argue that it was this period when Lincoln sales finally took off. So back in the 50s when Lincoln was still a styling babe in the woods, it should have been no threat to a would-be Packard comeback.

    Neither should Imperial have been. Up until 57 it looked too much like a Chrysler but cost more than a Chrysler and was sold alongside Chrysler. How is a brand supposed to build a mystique with a strategy like that? The 57 was IMHO a head-on collision between genius and ungainliness. Cadillac of that era was perhaps more conservative but also more carefully blended and proportioned. Also true, Imperial styling probably hurt more than helped the brand through the 60s and into the 70s. Too wacky, then too straight-lined, then too bloated, then too Lincoln copycat.

    The two successful Cadillac eras that I don’t really understand are the 50-53 and 67-68. From the A-pillar forward they were and continue to look awful. Just an opinion, others obviously felt and feel differently.

    On the image question, neither Lincoln nor Imperial had Packard’s pedigree. Packard was a sleeping giant waiting for one stellar product to awaken it and was probably the only brand of that era that had the chops, deep down in the public’s imagination, to run with Cadillac. So yes, I think Packard could have turned things around with the right car and put itself onto a sustainable path. Breakthrough design, top quality, no pricing south of $3500. Volumes around 60,000 – 80,000K per annum. And probably no Studebaker until that company could be had for pennies in bankruptcy court.

  17. Nice article and some interesting info on the Board rather than Nance wanting Studebaker.

    Regarding the comment about Reinhart wanting the lower beltlines, am not sure it would have helped. Designers have lone embraced the chopped greenhouse look. I photo-altered a 51 Packard sedan image to lower the beltline while mainaining overall vehicle height. Resulting proportions didn’t seem to help the car. I think what Packard really needed was a lower car, certainly for its 2-door cars and eventually for its 4-dr models. Nance inherited the wonderful Pan American show car. He should have jumped on that design on Day 1, ordering a ’54 replacement for the 2-dr hardtop and convertible models.

    Packard’s styling might also have benefitted from a kick-up in the beltline where the rear quarters begin, similar to what GM did as the 50s progressed. I have tinkered with this look on images of early 50s Packard. It gives the body better proportions by raising the droopy decklid and shortening the tallish backlight. Compare with ’64-’68 Imerials, for example, which I think suffer with both.

    Personally, I think Nance, his product planning dept and the studio got the 55′s wrong. Too much investment was funneled into new V8 facilities, too little into the vehicle’s body. Did AMC spend as much on their ’56 V8? My understanding is no. (if anyone knows the numbers, please advise) Chysler saved itself in ’55 and again in ’57 because of good styling enabled by lower height. Perhaps Packard could have done the same in ’54-’55.

    1. Well, Reinhart was, by his own admission, the harshest critic of his own work, and it’s pretty typical for designers to bemoan the changes to their work dictated by engineering or marketing. If you compare the Twenty-Fourth Series Packard to a ’51 Buick, Reinhart’s comments about “high pockets” styling seem a little overstated. The ’51 Packards sold well, so it doesn’t seem the public was overly offended. The main consequence of the ’51 styling was that economics meant Packard was stuck with it through 1956, which they had no way of knowing at the time.

      I’m not sure that the ’55s could have been significantly lower without either a substantial sacrifice in headroom (which would have been difficult for Packard management to accept at that time) or a redesign of the frame. Keep in mind that the Pan American was a show car, and a two-seater convertible, at that, so Henney was able to chop the top a lot more than would have been palatable with a production sedan or hardtop.

      Even if they could have lowered the ’55s substantially, they had no particular reason to assume it would work commercially. The ’57 Chryslers were a [i]very[/i] bold move at the time; when GM stylists got their first look at them in August 1956, they were shocked. Packard buyers had traditionally been a very conservative lot, and doing something that extreme for ’55 (even assuming Packard could have afforded it, about which I’m dubious) would have been a major gamble. If I were Jim Nance, I’m not sure I would have taken that chance.

      (It’s worth noting that the ’55 Patrician was, by a small margin, the lowest car in its class; it was 0.8 inches lower than the ’55 Imperial, although the Clipper was higher than a ’55 Buick, Oldsmobile, or Chrysler.)

      As for the engine, I’m not confident that Packard could have done it for substantially cheaper. The total cost of the new engine (which came from James Arthur Ward’s study of Packard’s records, and include not only development and tooling, but testing and setup of the Utica plant) aren’t outrageous, given that Packard had never built a 90-degree V8 before. While the new engine wasn’t particularly novel by industry standards, Packard was starting with a clean sheet of paper. As it was, they got some flak for early teething problems, so cutting more corners on development and testing probably would have done as much harm as good. And certainly, [i]not[/i] having a V8 by 1955 would have been crippling.

      I don’t have figures for the cost of AMC’s in-house V8. If you find any, let me know — although it’s important to note whether those figures include plant conversion and other expenses, as the Packard numbers do. I should also point out that AMC had the benefit of Packard’s experience. They underwrote part of Packard’s V8 development costs, and presumably had access to detailed information about its engineering and design. That does help…

      1. Administrator – sorry for the delayed response. Wanted to comment because I absolutely think Packard had a chance at survival. Strong arguments have been made in other forums about poor quality being the main reason for the downfall. I don’t dispute its importance for a moment but do think the 1955 design was also to blame. Packard earmarked too much of its limited capital on the V8 and too little on the body.

        ENGINE: Packard could have done a new V8 in the old facility. Or – and I like this approach better from a marketing perspective – they could have made a new OHC V12 in the old facility while continuing o offer the inline-8s for few more years until AMC’s 327 OHV V8 was available.

        BODY: Packard was already in knee-deep for new door and fender outers in 1955 yet it bought them nothing in terms of height or proportions. They should have taken the money saved on the engine strategy above and retooled the entire body. The Pan American was a big hit with the public to I would argue that Nance had ample reason to assume it would be a big hit with the public. Besides, having a good sense of design and anticipating public demand was what he and his team were paid for. Regarding the comment about decreased head room due to lower body height, I think it would have been seat height that would have suffered the most in any would-be Pan American coupe or sedan. But if you look at how GM and Chrysler’s vehicle and seat heights evolved between 1954 and 1958, that is exactly what happened… yet buyers seemed to accept the trade-off.

        MARKET: Packard needed to abandon its conservative clientele in 1955 because the luxury car market had shifted to sporty and flashy. The Pan American was quite restrained yet worked marvelously so Packard need not have embarrassed itself with gobs of chrome in the process. I am convinced The Pan Am would have made a stunning 122” wheelbase 6-pass coupe and convertible that would have sold extremely well, and with an optional V12 would have bested Cadillac’s Eldorado. But… I have still have nagging doubts about a 127” wheelbase sedan of same style. Would it have been too much a compromise in comfort in 1955? For some, probably. Which would have translated into lower sedan volumes. Perhaps Packard could have restyled the Patrician with traditional (1930s-early 40s) Packard style in the same way that Rolls-Royce/Bentley of that era did. The Request show car was a grafted mismatch of opposing design themes so Packard would have needed to do the car very carefully.

        1. [quote]I am convinced The Pan Am would have made a stunning 122” wheelbase 6-pass coupe and convertible that would have sold extremely well, and with an optional V12 would have bested Cadillac’s Eldorado. [/quote]

          Maybe, but Packard’s experience with the Caribbean made it pretty clear that limited editions, even interesting or attractive ones, were not helping the bottom line. Packard needed a new body, which Nance spent a lot of time trying strenuously to finance. The amount Nance kept quoting to Packard’s financiers for an all-new body was $50 million, which he privately admitted was really a bare-bones estimate. Even if they had completely sacrificed the V8 program and the Utica plant, I don’t think they would have had the money for it. And if they’d had a new body, even an attractive one, with the old straight-eight, they still would have been dead in the water by 1955 anyway, for the lack of a V8. It would have been like Kaiser, which was stylish, but had only the old Continental six against rivals’ V8s.

          As I said before, I also have my doubts that even if Packard had had the money for a completely new body, they would have embraced something really radically low slung. Even Harley Earl would have thought twice about it, which is why GM was caught out by the ’57 cars. This is one of those things that’s easy to advocate with the benefit of hindsight, but would have seemed a very risky idea at the time.

          I really disagree about the engine. The sales organization was screaming for a V8 by 1953, because by then, all of their principal competitors (Cadillac on top, Buick and Olds for the volume cars) had them. It didn’t matter that the final straight eights were about as powerful as the OHV V8s (although they were pretty much at the limit of their development); it was an issue of perception.

          The mooted V-12 (which would have been a pushrod engine, not OHC) would only have been practical because it would have been a derivative of the V8. It would have had good publicity value, which would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have sold in large numbers. I suspect the money the V-12 would have cost (something like $7 million) went into the body revisions for the ’55 cars, which was probably a better use for it.

          From the standpoint of the sales organization, a new V-12 and the old straight-eight would have been the worst of both worlds. It would have consumed a bunch of money (I don’t see how developing a clean-sheet OHC V-12 would have been cheaper than the V8!), while leaving the Clipper — which represented the lion’s share of Packard sales — with an engine that Packard dealers already saw as a sales impediment. Having potential customers come in to see the new V-12 car and then turn away because the twelve is too expensive and the cheaper cars still have the old flathead straight eight would not have been a happy situation for anyone involved, and that’s probably what would have happened.

          Even if Packard had been willing to wait for a V8 until the AMC engine was available, that assumes that AMC would have made it available at an acceptable price. Given the mutual animosity between Romney and Nance, and the way the intended reciprocal agreement (and Romney’s efforts to buy Studebaker engines) had fallen apart, I’m not so sure about that. Also, aside from the cost of the engines themselves, there would have been the transportation costs of having them shipped from Kenosha to Detroit, which is what torpedoed the earlier plan to have Nash make body stampings for Packard.

          Beyond that, the AMC engine wasn’t available until midway through 1956. I suppose you could argue that without the prospects of buying an engine from Packard, Mason and Romney might have sped up the program, although AMC would not have had the benefits of Packard’s development work. (Again, AMC underwrote part of the Packard engine’s development costs.) Not having a V8 at all until 1956 would have been crippling for Packard, whatever else they did.

        2. [quote]Strong arguments have been made in other forums about poor quality being the main reason for the downfall.[/quote]

          I don’t think poor quality was the sole issue. The chain of events went something like this: Nance gambled on the conversion of the Conner Avenue plant, which took longer and cost more than anticipated. The public seemed to respond well to the 1955 cars at the beginning of the model year, but the production delays meant that there weren’t enough cars available to dealers, and many of those that were available were not in good shape. By the time those problems were coming under control, the demand was cooling fast. At the same time, Nance was trying to sort out the financial predicament of Studebaker, which was pretty dire. Finally, he went to his backers and asked for money for all-new shared bodies for Studebaker and Packard, and got nothing. That was pretty much the death knell.

          I think the issues of styling and engines, and even quality, were secondary. The critical decisions were the Studebaker merger and the consolidation of production at Conner Avenue. I think Jim Nance knew the latter was a gamble, but he thought the reward was worth the risk. (This is an area, incidentally, where the much-maligned George Christopher might have done better. Christopher was a production man, and I think he might have turned a more jaundiced eye toward the consolidation idea.) If they hadn’t tried to do that, Packard would have broken even in ’55, even on the volume it actually sold; without the production problems, it probably would have sold at least a few more cars than it did. It would probably also have had fewer quality problems (although some, like the axle issue, were beyond Packard’s control), and lower warranty costs. If Packard had made at least a modest profit in 1955, its backers might have been more amenable to financing the new body program.

          Still, the problem would have been Studebaker, which was in really bad shape. Packard was much closer to turning itself around, and in some respects, they would have been better off going it alone. The Packard board didn’t see it that way at the time, though, which is why they let themselves be talked into the Studebaker merger in the first place. Even if Packard had done everything right, returning Studebaker to profitability would have been an uphill battle.

  18. “Packard’s last real chance was right after the war; if they had dumped pinchpenny George Christopher and reestablished Packard as a true luxury marque, they might have had enough momentum to get through the 50′s”.
    —The above remark is largely true. Christopher was a serious problem for postwar Packard. Another was the continuation of the Clipper styling, not in a good way, and the dilution of the name. All of these and other barriers could have been survived IF Packard had not been an independent. In the United States, Packard needed deep pockets to survive. In Europe it would not have mattered so much, Rolls Royce/Bentley, and even Jaguar survived building very few cars after the war, and up into the 50′s and 60′s. It is very clear, Cadillac, Lincoln, and even Imperial, such as it was as just another Chrysler, would not have survived the depression without the deep pockets of their owners. Packard made a fatal mistake in not merging with Nash in the 40′s. Hudson was a lost cause with time, same with Studebaker, though Studebaker too could have survived under a big umbrella. Ford made a serious mistake in not taking Studebaker-Packard under the company banner in the 50′s, and instead decided to focus on the Edsel, and Continental. Both efforts quickly failed. But, with SP they would have had credible, long lasting brands to battle GM with. It is very enlightening to realize that the car that saved Ford in 1949 was a discarded Studebaker disign. Today, Ford very much needs a car like Packard, a super luxury make with a long and lustrous history. Lincoln just doesn’t, and never will have that. Again, Ford made a mistake in discarding Jaguar. Jaguar alone in all the world comes closest to the Packard mystique.

    1. There’s no question that Cadillac and Lincoln both came very close to going under in the early ’30s, although Nick Dreystadt’s reorganization of the former and Lincoln’s introduction of the Zephyr meant both were making money again before the end of the decade and were doing pretty well through the start of the war. So was Packard, but where Cadillac really took off after the war, Packard stumbled.

      It’s important to note that Rolls-Royce was not subsisting solely on sales of Rolls and Bentley automobiles; Rolls-Royce was also a leading producer of military vehicles and aircraft engines. (Studebaker-Packard had a few military contracts in the ’50s, but not enough to make a major difference in the bottom line.) Similarly, Daimler-Benz built large trucks as well as cars, and even in the passenger car arena, Mercedes sold an awful lot of middle-class four-cylinder sedans and diesel taxi for every expensive sports car or luxury sedan it sold.

      Jaguar, on the other hand, was independent until 1966 and doing quite well despite selling fewer than 30,000 cars a year. I’m guessing that Jaguar had lower overhead than Packard did after the war, but Jaguar also had a very different appeal. For people really concerned with maintaining an old-money image (i.e., the sort of people who’d bought Packards in the ’20s), Jaguars were considered sort of vulgar, but for buyers who weren’t as concerned with the old school tie, Jaguars were very desirable: They were fast, they were technically sophisticated, they were attractive, and they were aggressively priced, especially in the home market. The pricing involved a level of ruthless cost engineering that I don’t think Alvan Macauley would have tolerated, but it meant that most of Jaguar’s rivals were either a lot duller, a lot more expensive, or both. It wasn’t a strategy I could see Packard adopting, but it worked quite well for almost 20 years. The reason Jaguar gave up its independence was not that it was short of cash or struggling, but that BMC had just bought Pressed Steel, which made Jaguar’s body shells, and Sir William Lyon was afraid he was going to lose his most important supplier if he didn’t make a deal.

      I don’t think Ford would have been wise to buy Studebaker-Packard. Packard alone would probably have been salvageable, but Studebaker was a mess — more so than I think even they necessarily realized at the time of the Packard merger. In Packard’s case, the problem was that the brand had lost a lot of its luster by the ’50s; buyers thought Packards were old-fashioned, and that was reflected in poor resale values, which was a huge disadvantage against Cadillac. (Part of the reason people with money bought Cadillacs is that they retained their value very well, and trading a Cadillac in for a new model every year was actually surprisingly cheap.)

      The failing of the Edsel and to some extent the Continental was that they were not positioned where Ford most needed to bolster its lineup. Ford had done a whole pile of studies that concluded they needed something to fill the gap between Mercury and Lincoln, but the Edsel straddled Mercury and the Continental was above Lincoln — not the questions Ford needed answered.

  19. The photo of the 1956 Caribbean hardtop with the thingie hanging under the instrument panel is cute… and the caption describing “factory air conditioning” is interesting talk… but what we are looking at is absolutely, positively NOT factory air conditioning. It is some aftermarket thingie made by heaven knows who, for heaven knows what, in heaven knows when. For the record, real Packard factory air for 1955 and 1956 came out of the TOP of the instrument panel, not the bottom… and it was not hung on, it was built in.

  20. I was only 11 yrs. at the time but I recall My Grandfather, (a Packard Dealer in Det.) exclaiming Packard’s quality and assembly woes. mis-matched interior panels, transmission probs. etc. I thought Teague’s face lift on the ’51 body was very good, even though the proportions were wrong. I recall a full page ad in the Sat Ev. Post, wherein the featured car, a Patrician appeared as an artist’s rendition,the proportions were "correct";and the car looked fantastic! I always preferred the ’55, as the’56 grille is too busy and the extended H,lite hoods too exaggerated, as is the stainless side mldg. The squared off deck lid (’56) is an improvement however.

  21. What activities were assigned to the East Grand Blvd plant once manufacturing/assembly moved to the Conner Ave plant? Seems like maintaining that facility with limited use would have been a significant financial drain.

    1. Mike,

      I don’t have a breakdown in my notes — I’d have to review the James Arthur Ward book again and perhaps do further research to specifically answer your question. However, since the suggestion of moving the assembly line came from Walter Grant, Packard’s finance VP, I assume he did the cost projections for the various scenarios and determined that it would be cheaper to take whatever hit they would incur by not running East Grand at its previous capacity. (That sort of calculation is exactly what finance people do.)

      If nothing else, it does suggest how inefficient East Grand actually was as an assembly plant. That’s an issue that is often overlooked in discussions of the decline of the independents in the U.S. or for that matter the British industry: Those companies often lacked efficient modern factories and couldn’t muster the capital to revamp or replace those plants, which led to a severe disadvantage against companies that could. GM and Ford were sometimes reluctant to pull the trigger on new plants because the expense was not trivial even by General Motors standards, but they *could* do it, whereas companies like Studebaker could not.

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