THE 1948 PACKARD STATION SEDAN
The Twenty-Second Series also included a new wrinkle: Packard’s first postwar station wagon.
A prewar Packard station wagon, built by Cantrell and based on a Sixteen-Series (1938) Packard Six. Its 245 cu. in. (4,020 cc) six was rated at 100 gross horsepower (75 kW).
Commercial-bodied Packards were not new; a number of coachbuilders, notably Freeport, Illinois’s Henney, had built wagons, hearses, and even ambulances on Packard chassis for many years. Packard launched its first catalogued station wagon models midway through the 1937 model year. As was customary for woody station wagons, the bodies were built by outside coachbuilders: initially J.T. Cantrell & Co., later Hercules, which also built wagon bodies for Chevrolet. The market for Packard wagons, which were inevitably very expensive, was small and sales never amounted to more than a few hundred units a year. They were dropped before production ended in 1942 and they did not return after the war.
Like other Twenty-Second Series Eights, the Packard Station Sedan was 204.6 inches (5,197 mm) long on a 120-inch (3,048mm) wheelbase, powered by a 289 cu. in. (4,730 cc) straight eight making 130 horsepower (97 kW). Since the Station Sedan weighs almost as much as the bigger Custom Eight sedans and has 30 fewer horsepower (22 kW less), 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) probably takes close to 20 seconds, with a top speed of perhaps 95 mph (153 km/h).
According to most sources, the new wagon was Ed Macauley’s idea, although it’s conceivable that it was suggested by the sales organization. Unlike previous wagons, the Station Sedan, as it was called, was built by Briggs, like other Packard bodies. It shared much of its inner structure with the standard Eight sedans along with their 289 cu. in. (4,730 cc) straight eights, although it was one of the most expensive models in the line — starting price was over $3,400, more than a Super Eight convertible. The price reflected the wagon’s high tooling costs; despite its commonality with the sedan, it required a new roof and rear quarter panels as well as the tailgate.
Twenty-Second Series Packards had independent front suspension and a live rear axle on leaf springs, although the latter also featured an unusual lateral locating strut; it connects the left side of the axle to the right frame rail, like a Panhard rod, but incorporates a hydraulic shock absorber rather than a plain steel rod. The springs and shocks were very soft, giving a smooth ride at the cost of soggy handling and copious body lean.
The rationale for the Station Sedan is unclear. The market wasn’t exactly crying out for high-end wagons; Buick’s Roadmaster station wagon, probably the Station Sedan’s closest direct rival, sold only 529 copies in 1947. The Station Sedan was arguably the most attractive of the Twenty-Second Series Packards — which may have been the point — but its cargo space was modest and the small tailgate limited its load-carrying versatility, reflecting the wagon’s sedan origins. Moreover, while it was steel-bodied in a structural sense, the Station Sedan was still a labor-intensive proposition for owners, requiring regular sanding, sealing, and varnishing to maintain the tailgate and side ribs. If the Station Sedan was indeed Ed Macauley’s idea, we suspect he suggested it more on aesthetic grounds than practical ones.
Station Sedan sales were modest, accounting for fewer than 4,000 units in 1948 and 1949 — less than 4% of Packard production — and it was dropped after 1950. Station wagons enjoyed a tremendous boom in the fifties, but the trend was toward all-steel wagons, with wood giving way to easier-to-maintain ersatz woodgrain.
The Station Sedan is not quite a woody — the door panels and window surrounds are synthetic, but the side ribs and the tailgate structure are real hardwood, which requires annual sanding and varnishing. Aside from being rather small, the tailgate has no drip rail, which made it more susceptible to leaks and led to interior rust problems. Note the license plate holder — it flips down when the tailgate is open, allowing the car to be driven (legally) with the gate open.
While the “bathtub Packards” were much derided in later years, they actually received a number of styling awards when they were new. The public was less enamored of the look, but when the Twenty-Second Series cars first appeared, it was still a seller’s market and people bought them anyway. Packard managed almost 99,000 sales for the 1948 calendar year and the company reported a healthy $15 million profit. It also outsold Cadillac by around 50%, in part because Cadillac’s all-new 1948 models didn’t arrive until the spring of 1948.
In March 1948, Alvan Macauley finally retired as chairman of the board. By the end, Macauley had become quite disgruntled with George Christopher. As proficient as Christopher was at manufacturing, his capacity in other areas was limited; his postwar track record suggested that he had little grasp of design, marketing, or product planning. Moreover, there was an obvious culture clash that only worsened with the passing years.
Dealers were also displeased with Christopher, holding him responsible for Packard’s failure to meet the oft-promised production goals and for the fact that Packard still didn’t have anything to match Cadillac’s popular Hydra-Matic transmission other than the troublesome Electromatic clutch. The production shortfalls were due in large part to steel shortages beyond Christopher’s control, but the latter issue was a direct reflection of Christopher’s reluctance to invest in R&D; production of Packard’s Ultramatic wasn’t approved until that spring, seven years after Cadillac had introduced automatic transmission.
The standard Packard Eight sedan was the mainstay of the Packard line, but by 1950, its sales were dropping precipitously. Comparing its profile with its GM contemporaries makes clear the reasons why. There are still vestiges of the lovely Clipper (note the curve of the C-pillars), but the sedans look decidedly ungainly; the 22nd and 23rd Series design works best as convertibles or wagons. (Photo: “50packard” © 2009 Cortcomp; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)
By the end of his tenure, Macauley began looking for expedient ways to rid himself of Christopher, including a proposed merger with Nash that would have made George Mason Packard’s new president. In the spring of 1948, Macauley tried to recruit George Romney, then the head of the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) headquarters in Detroit, offering him a seat on the board and a handsome salary of $50,000 a year to become Packard’s executive vice president. George Mason convinced Romney to join Nash instead, largely on the strength of Nash’s upcoming compact car, but if Romney had accepted Macauley’s offer, he would almost certainly have replaced Christopher within a few years.
The Twenty-Third Series (1949-1950) Packard had very few changes from the Twenty-Second Series and most modifications were cosmetic. The Super Eights now shared the longer body and most of the styling cues of the Custom, which caused sales of the latter to shrink noticeably. The Custom’s main distinction was now the nine-bearing, 356 cu. in. (5,833 cc) engine, which was discontinued after 1950. Despite its remarkable smoothness, it was expensive to build, heavy, and no longer substantially more powerful than the Super Eight’s 327 cu. in. (5,361 cc) engine. Packard later developed a nine-bearing version of the latter engine, which it used in senior cars through 1954.
The situation grew worse with the arrival of the Twenty-Third Series cars in May 1949, Packard’s 50th anniversary. The seller’s market was losing momentum and GM and Ford Motor Company had already begun to roll out their first true postwar designs. All Packard could boast was a year-old design that hadn’t exactly been a styling triumph to begin with. (In fairness, we’d be hard pressed to say the 1949 Lincolns were any more attractive, but they at least had the virtue of being new.) Packard now offered automatic transmission, but still couldn’t match GM’s flashy new hardtop coupes or Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s advanced OHV V8s. Packard’s well-proven straight eights actually gave away very little to the conservatively tuned early OHV engines, but it was a serious marketing problem, adding to the perception that Packard was falling behind the times.
Packards still sold well in 1949, but there were already signs of trouble. The arrival of the 1949 models left dealers with large stocks of unsold ’48s, prompting Christopher to ask the board for $2 million in dealer allowances to move the leftovers. The resulting price cuts on nearly new models had a chilling effect on resale values, something that would haunt Packard for the rest of its existence. Despite the allowances, some overextended dealers went under, shrinking Packard’s dealer body by about 500 franchises.
Packard’s chief research engineer, Forest McFarland, first began experimenting with torque converters in the mid-thirties, although serious development of a production automatic transmission didn’t begin until 1944. Development continued after the war, but it wasn’t approved for production until May 12, 1948, more than seven years after Cadillac first offered Hydra-Matic, a reflection of George Christopher’s reluctance to spend money on R&D. In all, Ultramatic cost more than $12 million for development and tooling, which was a huge investment for Packard; it would have been much cheaper to swallow some pride and buy Hydra-Matic (which even Lincoln did until 1955) or turn to an outside supplier like Borg-Warner for help.
The Ultramatic first became available with the Twenty-Third Series in May 1950. It was standard on Customs and a pricey $225 option on lesser models.
Mechanically, Ultramatic was a torque converter automatic with a single planetary gearset providing low, direct drive, and reverse. Like Buick’s Dynaflow and the early Chevrolet Powerglide, it normally started in direct drive, with all torque multiplication provided by the twin-turbine torque converter. Low gear could be engaged manually up to about 60 mph (97 km/h), but the driver then had to manually select High.
The rationale for this arrangement, which seems faintly ludicrous today, was greater smoothness. The early Hydra-Matic had four speeds and upshifts involved engaging and disengaging bands and clutches in two separate planetary gearsets. As a result, Hydra-Matic tended to shift with a jolt, particularly if it wasn’t in perfect adjustment. By contrast, the torque converter’s torque multiplication faded smoothly away to direct drive at higher speeds, like a modern continuously variable transmission. On paper, it was a fine trade-off: Ultramatic’s stall ratio of 2.40:1 was very close to the 2.43:1 first gear of Packard’s standard three-speed manual, without any need for shifting. In practice, the automatic made for smooth but sluggish performance off the line.
As with Dynaflow and Powerglide, many drivers compensated for Ultramatic’s lack of off-the-line multiplication by starting in Low and shifting manually into Drive. This made for much quicker acceleration (trimming more than 3 seconds off of 0-60 mph/0-97 km/h times), but it was hard on the transmission; Packard described low gear as “emergency low” for good reason.
What set Ultramatic apart from Dynaflow and Powerglide was its lockup torque converter, a “wet” friction clutch that engaged automatically at cruising speeds — between 15 and 56 mph (24 and 90 km/h), depending on throttle position — to lock the torque converter’s torus housing directly to the transmission main shaft. With the converter locked up, engine torque was transmitted directly to the transmission main shaft with no slippage, improving fuel efficiency and providing better throttle response and engine braking. This feature was previously used by some bus transmissions (and later appeared on some early Borg-Warner automatics) and made a comeback on a much bigger scale in the late seventies. It’s now virtually universal on torque converter automatics.
Despite its technical novelty, Ultramatic invited at least two lawsuits: one from inventor Eduard Fischel, who claimed Packard had imitated his hydraulic valve regulator layout, and the other from General Motors, which claimed Packard had infringed elements of GM’s torque converter designs. Packard won both cases, but in the second case, GM appealed the lower court’s verdict and the matter wasn’t resolved until after Packard had ceased to exist as a separate marque.
The 1956 iteration of Twin Ultramatic included pushbutton transmission controls, a $52 option. The P, R, and N buttons were automatically disabled at speeds above 5 mph (8 km/h) and the starter could only be engaged in Park or Neutral. Like the 1958 Edsel, the pushbuttons were electrically operated and not terribly reliable.
By 1953, Ultramatic’s lack of off-the-line punch was becoming a serious problem, prompting torque converter revisions that raised the stall ratio from 2.40 to 2.55:1. For 1954, the transmission got some internal revisions to better cope with the stresses caused by frequent manual shifting. Late in the model year, Packard added “Gear-Start Ultramatic,” which had a new second driving range that would start in low gear and shift automatically to high.
For the 1955 model, Packard introduced a thoroughly redesigned Ultramatic, developed by McFarland and a young research engineer named John DeLorean. Dubbed Twin Ultramatic, it functioned much like the Gear-Start transmission, allowing starts in either high or low gear with automatic shifting between the two. It retained the lockup clutch, making it a sort of poor man’s three-speed, and the torque converter was revised to raise the stall ratio to 2.90:1.
Unfortunately, the new transmission had many teething problems, in part because it was not quite robust enough for the greater torque of Packard’s new V8 engines. Twin Ultramatic was also too complex for many mechanics of the time and improper maintenance exacerbated its reputation for unreliability. The 1956 version was much improved and some 90 lb (41 kg) lighter thanks to the adoption of an aluminum case, but by then, the damage was done.
Some 1955-1956 Nashes and Hudsons used Packard engines and Twin Ultramatic transmissions, part of a short-lived reciprocal agreement between Packard and AMC. Twin Ultramatic was also found in the Packard-engined 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk.
Ultramatic was dropped when Packard production was consolidated with Studebaker in 1956; the final 1957-1958 Packards had three-speed Borg-Warner transmissions, shared with the contemporary Studebakers on which those cars were based.