THE FALL OF GEORGE CHRISTOPHER
Packard outsold Cadillac by almost 20% in 1949, but it was for the last time. Although Packard ultimately posted a net profit of $5.3 million for the calendar year, ongoing problems with production and raw materials resulted in operating losses through much of the year. Sales for the 1950 model year declined sharply, as did Packard’s market share, which fell by more than 30% from 1948 to 1950.
By the spring of 1949, a bitter internal battle was taking shape over the design of the Twenty-Fourth Series. Christopher wanted to facelift the “bathtub” body for the 1951 model year, allowing another year to recoup its tooling costs. Aghast, some senior Packard executives went directly to the board to argue that another year with the bathtub cars would be a commercial disaster; engineering VP William Graves threatened to resign if Christopher didn’t authorize an all-new body for the Twenty-Fourth Series.
Christopher finally conceded, ordering Ed Macauley and John Reinhart to develop a new car for launch in the fall of 1950. This capitulation did not improve Christopher’s internal popularity; in September, the Packard board named many of the executives who’d opposed him to a new advisory committee, which was explicitly authorized to bypass Christopher and advise the board directly.
At the insistence of the engineering staff, Reinhart’s Twenty-Fourth Series proposal, presented in September, was heavily influenced by Oldsmobile’s popular “Futuramic” Ninety-Eight and included Packard’s first pillarless hardtop, dubbed Mayfair. Christopher approved the design, but immediately found himself in a new sparring match with the advisory committee over tooling amortization schedules. The board sided with the committee, leaving Christopher understandably furious.
To no one’s great surprise, the board demanded Christopher’s resignation in an acrimonious special meeting about a week later. Christopher retained the presidency in a titular sense through December 31, but he had already been stripped of any meaningful authority. Operational control of the company fell to finance VP Hugh Ferry, who was promoted to executive vice president.
Christopher, frustrated and angry, returned to his farm, where he died less than five years later. On January 1, Hugh Ferry became president of Packard in title as well as name.
The departure of George Christopher marked the end of an era for Packard. Fifteen years earlier, Alvan Macauley had looked to outsiders to transform both Packard’s operations and its audience. Now, the company was again in the hands of a longtime veteran; Hugh Ferry had joined Packard back in 1908. Nonetheless, the retrenchment was only temporary; Ferry made clear that he did not want the presidency and his leading priority would be to recruit a successor. The favored choice was another outsider, James Nance of Hotpoint, with whom Packard soon entered into a complicated two-year courtship.
Max Gilman and George Christopher have a checkered reputation among Packard fans, but in some respects, Gilman and Christopher were both successful and necessary for Packard. They presided over a complete modernization of the automaker’s production and accounting methods, without which Packard would undoubtedly not have survived the thirties. In effect, Gilman and Christopher had taught Packard to build high-quality cars to a price, which had never previously been a priority. Unfortunately, in the process, they had also stripped Packard of much of its former identity. By the late forties, Packard had gone from looking down on Cadillac to desperately chasing Oldsmobile and Buick.
Packard sold more than 100,000 of the all-new Twenty-Fourth Series cars, but while the new model was pleasant, it was conservative and ultimately derivative. Even Packard’s customary high-quality materials were being steadily downgraded in an effort to reduce costs. Worse, the brand’s move down-market had not attracted many new customers; by the early fifties, only 30% of buyers were first-time Packard customers. An extensive Booz Allen study done in early 1951 summarized the situation in painful detail: although Packard was still making money, it had become a dying brand.
Many historians feel that Packard should have seized upon the postwar boom as an opportunity to reestablish the senior line. Given the production constraints the company face at the end of the war, that probably would have been a wiser course — both Packard and Packard dealers would have been better off if more of the cars they built in 1945 and 1946 had been Custom Super Clippers rather than six-cylinder models.
Nonetheless, Christopher’s reasoning was not wholly illogical. The voracity of the market in those years took many automakers by surprise; even some GM execs feared another deep recession like the one that followed the end of the First World War. Furthermore, the high-end market was the first to be sated as the frenzy abated. Luxury car sales were already softening by 1948 and a “top-heavy” Packard lineup probably would have cut into the company’s overall volume, robbing it of the capital it needed for developments like Ultramatic.
Another common argument is that Packard should have established the junior cars as a separate marque. Packard apparently considered doing that in the late thirties, but decided not to because most newly established brands in the past decade had flopped. Jim Nance revisited the idea in the mid-fifties, briefly registering “Clipper” as a separate marque, but by then, it was really too late.
On the other hand, Mercedes-Benz has managed to maintain its snob value for decades despite applying the three-pointed star to an abundance of diesel taxicabs and down-market forays like the A-Class. The difference is that Mercedes has never deemphasized its high-end S-Class models. Instead, it uses the sales of the mass-market cars to fund the development of the S-Class as its styling and technology leaders and then allows those design cues to trickle down to the cheaper models.
Packard could have done the same thing, but neither Max Gilman nor George Christopher had any interest in doing so. Hugh Ferry and Jim Nance took steps to restore the balance, but by then, economic crises had drained Packard’s cash reserves, pushing the company into an ill-fated and ultimately terminal merger with Studebaker. That, however, is a story for another day (which you can read about by clicking here).
# # #
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Robert Ackerson, “1950 Packard DeLuxe Eight: The Last of Packard’s Postwar Pachyderms,” Special Interest Autos #64 (July-August 1981), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor New, 2001), pp. 58–65; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1937-1942 Packard Clipper” (31 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1937-1942-packard-darrin.htm, accessed 24 April 2010); “1941-1947 Packard Clipper” (23 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1941-1947-packard-clipper.htm, accessed 24 April 2010); “1948-1950 Packard Eight Station Sedan” (11 September 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1948-1950-packard-eight-station-sedan.htm, accessed 24 April 2010); and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1937 Packard Six: A Packard for $795,” Special Interest Autos #67 (January-February 1982), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 34–41; Eduard Fischel and Johannes Thiry, assignors to Siemens Apparate and Maschinen Gesellschaft mit beschänkter Haftung, “Servomotor for the Remote Control of Aircraft,” U.S. Patent No. 2,179,179, filed 24 November 1937, issued 7 November 1939; “Golden Anniversary Packard Models,” The Motor 6 July 1949, reprinted in Packard Gold Portfolio 1946-1958, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1988), pp. 19–21; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 217-228; Bob Johnstone, “Packard History – 1945-1984” (n.d., Bob’s Studebaker Resource and Information Portal, www.studebaker-info. org/ text3/pack-hist-1945.html, accessed 13 March 2010); John Katz, “Dazzling Darrin,” Special Interest Autos #188 (March-April 2002), pp. 32-37; George Hamlin and Dwight Heinmuller, “A Normally Tall Man Can Easily See Over It: The Clipper, The Nineteenth and Twentieth Series, 1941-1942” and “One Guess What Name It Bears: The Twenty-Second and the Twenty-Third Series 1948-1950,” Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company (Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Books), Third Edition, ed. Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly Publications (CBS Inc.), 1978); Michael Lamm, “Body by Briggs,” Special Interest Autos #19 (November-December 1973), reprinted in Hemmings Classic Car #44 (May 2008), pp. 62–67, and Hemmings Classic Car #45 (June 2008), pp. 56-62; and “1956 Packard Patrician,” Special Interest Autos #36 (September-October 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 88–94; George Mattar, “1941 Packard One-Ten Deluxe,” Hemmings Classic Car #4 (January 2005), pp. 28–33, and “1948 Packard Station Sedan,” Hemmings Classic Car #12 (September 2005), pp. 50–55; Mark J. McCourt, “Dramatic Darrin,” Hemmings Classic Car #53 (February 2009), pp. 20–29; “Packard’s Ultramatic Drive,” Product Engineering July 1949, reprinted in Packard Gold Portfolio 1946-1958, pp. 22–24; Richard K. Phillips, “Into a New and Untried Middle Ground: The One Twenty, 1935-1936,” Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company; Jim Richardson, “A Taste of Opulence: The affordable beauty of Packard’s Model 120 sedan,” Special Interest Autos #196 (August 2003), pp. 24-29; Mark Theobald, “Hercules-Campbell Body Co.” and “J.T. Cantrell” (2004, Coachbuilt, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 23 April 2010; James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); Burt Weaver, “driveReport: 1941 Packard 6,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), pp. 44–49; Bill Williams, “1948 Packard Station Sedan,” Special Interest Autos #17 (June-July 1973), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 51–56, and “The Heraldic Packard: Company Hood Ornaments and Emblems,” Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company; Josiah Work, “Classic Fastback: 1947 Packard Custom Super Eight,” Special Interest Autos #144 (November-December 1994), reprinted in ibid, pp. 43–49, and “Packard’s Handsome Hybrid: 1951 Packard Series 250,” Special Interest Autos #84 (November-December 1984), reprinted in ibid, pp. 66–74; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); and L. Morgan Yost, “The End of an Era: The Seventeenth Series — September 1938-August 1939, The Eighteenth Series — August 1939-September 1940, The Nineteenth Series — September 1940-August 1941, The Twentieth Series — August 1941-February 1942,” Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company.
We also consulted the following period road tests: Tom McCahill, “MI Tests the New Cars: Packard,” Mechanix Illustrated April 1946, “MI Tests the ’48 Packard,” Mechanix Illustrated January 1948, and “New Packard Takes McCahill for a Ride,” Mechanix Illustrated August 1949; “Comfort and Convenience — U.S. Style,” The Autocar 29 April 1949; and “Golden Anniversary Packard Models,” The Motor 6 July 1949), all of which are reprinted in Packard Gold Portfolio 1946-1958.
- Charge of the Light Brigade: The Last Stand of the Packard Motor Car Company
- Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38 Lightning and the Birth of Cadillac’s Famous Fins
- Lark and Super Lark: The Last Days of Studebaker
- Take Me to Your Style Leader: The 1938–1942 Cadillac Sixty Special
- The Once and Future Coupe: The Studebaker Hawk
- The People’s Packard: The Packard One-Twenty and How NOT to Build a Brand