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.
PACKARD AT THE CROSSROADS
In 1950, Packard was in a 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 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.)
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 because 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.
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 previous 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 effectively 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 declared 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.
Nance thought George Christopher’s oft-repeated goal of 200,000 units a year was unrealistic, but concluded that 150,000 units would give Packard comfortable insulation against future economic downturns. However, Nance 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 much 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 credit restrictions. 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.
THE YEAR OF DECISION
Packard’s 1953 Twenty-Sixth Series got off to a slow start, but once dealers actually received the new cars, early sales were strong. The Twenty-Sixth Series was a facelift, the work of new chief stylist Dick Teague. (John Reinhart had quit early in the design process and gone to Ford, where he led the design of the 1956 Continental Mark II.) Although it still lacked a V-8 engine, Packard coaxed 180 hp (134 kW) out of the senior cars’ 327 cu. in. (5,361 cc) straight eight, which was competitive with most rivals. Power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning were now optional and there were two new image leaders: a Derham formal sedan and the Caribbean convertible. The coachbuilder Henney also introduced a new series of limousines on a 149-inch (3,785mm) wheelbase, signaling Packard’s intention to reenter the prestige market.
Packard recorded a profit of $3.5 million in the first quarter of 1953, a healthy increase on the previous two years. Bolstered by that success, the board approved the development of a V-8 engine, which would be built in the company’s new plant near the Packard Proving Grounds in Utica, Michigan. The new engine would eventually cost Packard more than $20 million (a figure we believe included at least part of the cost of expanding and equipping the Utica facility to produce engines and transmissions), but it was badly needed if Packard was to have a fighting chance against rivals like Buick, which had recently joined Oldsmobile and Cadillac in offering V-8 power. Nance also talked with Packard’s former engineering chief, Colonel Jesse Vincent, about developing a 90-degree V-12 engine based on the new V-8, which could give senior Packard models a marketing edge against Cadillac.
Unfortunately, those promising notes soon turned sour. In January, new U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed former GM president Charlie Wilson as Secretary of Defense. Wilson began shifting defense contracts from other automakers to his former company. Nance estimated that Wilson eventually cost Packard more than $425 million in defense-related revenues. An end to hostilities in Korea also meant deep cuts in existing contracts.
As the Korean War wound down, the federal government rescinded its previous restrictions on both production and consumer credit. Ford Motor Company, seeing an opportunity to reclaim the number-one sales slot from Chevrolet, responded with an aggressive increase in production. Chevrolet responded in kind, sparking a brutal sales war. Dealers, faced with impossible surpluses, cut prices to the bone and offered easy credit terms to buyers who would not otherwise have qualified.
The price war was most acutely felt in the low-priced field, but it also took a nasty bite out of the mid-price segment. Despite the greater prestige of middle-class brands, the potential savings on a new Ford or Chevy were hard to resist. The independents, which tended to have higher list prices and thinner margins than the Big Three, suffered the most; their dealers simply could not afford to match the price cuts of their Ford and Chevrolet rivals. Even Packard was hurt. Its cars were already overpriced and the price war led dealers to concentrate on the cheaper Clipper models, further hurting the senior cars. To make matters worse, by summer, the repossession rate on new car loans was the highest it had been since the Great Depression, prompting banks to tighten restrictions on credit.
Packard managed to build around 90,000 cars for the model year, but its cash reserves sank from $40 million to $18 million, forcing Nance to obtain a $25 million revolving credit line for automotive operations. (The company had already obtained a $20 million credit line for defense work, the only significant debt Packard had to that point.)
Both Nance and the Packard board felt their best option was to seek a merger with another independent with whom they could share costs and components. Nance talked briefly with Hudson‘s A.E. Barit in October, but the board rejected that possibility, preferring Studebaker. Hudson was moribund — it had been common knowledge that it was up for sale since 1951 and the price war had been the last straw — and Studebaker seemed like a better prospect. There was also the ongoing possibility of a merger with Nash, although discussions with Mason had been inconclusive.
Before the year ended, there was one more unpleasant surprise: the loss of Packard’s body supplier, Briggs Body Company.
Since the 1941 Clipper, Briggs had produced most of Packard’s bodies except the Derham and Henney customs. Packard manufactured its own engines and transmissions and performed final assembly at its factory on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, but the actual body stampings were made at Briggs’ plant on Conner Avenue. (Other Briggs plants built bodies for Chrysler and some smaller manufacturers; before the war, Briggs had also done a lot of work for Ford and Lincoln.)
Outsourcing the stampings to Briggs had been a questionable idea to begin with, and it rubbed Jim Nance the wrong way for a number of reasons. By the fifties, Briggs was often behind schedule, its quality control was sub-par, and cost overruns were frequent. Shortly after his arrival, Nance had asked finance VP Walter Grant to explore the possibility of bringing production back to East Grand. Grant told him it would be prohibitively expensive unless they could increase production to 200,000 units or more. Manufacturing VP Ray Powers also persuaded Nance that the six-story East Grand plant was outmoded and inefficient compared to newer single-level plants. For the time being, Packard had little choice but to stay with Briggs.
In December 1953, that choice was abruptly taken away. Walter O. Briggs, the company’s founder, had died in January 1952 and high inheritance taxes had left the Briggs family eager to divest. In May 1953, they arranged to sell the company’s 12 U.S. factories to Chrysler for $35 million. Chrysler president Tex Colbert informed Packard that Briggs would continue to supply bodies through the 1954 model year to fulfill existing obligations, but made no promises beyond that. It was devastating news: No other outside supplier still had the capacity to build complete bodies in sufficient quantities and Packard didn’t have the capital to bring production in-house.
Nance had previously negotiated a reciprocal agreement with George Mason to produce some Packard stampings at Nash’s plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in exchange for Nash’s purchase of Packard’s new V-8. After the Briggs sale, however, Nance concluded that the cost of shipping complete bodies from Kenosha to Detroit would be prohibitive and decided that Packard’s only realistic solution was to purchase the Conner Avenue plant from Chrysler.
Nance’s negotiations with Tex Colbert were necessarily delicate — Chrysler wasn’t eager to sell and Packard did not actually have the money to buy. Nance managed to string Colbert along until the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company agreed to underwrite a $7.5 million loan to finance the purchase. Unfortunately, Colbert raised his price to $8.8 million and Mutual refused to go any higher. Nance finally had to settle for a five-year lease with a total cost of $4.2 million.
Around that time, Walter Grant suggested a radical possibility. Rather than continuing to assemble cars at East Grand, Packard could transfer the assembly line to Conner Avenue, consolidating it with the production facilities. Many of Packard’s manufacturing people were leery of that idea because the Conner Avenue plant was rather small (early plans called for expanding it by 20%, although the idea was quietly dropped for cost reasons). However, Grant estimated that the move would save up to $12 million a year, which was compelling.
The consolidation of assembly and production at Conner Avenue remains the single most criticized decision of Jim Nance’s tenure. Many Packard historians characterize it as unjustifiably foolish: Continuing production at Conner Avenue without consolidating would have saved enough money to lower Packard’s break-even point from 64,000 units to 30,000, while the $12.6 million cost of transferring the assembly line raised it to 80,000 units. However, Grant pointed out that if Packard could sell 80,000 cars in 1954, they could pay off the investment in less than 15 months, putting the company in a much better financial position for the all-new Packard and Clipper lines Nance still hoped to build. It was a calculated risk, but it would prove to be a terrible mistake.
THE STUDEBAKER MERGER
Packard’s 1954 models were a holding action, another mild facelift of the 1951 body shell. The new V-8 was still not ready, so the old flathead straight eight got one last airing. For the senior cars, it was bored out to 359 cu. in. (5,880 cc) and fitted with an aluminum head and 8.7:1 compression ratio, giving it 212 hp (158 kW). That was competitive with the OHV V-8s of most rivals, but the lack of a V-8 was becoming a serious sales obstacle.
Further hampering the 1954 cars was the weakness of Packard’s dealer network. By May of 1954, Packard was down to about 1,200 dealers, a sharp decline from about 1,700 in early 1953. Each dealer was also ordering fewer cars, particularly since there were still large stocks of unsold 1953 Packards. Rather than lay off large numbers of workers, Ray Powers put production on an on-again, off-again schedule early in 1954, anticipating the customary spring sales boom. The boom did not materialize and the erratic schedule drove up costs.
Packard’s competition had shifted as well. In 1952, Cadillac dropped its entry-level Series 61, meaning that its cheapest model was now in the same price bracket as Packard’s most expensive. The move initially cost Cadillac about 20,000 sales, but it recovered quickly and by 1955 was selling more than 140,000 units a year. Packard, meanwhile, had rolled out a stripped-down base Clipper in an attempt to bridge the price gap between Clipper and Buick. Nance had reluctantly accepted that Buick, Lincoln, and Chrysler were more realistic short-term targets than Cadillac was, at least until Packard was able to introduce an all-new senior car. Packard and Cadillac were moving in opposite directions.
The mid-priced market was tougher, too. Aside from the ongoing impact of the price war, both Buick and Oldsmobile were all new for 1954, while Packard’s Clipper was an obvious facelift of a three-year-old design. The entry-level Buick Special now had a V-8 and even the basic Special series included trendy pillarless hardtops, which Packard offered only in the pricier Clipper Super series. Packard’s sales for the 1954 model year dropped to around 31,000, lower than Nance’s worst fears.
By January 1954, the Packard board believed that merger was the only way to avoid eventual bankruptcy. (Hudson had come to same conclusion; on January 14, they merged with Nash to form AMC.) In March, Packard began formal negotiations with Studebaker, brokered by Lehman Brothers of New York.
The decision to court Studebaker rather than Nash is another often-criticized decision. It appears that it was primarily the board’s decision, not Nance’s. When the Packard board did finally allow Walter Grant to present George Mason’s merger proposal in April 1954, they declined to vote on it. The Packard board felt that Studebaker’s product line better complemented Packard’s, and were enticed by Studebaker’s larger dealer network and traditionally higher sales volume. However, Studebaker’s financial problems were deeper than even Studebaker realized. While Jim Nance had recognized early on that the market was in trouble, Studebaker’s Paul Hoffman and Harold Vance were slow to realize their peril, steadfastly maintaining that sales would return to normal in 1954. In the spring of 1954, while negotiations were still ongoing, Grant estimated that Studebaker’s losses for the year would be nearly $39 million before taxes, $24 million after.
Nonetheless, both companies were desperate enough to overlook many things. The Packard board was so impressed with Lehman Brothers’ rosy projections of the merger’s potential financial benefits — including operations and tooling cost savings of $15.6 million a year and much-improved profit potential — that Packard did not even request an independent audit of Studebaker’s books.
Nance remained interested in AMC, with tenuous plans to combine Studebaker and Packard with Nash and Hudson. Although the Packard board had essentially rebuffed him, Mason had left the door open to further discussion. The obstacle, at least as far as Nance was concerned, was George Romney. Romney was seven years younger than Nance, but just as bright and every bit as ambitious. The AMC merger had made Romney an executive vice president, which meant that he and Nance would be direct rivals in any future alliance. Nance reportedly had little respect for Romney, whose initial role at Nash had been to shadow Mason as a sort of catchall executive assistant; Nance’s interactions with Romney were frequently tense. (We’re not sure if Nance was aware that Romney had previously been a strong candidate for the presidency of Packard, which would probably have contributed to his hostility.)
Romney, for his part, felt that by leasing the Conner Avenue plant, Nance had reneged on the reciprocal agreement, even though Nash still had a contract to buy Packard engines. Our sources are ambiguous on how formal the reciprocal agreement was, but in any event, Romney took it as a sign of bad faith. The death of George Mason in October ended what little chance there was for detente between Nance and Romney and any real prospect of a Studebaker-Packard/AMC merger.
Negotiations for the Studebaker merger dragged on throughout the summer, but both boards approved the deal by September. On October 1, 1954, the two companies became the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. Paul Hoffman became chairman of the new board of directors while Harold Vance became head of the executive committee. Jim Nance was named president. For better or worse, the merged company was now his responsibility.
PACKARD GOES FROM BAD TO WORSE
The fall of 1954 was extremely difficult for Packard. The cost savings that Lehman Brothers had estimated for the merger assumed a complete integration of the two companies, including shared parts and tooling — something that would take years even in a best-case scenario.
Worse, those projected savings were based on hopelessly unrealistic assumptions about the two companies’ production volume and costs. At the time of the merger, Studebaker’s proxy statement had claimed a break-even point of a little under 166,000 units. Nance quickly became suspicious of that figure and in mid-October dispatched Walter Grant to investigate. Grant studied the South Bend plant for two weeks and returned to Detroit with the alarming conclusion that Studebaker’s actual break-even point was more than 286,000 units. Combined with Packard’s own 80,000-unit break-even level, Studebaker-Packard would have to sell nearly 370,000 units to show a profit in 1955. Nance was understandably horrified.
At the same time, the transfer of Packard assembly to the Conner Avenue plant, which had begun in September, was turning out to be far more expensive and protracted than expected. Production of the 1955 models did not begin until November 17, weeks after the normal start of the model year, and cars did not reach dealers in significant numbers until well into February. Early production quality was appalling: Cars came off the line with doors that wouldn’t open or other serious problems. Some dealers accepted incomplete cars, hoping to finish assembly themselves, but that led to severe parts shortages. The quality problems weren’t addressed to anyone’s satisfaction until June 1955, and it cost the company more than $80 per car just to get the early cars into salable condition. Packard’s 1955 warranty costs were more than double those of 1954.
Those delays were particularly unfortunate because Packard’s hard-pressed dealers finally had a really competitive product with a new engine, a new transmission, and a remarkable new suspension.
TORSION-LEVEL RIDE AND THE 1955 PACKARDS
Packard’s new suspension was the work of Hudson engineer William D. Allison, who had begun work on an interconnected suspension — with the springs of the front wheels connected to those of the rear — back in 1941. He continued working on it after the war, believing that it would provide an unusually good combination of ride and handling. Ordinarily, Allison’s invention would have belonged to Hudson, but while his employers thought the design promising, they decided that developing it would cost more than Hudson could afford. Rather than shelve the design, Hudson took the unusual step of releasing the rights to Allison and allowing him to shop his design elsewhere.
Allison pitched his concept to various automakers, including Studebaker, but found no takers until he presented it to Jim Graves and Forest McFarland at Packard in 1951. They were intrigued and signed a preliminary deal for Allison to develop his concept for production, giving him a Packard sedan to use as a test mule. Hudson magnanimously granted Allison a leave of absence to pursue the project, which had very promising results. A series of pre-production test cars followed and in early 1954, Jim Nance approved the design for the 1955 model year. The marketing department dubbed the suspension “Torsion-Level.”
Torsion-Level used a more or less conventional double wishbone independent front suspension with a front anti-roll bar and a live rear axle that transmitted acceleration and braking forces via trailing arms; a pair of short lateral stabilizing links provided lateral axle location. Where the suspension departed from convention was in its use of interconnected torsion bar springs. Unlike Chrysler’s later “Torsionaire” suspension, Packard’s torsion bars did not act against the body or the frame. Instead, the main springs were connected at one end to the lower front wishbones and at the other to the rear trailing arms. A second, shorter set of torsion bars ran parallel to the main springs, connected at one end to the rear trailing arms (and sharing the same pivot axis as the main springs) and at the other to a frame-mounted electric compensator motor.
Interconnecting the front and rear suspension in this way meant that a bump affecting the front wheels was transmitted to the rear axle and vice versa. This provided the sort of wafty ride quality normally associated with very softly sprung conventional suspensions without the accompanying sacrifice of body control. Even by the standards of the mid-fifties, no Packard could really be called nimble, but Torsion-Level cars handled with surprising composure that belied their curiously disconnected ride motions.
Torsion-Level’s other signature feature was automatic level control, the “Load Levelizer.” If you loaded an anvil into the trunk, for example, the electric motor would kick in and crank the compensator springs to bring the car’s tail back up to normal ride height. This was not simply a convenience feature; the level control system was the only thing that gave Torsion-Level a consistent equilibrium. (Like any conventional suspension, the torsion bars were preloaded to provide a preset static ride height, but unlike conventional springs, that spring loading could be balanced at a variety of peculiar angles or attitudes, not just straight and level.) The motor cut out automatically if the brakes were engaged and incorporated a 7-second delay to keep the system from overreacting to bumpy pavement and a cut-off switch was provided under the dash so that the compensator would not drain the battery with the engine off.
Torsion-Level was initially offered only on senior models and Clipper Supers, but public enthusiasm eventually led Packard to offer it across the line. It was fairly expensive, at $150, but it had definite showroom appeal. The automotive press loved it, too, with some critics declaring the Torsion-Level Packards the best-handling domestic cars of the year. That was an exaggeration, but Torsion-Level gave Packard much better handling than Buick or Cadillac without the ride harshness of the Chrysler 300.
Torsion-Level was reasonably reliable for a complex new product, although the electric motor and its network of switches could act up and the control box could be damaged by road debris or corroded by salt. Nevertheless, Torsion-Level was less troublesome than Citroën’s early hydropneumatic system or GM’s late-fifties air suspensions.
The same could not be said for the new Twin Ultramatic transmission, which quickly developed an unfortunate reputation. A complete revamp of the 1949-vintage Ultramatic, built in Utica along with the new V-8, the new transmission now provided dual drive ranges, one of which started in low and shifted automatically to high rather than depending solely on torque converter multiplication. (The first-generation unit’s novel lockup torque converter was retained.) Unfortunately, the Twin Ultramatic’s torque capacity was sorely tested by the new V-8, so aggressive driving was a prescription for trouble. Technicians’ unfamiliarity with the redesigned transmission didn’t help.
The long-awaited Packard V-8 was not nearly as groundbreaking as Torsion-Level, but it finally gave Packard parity with its rivals, welcome news for beleaguered dealers. Packard also sold some of the new engines to AMC, which had agreed to underwrite part of the development costs.
Topping off these technical innovations was a new look, courtesy of the ever-inventive Dick Teague, who was now director of styling. The revised styling looked different enough from the ’54s to at least partly disguise the carryover body shell. If the 1955 Packards were not a timeless design, they at least looked and felt relatively fresh.
We use the plural advisedly because Nance was still trying desperately to establish the Clipper as a separate entity, despite the fact that Packard still lacked the money to really differentiate it from the senior cars. The main distinction was that the senior Packards had a 5-inch (127 mm) longer wheelbase and bigger engines than the junior models. Seriously challenging Cadillac would have to wait.
The 1955 line was Packard’s best (and possibly last) hope of reasserting itself in the marketplace. Unfortunately, it would not be enough.
PACKARD’S SUMMER OF DISCONTENT
Demand for Packard’s 1955 cars was initially very strong, which made the early production delays that much more frustrating. Packard actually made a profit in March, but it didn’t last. By summer, dealers were reducing their orders, anticipating factory rebates for the end of the model year. To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve Board had raised the discount rate, alarmed at the recent explosion in long-term auto loans. Packard sold more than 55,000 cars for the 1955 model year — quite good considering the production problems — but Nance had to delay the launch of the 1956 models by over a month to clear unsold stocks of 1955 Packards.
Despite brutal headcount reductions in both Detroit and South Bend, Studebaker-Packard was still bleeding money. Breaking Raymond Loewy’s consulting agreement for Studebaker styling cost $3 million and S-P had to repay the Defense Department $8 million on its military contracts. A facelift of the Studebaker line for the 1956 model year consumed $15 million. In September, George Romney informed Packard that AMC would stop buying Packard engines and transmissions in September 1956, costing Studebaker-Packard an additional $3.3 million in lost revenue.
The economies of scale that Studebaker and Packard had hoped to achieve through the merger were nowhere in sight. The two divisions still had parallel staffs, often without a clear chain of command, and plans for sharing tooling between Studebaker, Clipper, and Packard were still out of reach. Even Nance’s plan to combine Studebaker and Packard franchises was off to a rocky start. The process was so cumbersome that only a handful of dealers completed it.
By the end of the year, Nance had to tap $9.9 million of the company’s $25 million revolving credit line just to pay for continued operations. Studebaker-Packard still had $50 million in operating capital, but they couldn’t touch most of it without violating the terms of the credit agreement. S-P posted a harrowing $29.7 million loss for the year.
Despite those setbacks, Nance still held out hopes for all-new 1957 models. In January 1956, he met with the Prudential and Metropolitan insurance companies, Studebaker-Packard’s primary creditors, to request a $50 million loan for new models and ongoing operations. That was about half what S-P actually needed, but Nance thought it was the best they could do. He was wrong: The company’s creditors flatly refused to loan Studebaker-Packard another dollar. If Nance couldn’t find another source of funding, the company was doomed.
THE FALL OF EAST GRAND BOULEVARD
Packard’s 1956 models were not greatly changed from 1955 — having just spent $15 million on Studebaker, S-P could not afford a full facelift. Engines were bigger, up to 374 cu. in. (6,132 cc) and 290 hp (216 kW) in senior cars, 310 hp (231 kW) in Caribbeans. The Twin Ultramatic transmission got a significantly lighter aluminum case, improved torque capacity, and optional pushbutton controls. Midway through the year, Torsion-Level became standard across the line. Packard also attempted to register Clipper as a separate marque, although getting the multitude of state motor vehicle department bureaucracies to recognize the change was considerably less straightforward than removing Packard badges from the Clipper line.
There was one more noteworthy technical innovation for 1956: Twin Traction, a limited-slip differential made by Dana’s Spicer division. Twin Traction was at the forefront of an industry trend, but Spicer’s early differentials were not up to spec, leading to a rash of axle failures. Packard had to impound most of its 1956 cars while waiting for Dana to deliver new axles, and even those were fragile. Dealers replaced many with standard units.
By early 1956, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Packard dealers to obtain floor plan financing for new cars, a reflection of the finance industry’s lack of confidence in S-P’s future. Many franchises gave up or went under and those that survived cut back their orders. Packard’s distribution network was clogged with unsold stock and no dealers willing or able to take them.
Both Jim Nance and Paul Hoffman were personal acquaintances of Dwight Eisenhower and in late February, they approached Washington for help, pointing out that the collapse of Studebaker-Packard during an election year would be a political nightmare. Eisenhower discussed this with the cabinet in April and asked Secretary of Defense Charlie Wilson to look for new military contracts to help shore up Studebaker-Packard’s cash flow. At the president’s urging, Wilson also tried to get the Big Three to back a $50 million loan for S-P, arguing that the collapse of a major independent automaker would ultimately be bad for business. Henry Ford II was receptive, but General Motors management was not (somewhat surprising in view of GM’s mortal fear of federal antitrust action), so the loan never materialized.
In the meantime, Nance tried to sell Studebaker-Packard to both Chrysler and Ford, without success. A plan to buy the tooling from the 1956 Lincolns to create an all-new 1957 Packard also failed. The board, increasingly desperate for merger partners with money to spend, had some preliminary flirtations with Royal Little of Textron and then approached Roy Hurley, the president of the aviation company Curtiss-Wright and a former Ford manufacturing executive. Hurley was not particularly sanguine about Studebaker-Packard’s prospects, but he was aware of the maneuvering in Washington and saw Studebaker-Packard as a way to leverage additional defense contracts for Curtiss-Wright.
Hurley steadfastly refused an outright merger, but in May, the S-P board accepted his counter-offer of a management agreement that would give Hurley operational control of Studebaker-Packard in exchange for an infusion of cash. Curtiss-Wright also received warrants to purchase a 45% share of Studebaker-Packard at a fraction of the company’s actual stock price, although Hurley had little interest in exercising those warrants.
Hurley’s first step was to obtain concessions from Studebaker-Packard’s major creditors and help the company secure a $15.3 million loan, the last of its revolving credit line, to cover short-term operating expenses. None of that money came from Curtiss-Wright, but the price Hurley demanded was nonetheless high: all of Studebaker-Packard’s defense business, the Aerophysics Development Corporation (a smaller defense contractor S-P had bought about six months earlier), and whatever new contracts the Defense Department could be persuaded to provide. The combined value of all this eventually amounted to more than $136 million, but Curtiss-Wright offered Studebaker-Packard a mere $12 million, plus an agreement to lease Studebaker’s plant on Chippewa Avenue in South Bend and the Packard’s Utica engine/transmission plant — whose refitting the DoD agreed to underwrite — for an additional $25 million, paid in advance.
Most Studebaker-Packard board members were understandably unhappy about the deal, which was decidedly one-sided, but under the circumstances, they had little choice but to agree to Hurley’s terms. By July, Studebaker-Packard had spun off its defense business into a new wholly owned subsidiary called the Utica Bend Corporation, ownership of which was transferred to Curtiss-Wright on July 25.
The loss of the Utica plant meant the end of Packard’s V-8 and Twin Ultramatic transmission; the Conner Avenue and East Grand Boulevard facilities were next. The assembly line, which had been shut down briefly earlier in the year to clear inventories, was operating well below its break-even point, which Studebaker-Packard could no longer afford. Production of 1956 Packards had ended on June 25 and most of the plant’s 5,000 remaining workers were laid off. The prototype Dick Teague’s staff had built of the abortive 1957 model, known to the designers as “Black Bess,” was cut up for scrap.
Disposing of the factories was not a simple matter. Studebaker-Packard ended up having to buy out their lease on the Conner Avenue plant, which Chrysler didn’t want; the plant was razed about a decade later. There were no buyers for East Grand either, so Hurley tried unsuccessfully to persuade the city of Detroit to tear it down. Its assets were sold for pennies on the dollar and the building itself passed through diverse hands, eventually falling into disrepair and decay.
SOUTH BEND, DOWN, AND OUT
Nance and Hoffman resigned as soon as the agreement with Curtiss-Wright was signed and former Studebaker chief engineer Harold Churchill became president of Studebaker-Packard. Nance remained in Detroit for about a month as an unofficial consultant, focused mostly on helping other ousted executives find new jobs. In October, he accepted a new position as vice president of marketing for Ford. In 1958, he would briefly serve as general manager of the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division, but he was forced to resign that September following a political struggle with Robert McNamara. Nance later left the auto industry and became very successful in banking.
After the closure of the Conner Avenue assembly line, Studebaker-Packard consolidated its remaining production in South Bend. The 1956 Clipper and Packard were dead; the only Studebaker plant that could have accommodated their tooling was Chippewa Avenue, which was now leased by Utica Bend Corp. for military work. At first, there were no plans to continue the Packard marque, but Harold Churchill decided to keep the nameplate alive for a while longer, if only to allow S-P to placate its remaining Packard franchise holders while Hurley and Churchill cleaned house.
In January 1957, Studebaker-Packard unveiled a new Packard Clipper. Created on a shoestring tooling budget of only $1.1 million, the revived Clipper looked like what it was: a Studebaker President festooned with hastily added Packard cues. With awkward looks, high prices, and a near-total lack of credibility, sales amounted to only about 4,800 units.
The “Packardbaker” returned for 1958, now sporting a new roofline and trendy quad headlamps. The line was expanded to include a two-door hardtop and the new Packard Hawk coupe (described in our article on the Studebaker Hawk) as well as the four-door sedan and station wagon. Despite the expanded lineup, a sudden downturn in the economy further eroded what little market there may have been and sales for 1958 fell to fewer than 2,600 cars. The wagon sold only 159 copies.
The Studebaker-Packard board initially planned to stay the course for at least a little while longer; even for cash-strapped Studebaker, the tooling costs were minimal and the board still held out hope that sales would improve. In February 1958, however, Churchill asked the board to cancel the 1959 Packards and reallocate the tooling budget to the new compact Lark, the car he still hoped would save Studebaker. The final Packards rolled off the line in South Bend on July 13, 1958.
There were periodic rumors of a Packard revival well into the sixties, but none came to fruition. After a brief resurgence with the Lark, Studebaker-Packard’s fortunes resumed their decline. The company dropped the “Packard” portion of its name on April 26, 1962, and left the auto business for good in 1966.
In the more than 50 years since Packard’s demise, there have been many analyses of the reasons for its fall, including not a little rancor toward both George Christopher and Jim Nance. Nance, in particular, has received considerable criticism for decisions like the transfer of assembly to Conner Avenue. Our feeling is that he did about as well as anyone could have in his position and if some of his choices didn’t work out as intended, few of them were ill-considered. There were times when he gambled and lost, but it appears he generally understood the odds.
Even without the burden of the Studebaker merger and the chaos of the Conner Avenue consolidation, it would have been difficult for Packard to reclaim its past prestige. Lincoln and Imperial struggled gamely for more than a decade without making much impression on Cadillac buyers and we suspect Packard would have ended up in the same boat. Still, an all-new 1957 Packard Patrician with Torsion-Level and Col. Vincent’s mooted V-12 engine would have been an interesting proposition, especially if it were priced in the realm of Cadillac’s Sixty Special.
Unlike many historians, we don’t think separating Clipper from Packard was a particularly good idea. The reason Cadillac abandoned its LaSalle “companion make” in 1940 was that the same basic car sold better as a Cadillac, commanded higher prices, and earned greater profits. The big Series 75 cars (and even the postwar Sixty Special) were not major factors in Cadillac’s postwar sales success. Similarly, Buick sold a lot more low-end Specials than it did Roadmasters, doing no great harm to either its sales or image; it was No. 3 in U.S. sales through much of the fifties. If Packard had managed to reestablish the senior cars’ image (or hadn’t squandered it in the first place), the similarities between the senior cars and the Clippers would have been an asset, not a weakness.
The tragedy of Packard is that in the last decade of its existence, it did a lot of things right. Whatever his missteps, Jim Nance had a decent sense of where the company needed to be and he worked hard to get there. The 1955 and 1956 models were thoroughly creditable efforts, particularly given what Packard had to work with, and the public reaction to them was heartening. Unfortunately, by then, Packard’s reserves were depleted and circumstances seemed to conspire against it.
Today, the ruins of the old Packard complex still stand on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit. When it was built in the early 1900s, East Grand was the finest factory of its kind in the world; now, it’s a stark reminder of how far even the mightiest can fall.
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 Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor New, 2001), pp. 58-65; William D. Allison, U.S. Patent No. 2,788,982, “Torsional Spring Suspension for Motor Vehicles,” applied 15 August 1952, patented 16 April 1957; David Traver Adolphus, “1958: Altered to Fit: The 1958 Hawk, a Packard that Packard fans love to hate,” Hemmings Classic Car #16 (January 2006), pp. 28–35; “Autos: New Team,” TIME 28 August 1950, www.time. com, accessed 13 March 2010; “Autos: Gas for Packard,” TIME 4 May 1953, www.time. com, accessed 13 March 2010; “Autos: New Team,” TIME 28 August 1950, www.time. com, accessed 13 March 2010; “Autos: Packard Shifts Gears,” TIME 19 May 1952, www.time. com, accessed 13 March 2010; “Body by Briggs: Part II,” Special Interest Autos #19 (November-December 1973), reprinted in Hemmings Classic Car #45 (June 2008), pp. 56-62; Arch Brown, “Another Visit with George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #77 (September-October 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), p. 96; and “Why Studebaker-Packard Never Merged With AMC and other revelations by Governor George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #66 (December 1981), pp. 50-55; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1955-56 Packard Caribbean,” Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998), pp. 254-257; “Business: Rescue Accomplished,” TIME 30 July 1956, www.time. com, accessed 2 May 2010; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Tim Howley, “1951 Packard: John Reinhart’s Master Stroke,” Special Interest Autos #102 (November-December 1987), and “1958 Packard: Fin-Ale for a Proud Name,” Special Interest Autos #142 (July-August 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 76-83 and 96-105; 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); George L. Hamlin, “The Day Pan Am Sued Packard,” Special Interest Autos #51 (May-June 1979), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos Magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), p. 79; George Hamlin and Dwight Heinmuller, “All-New Contour Styling: The Twenty-Fourth and the Twenty-Fifth Series, 1951-1952,” “America’s New Choice in Fine Cars: The Twenty-Sixth and the Fifty-Fourth Series, 1953-1954,” “Let the Ride Decide: The Fifth-Fifth Series, 1955,” “The House Falls: The Fifty-Sixth Series, 1956,” and “The Last of the Marque: The Fifty-Seventh and the Fifty-Eighth Series, 1957-1958,” in Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company (Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Books), Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly Publications (CBS Inc.), 1978; Third Edition); 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; and Richard M. Langworth, “1954 Packard Pacific: Last of the Great Straight Eights,” Special Interest Autos #51 (May-June 1979), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents, pp. 74-81; Michael Lamm, “1956 Packard Patrician,” Special Interest Autos #36 (September-October 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 88-94; James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); and Josiah Work, “Packard’s Handsome Hybrid: 1951 Packard Series 250,” Special Interest Autos #84 (November-December 1984), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards, pp. 66-73.
We also consulted the following period road tests: Bill Callahan, “Packard Packs Pep,” Motorsport June 1951; Walt Woron, “Packard 300: An MT Research Report,” Motor Trend October 1952; Tom McCahill, “MI Tests the ’53 Packard,” Mechanix Illustrated May 1953; Walt Woron, “’54 Packard Clipper,” Motor Trend June 1954; “Testing the 212 HP Packard Patrician,” Science and Mechanics June 1954; Frank Rowsome, Jr., “’55 Packard Glides on Torsion-Bar Suspension,” Popular Science February 1955; “Packard Has V-8 Engine and New Suspension,” Wheels May 1955; John Bolster, “John Bolster Tests the Packrd Clipper with ‘Torsion-Level Ride,'” Autosport 24 June 1955; Tom McCahill, “McCahill Tests the Packard Clipper,” Mechanix Illustrated July 1955; G.M. Lightowler, “Distinguished Company: The Packard Patrician for 1955 is a combination of luxury and high performance,” Car Life August 1955; “The 1956 Packard and 1956 Clipper,” Motor Life December 1955; “Packard Clipper Custom Saloon (The Autocar Road Tests No. 1598),” The Autocar 8 June 1956; Jim Lodge, “Drivescription: ’56 Clipper,” Motor Trend July 1956; Joe H. Wherry, “Packard Clipper Drivescription,” Motor Trend March 1957; and “Packard Road Test…” Motor Life June 1957, all of which are reprinted in Packard Gold Portfolio 1946-1958, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1988).
This article’s title was suggested by the 1854 poem by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson, based on an event during the Crimean War.
- Fall from Grace: The Bathtub Packards and the Decline of America’s Most Prestigious Brand
- Kaisers Never Retrench: The History of Kaiser-Frazer, Part 1
- Kaisers Never Retrench: The History of Kaiser-Frazer, Part 2
- Lark and Super Lark: The Last Days of Studebaker
- Fashionably Small: The Compact Nash Rambler
- Step-Down: The 1948-1954 Hudsons
- The Once and Future Coupe: The Studebaker Hawk
- The People’s Packard: The Packard One-Twenty and How NOT to Build a Brand
- The Unlikely Studebaker: The Birth (and Rebirth) of the Avanti
89 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
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.
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.
Packard no longer had the body dies for the upper-series senior cars, those were ruined in outdoor storage during the war, all they had were the Clipper bodies, which they did make a senior chassis version of. As for the Nash/Hudson merger with Packard, you have your history wrong. Nance was OK being Packard division chief under the plan outlined by George Mason, the CEO of Nash and the man who envisioned the four-way merger of Packard, Hudson, Nash, and Studebaker. The plan was for Nash and Hudson to merge, Packard to buy Stude, and then the two corporations to become one. One problem: George Mason died after merging Nash and Hudson, and the new guy at AMC, George Romney wanted nothing to do with Studebaker-Packard. The animus between Nance and Romney was there, but Romney didn’t see the business case for taking S-P on.
Yes, Nance was fine with the idea of being division head under Mason, but Mason was also more than a decade older than Nance, so Nance would still have been in a position to eventually run the whole show. He and Romney were very close in age, so for both of them, the other running the corporation would have made it unlikely that the other would ever get to unless one of them suffered some kind of illness or injury or, as Romney eventually did, left to go into politics or some other field. It’s not uncommon for senior executives to leave if they get passed over in that kind of circumstance. That was why Bunkie Knudsen went to Ford in the late sixties; he had seemed to stand a pretty good chance at the presidency, but it went to Ed Cole, who was close enough in age that Knudsen was not going to get to be president before GM’s mandatory retirement age.
Deciphering the motives of executives, especially ones who are all deceased, always involves a certain amount of speculation, but in this case, I don’t know how easily one can really separate Romney’s assessment of the business case from his personal ambitions at that time or his friction with Nance. Romney had been Mason’s right hand and saw all the same plans and estimates Mason did. If Romney had found them wanting, he could have said so (which Mason would probably have considered) or, if he thought the company was going in a direction that didn’t make sense, simply left; he wouldn’t have wanted for other opportunities if it had come to that.
That said, I would certainly agree that the business case for a Nash-Hudson-Studebaker-Packard merger had a lot of problems, particularly given Packard’s assessment of the actual state of Studebaker’s costs and the logistical problems involved (as there were with the Studebaker-Packard merger itself) given the geographic dispersal of the companies’ respective factories. It might have worked better in the late forties, when the players all had more cash, but they also had less incentive then, as Mason had found. Still, if Packard or Studebaker-Packard had been under the leadership of someone like Hugh Ferry (who hadn’t wanted to be in charge in the first place and was more than happy to hand over the reins), I have to wonder if Romney would have decided there was still something to be done with it.
You can disagree, of course, but in this case, I’m not going to call a difference of interpretation an error.
As for the old tooling, there are several different stories about its fate, including the old and by now mostly debunked story about it going to the Soviets. Nonetheless, hindsight suggests that Packard would have been better off bringing the Clipper tooling back in house at the end of the war. Continuing to use Briggs was expedient, but, as eventually happened, it left Packard vulnerable. That was essentially Nance’s take, but by the time that became clear, Packard no longer had the money it would have entailed.
I have friends who met Romney in the late 1980s at separate events. Romney was still very much with it, and these two individuals, being Packard owners and fans asked him separately about why he didn’t honor Mason’s plan. His answer was the same each time, that he didn’t see the business sense in taking on S-P, and “that was George’s (Mason)idea, not mine”. They didn’t get into asking directly about personality skirmishes with Nance, that is all pretty well known. I know the woman who was one of Nance’s secretaries, she confirmed that Nance was willing to wait out Mason until he retired, then become CEO of the new “American Motors”. I have wondered whether the parties involved could have managed an enterprise that large, and could they have combined engineering practices to achieve the economy of scale that the big three were already well versed in. Nance had S-P to himself, and didn’t really make many changes at Studebaker, and basically maintained two of everything–administration, sales, engineering, accounting. He would have needed someone with far more large industry management moxie than he possessed.
I don’t disagree with that assessment, really. As I said yesterday and as the text notes, there were a lot of logistical and organizational obstacles to unifying Studebaker-Packard that would have been compounded with a three- or four-way merger. Even while Mason was still alive, he and Nance ran into that problem in exploring the idea of whether Nash could produce stampings for Packard — the geography was really inconvenient. As for Studebaker, it was not that Nance wanted there to be two separate organizations, but that integration was going to be a cumbersome and costly process that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Studebaker-Packard to afford.
I get feeling that many of the people involved on all sides got so invested in how great it would be to have this integrated multi-divisional entity that there wasn’t enough thought given to what would have to happen to make that a reality. For instance, if they were to set up a shared-body program à la GM, where were they going to do the stampings? Where were the stampings going to be assembled? Who was going to make the engines and where? Those were not straightforward questions, least of all for simple geographical reasons.
Obviously, as things actually transpired, Romney’s ideas evolved in a very different direction from Mason’s, most particularly in the later decision to abandon both Nash and Hudson to consolidate around Rambler. That turned out to be the right choice in the circumstances, but it’s interesting to speculate whether Romney would have still gone that way if Mason had been successful in negotiating a four-way merger and Romney had ended up as its CEO. As head of AMC in the mid-fifties, his options were a little more straightforward: Hudson was dying, and of Nash’s product lines, Rambler looked like the more viable, particularly once most of its domestic rivals (Hudson Jet, Henry J, Aero-Willys) had expired. With a four-way merger and essentially five product lines (Studebaker, Hudson, Rambler, Nash, and Packard/Clipper), that would have been a more complicated decision and it’s hard to know (and probably would have been hard for even Romney himself to have known) how he would have gone.
I will say for the record that I do think Romney made the right choice. I’ve said elsewhere that I think Kaiser-Frazer’s big mistake was in attempting to go head to head with the Big Three on mainstream mid-price cars rather than finding a unique, sustainable niche (which they ended up getting with Willys and Jeep), so I have serious doubts that a four- or five-division AMC could have survived. I think Hudson and the big Nashes would have ended up tripping all over each other as DeSoto and Dodge did and trying to make Studebaker seriously competitive with Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth would have entailed a big investment in plant and product overhaul that I doubt AMC could have afforded. A Packard-Rambler pairing (akin to Chrysler-Plymouth) wouldn’t have been a totally ludicrous idea, but that wouldn’t have provided much in the way of economies of scale for either.
I think Romney did and did not make a major mistake. He relegated Nash to niche-player status, which did ultimately doom it. Any Hudson fan would consider it unforgiveable that he killed the brand and the car. But given the situation as it existed, he must be credited for being a realist. As for Nance, perhaps his greatest sin in the end was in not having the 1957 Clipper as it existed–the big Studebaker with Packard styling cues and the big V-8–on the market by 1956, or maybe 1955. This would have given Packard a real shot at restoring its lost luxury car luster, as it would no longer have been possible to buy something at a major discount that would fool the neighbors into thinking you paid a senior Packard price.
I think Chrysler missed a real bet in refusing to merge in the mid-1950s. Applying ‘Black Bess’ styling cues to the 1957 Imperial and placing it on the Packard chassis would have created a real force in the luxury car market, one that the Imperial could never be, considering that people had been reflexively calling them ‘Chrysler Imperials’ for thirty years, and (hindsight is 20/20) would never stop. There’s also a lot to be said for Chrysler absorbing Studebaker and dropping Plymouth. Plymouth never could differentiate itself from Dodge anyway; better to have the more popular name, and sell a cheaper car with coil springs and less technical sophistication.
But what I don’t understand is why Nash merged with Hudson and left Packard to merge with Studebaker. Yes, Packard-Clipper-Studebaker promised the possibility of a full-range carmaker in the event the final merger didn’t happen, but the plan was for the full four-way merger to happen. And in the full, four-way merger, Packard and Hudson were the natural partners, and Nash and Studebaker were the other natural pairing.
Packard had wheelbases of 127″ and 124″, while Hudson’s main wheelbase was also 124″, so naturally those two would share bodies. Hudson needed an in-house automatic transmission that could handle big-car torque, and Packard had it. Packard needed unitary construction techniques for big, roomy bodies, and Hudson had that. And they were both in Detroit. Meanwhile, Nash’s wheelbases were 114 3/4″ and 118 3/4″, which were a little too short for the market, and Studebaker had two wheelbases, each exactly 1 1/2″ longer than Nash. Nash had a problem with dumpy styling, no in-house automatic, and no V-8, all of which Studebaker could fix, and Stude was desperately in need of quality control, sane labor relations, unitary body construction and twentieth century suspension and steering gear, all of which Nash was in the perfect position to provide. And South Bend and Kenosha are not physically that far apart.
Naturally there would have been overlap between the big cars and the smaller cars. But in terms of what each company needed right at that moment, Nash and Studebaker had much more to offer each other, and Hudson and Packard would have been the most natural allies in the world. I really don’t understand why the initial pair of preparatory mergers ran so counter to logic. Nash and Hudson had very much the same strengths–unibody, strong sixes–very much the same weaknesses–no automatic, old hat styling–and were close enough in price to step on each others’ toes. And Packard and Studebaker not only had similar strengths and weaknesses, they were so far apart in size, required engine sizes, and etc., as to be on different planets. They had nothing to offer each other, and anything new would have had to be engineered twice–once for big cars and again for smaller cars.
Imagine how much benefit Hudson would have derived from unitizing Clipper’s body, and gaining the big V-8 and Ultramatic. Imagine how much benefit Nash would have gotten from lowering the beltline on its finely-engineered bodies enough for Studebaker to share them. But perhaps most of all, imagine taking an early Rambler, channeling a few inches out of the cowl height, removing the back seat, and placing a four-fifths scale model of the Loewy Starlight Coupe on–and introducing it at the same time the Thunderbird came out. With the T-Bird on one side, in steel, and a Rambler-sized, two-seat mini-Starlight Coupe on the other, also in steel, we might today be saying to ourselves, ‘Remember the Corvette? That didn’t last long…’
The four-way merger was only “the plan” in the minds of George Mason and, at least for a time, Romney and Nance, who presumably expected to inherit the kingdom upon Mason’s retirement or (as it turned out) death. It was not a plan approved by the boards of the respective companies, so it’s perhaps better described as an ambition than a plan. The Packard board was disinterested in Nash and thought Hudson was too close to death, although ironically, the Studebaker merger presented many of the same problems the board had (correctly) noted about the others.
As for the rest, I have to say I don’t put a lot of stock in the various counterfactuals about merging the American independents. For one, they all seem to ignore the most pressing issue: effectively sharing platforms and tooling rather than just components would have required a huge capital investment in plant redesign and retooling. None of the companies involved had the money for that — why do you think they kept rehashing their existing body shells? Consolidating production, which could ultimately have saved a lot of money, was an even bigger problem because of the geographic dispersal of the companies and the fact that none of them had a modern factory space that was really suited to the task without a major revamp. (Even the pitch for the Studebaker merger glossed over this point.) Again, nobody involved had anything approaching that amount of money nor any way of getting it. Without that, the rest is pretty much wishful thinking.
I don’t think Chrysler missed much of anything. Studebaker’s unit costs were much higher than Plymouth’s and Studebaker-Packard had all kinds of financial problems that Chrysler would have had to absorb and then fix at its own expense. It wouldn’t have bought them much of anything but trouble. If they’d wanted Torsion-Level, they could simply have licensed it, which would have been a lot less headache.
I also can’t see that introducing a Studebaker-based Clipper in 1955 or 1956 would have bought Studebaker-Packard anything. I remain unconvinced that trying to establish Clipper as a separate marque was worthwhile in the first place. Look at it this way: By the mid-fifties, mid-market cars, which is what Nance wanted Clipper to be, depended very much on image — by 1955, there really wasn’t much you couldn’t get on cheaper models in any practical sense. However, Packard’s image was really on the skids by the early ’50s. Clipper, which had always been a subset of Packard, therefore had even less prestige. If buyers weren’t that interested in Clippers wearing the Packard badge and carrying whatever cachet Packard still had, who was going to be interested in a Clipper that didn’t have even that? Or one obviously based on the 1953 Studebaker shell, a car buyers in 1955–56 weren’t exactly clamoring to get either, even at a lower price? Looking at the contemporary example of Buick, or even Packard’s own past history with the 120 and the Packard Six, Packard would have been better off building up the prestige position of its senior models WITHOUT separating the Clipper as a marque.
As for Nash and Hudson, Romney didn’t “doom” them — he looked at the market and concluded that AMC didn’t have the resources to make and keep them competitive with their half-dozen mid-price rivals, but they could make it by focusing on Rambler, which (especially after Kaiser and Willys bowed out) then had the compact market mostly to itself. It wasn’t a matter of neglect, it was a conscious decision to which the board specifically agreed.
You do make excellent points. We are certainly looking at the thing from different points of view, though. You are looking at the thing from the point of view of making Clipper popular, while I am looking for the possibility of restoring Packard’s viability in the profitable top market segment. Indeed, since Clipper was somewhat made from whole cloth, and therefore had no brand recognition, I see a major advantage in dropping it altogether to make room for Hudson, allowing it to update from the excellent but dated ‘Step-Down’ bodies by offering a facelift of the Clipper body instead. I think Hudson’s strengths and customer base, and a facelift to make that body look sufficiently different from Packard (something I think they could have just afforded, given the facelifts they did manage to pull off) would have put them both in a stronger position going into 1957.
As for Studebaker, Nash was in a much better position to do something with it. Even so, its weaknesses were indeed legion. Perhaps even Chrysler could not have saved it. But somehow they did manage to last quite a while, and produce some appealing cars along the way.
As for Studebaker-Packard adapting Clipper to the Studebaker body, again, it would have allowed Packard a measure of exclusivity. As for Clipper, it’s true that it would not have given it any hope of Packard’s panache rubbing off on it. But Clippers were pricier than Buicks; to put the Packard driveline in a Stude President would have produced a real bomb for the period which could have been sold at Pontiac/Dodge prices. There is something to be said for that.
Thank you for the insights into the thought processes and the internal struggles going on. Clearly everyone was not on the same page. There does not seem to have been someone as brilliant and clear-headed as, say, Alfred P. Sloan anywhere in any of these organizations. More’s the pity.
I’m not sure what separating Clipper would have done to improve the position of Packard. A divorce in name only (continuing to sell Clippers in Packard dealers, just without Packard badges) was barely even noticeable to buyers. A more formal separation, with different dealerships, would have done existing Packard dealers considerable harm, robbing them of their highest-volume product without replacing it with anything. (And, in your scenario, handing it over to Hudson dealers!) That’s the sort of move that has dealers calling their lawyers about grounds for a lawsuit. And for what? Selling fewer of something doesn’t automatically make it more exclusive or more desirable — sometimes the reverse.
Nostalgia also makes it easy to lose sight of how dire Hudson’s position was in 1953, particularly from the viewpoint of the Packard board. The principal reason the Packard board wanted a merger with anyone was the hopes of increasing volume to help shore up their cash flow. Hudson’s sales in 1952 were barely better than Packard’s, 1953 sales were actually lower, and Hudson lost a huge pile of money for its 1953 fiscal year. Hudson had bet heavily on the Jet increasing its volume, but when the Jet came out that fall, it got off to a really rocky start and never recovered. Even if Hudson’s overall volume had looked sustainable (which was not the general impression), it wouldn’t have bought Packard anything except more problems to sort out.
Also, the real-world experience of Studebaker and Packard in this period makes it clear that it was a mistake to underestimate the public’s ability to recognize a made-over body shell. Both brands gave it a good shot, given how little they had to work with, but you sell how well it worked, even with the addition of some interesting new features here and there. It’s hard to see additional badge shuffling doing much to change that, certainly not the the degree necessary to underwrite all-new body shells.
I would say the importance of vision in this mess has been entirely oversold. The Packard board had a surfeit of vision — of how well they could do after integrating production with Studebaker and rolling out all-new models with new shells in three different sizes — that wasn’t matched by sufficient attention to niggling material realities, like “How, exactly, are we going to pay for that?” Had they been clear-eyed enough to demand an independent audit of Studebaker, they might not have even merged with Studebaker, much less anyone else.
The disconnect in a lot of AMC-related counterfactuals is that they tend to be driven more by affection for a particular brand than a real consideration of the market and what would sell — “How could they have saved Hudson?” rather than “What would have made Hudson something consumers wanted to buy in that era?” and the realities of accomplishing that. None of these companies could go head to head with GM and Ford on cost or price, and trying to convince prestige-minded buyers to try something new is a challenge even in the best of conditions. To some extent, I think Packard (more than Studebaker and certainly more than Hudson) was on the right track, but without a new rather than made-over body, they weren’t going to make it much farther in any case.
I have no love for the Clipper marque at all. It was Nance’s idea to try to create the Big Four without incorporating Hudson, or Nash, or evenKaiser, or any other existing medium priced marque.
I see what Nance was trying to do. What I don’t see is why he treated Clipper and Studebaker as though they were on different planets. Clipper needed to cost less, and needed more profit margin, if it was to amount to anything at all. Would it have amounted to anything if it had those advantages? Perhaps not. But given what Nance was trying to accomplish, and given how much Studebaker-Clipper interchangeability was envisioned for 1957, a 1956 Studeclipper seems like a very logical move to me.
Nance seems to have had precious little regard for Studebaker, as though its problems were so overwhelming that he developed a mental block towards it. The Clipper Division was his one chance to develop a little “synergy” within that company, but it never even offered the smaller, lighter, cheaper Studebaker V-8.
I don’t want to seem like I’m defending Nance, since I think some of his judgment in this area was wrong, but I feel like it’s important to recognize that a lot of Studebaker-Packard’s decisions in this regard were not a matter of lack of vision or talent, but rather an abject lack of capital. The corporation was not in a position to address the various logistical hurdles involved in combining production. Nance sought money to do that — the plan he pitched to investors involved something more in line with what you’re proposing, with three all-new shared body shells (one for junior Studebakers, one for senior Studebakers and Clippers, one for Packards) — but he found no takers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, a V-12 would certainly have been advantageous in one respect. One of many major problems with the Stude-Packard merger is the complete lack of compatibility. Improvements to the large cars could seldom be applied to the small cars, and vice versa. They covered the market from top to bottom, but saved practically nothing in development costs.
Studebaker had a V-8, but its six was small and hopelessly outdated. It was fast becoming a liability to the driver in modern traffic, and was certainly a liability to sales. If Packard had developed a modern, overhead valve V-12 in lieu of the V-8, it not only would have been something more than than a long-overdue ‘Me Too!’ move on the fine car field (a step up from Cadillac, rather than a mere attempt at achieving parity), but one heads and the pistons could have been used in a new six for the Studebaker Champion. Sizing would have worked out reasonably well–about 200 cubes for the cheap car and about 400 for the expensive ones. Clipper, meanwhile, could have used the Stude V-8.
The thing that bothers me about the S-P merger is how little good it did either company. Studebaker got no technology to improve their products at all except the Golden Hawk V-8, which made it fast, but nose-heavy. It also got enough cash to sort of survive, but that was it. Packard got nothing but an albatross about its neck.
The irony is that the pitch that got the Studebaker and Packard boards to buy into the merger idea involved a great deal of interdivisional commonality: shared body shells and minor components, etc. As I’ve said before, the dilemma was that there was no map for getting there. Studebakers and Packards were built in different cities, after all, so merging production without simply slapping one badge on the other product was going to be a major undertaking involving a good deal of capital investment. When Nance went looking for that money post-merger, potential investors were none too eager to underwrite that cost.
To be clear, the V-12 Packard contemplated was not in lieu of the V-8, but a derivative of it: a 90° OHV engine that was more or less one and a half V-8s with a new crank. I think that would have been a more reasonable approach than creating only a clean-sheet Twin Six engine. It’s hard to see a Packard line offering only a V-12 being a good commercial bet; having one to step up to was an interesting idea, but in the mid-fifties, a V-8 was expected, and not offering one at all (even to propose something better) would have been unduly risky.
I remain of a mind that Packard would ultimately have been the more salvageable of the two (or three) brands: Their break-even point was more achievable, they had some novel technology to push, and they had a name that people still knew even if it had fallen behind. What they really needed was a new rather than warmed-over body shell and a new marketing campaign, which seems like a much less improbable feat of capital than trying to build a multi-division conglomerate aiming for half a million sales a year.
One minor point regarding the Golden Hawk is that I subsequently read an interesting article by Frank Ambrogio in Turning Wheels (June 2005) about the weight distribution issue. He argues, fairly convincingly, that the complaints about the Packard powertrain making the Golden Hawk nose-heavy are greatly exaggerated based on off-the-cuff remarks by contemporary testers. The Packard V-8 was indeed somewhat heavier than the Studebaker engine — not surprising insofar as it was a physically larger engine with considerably greater growth potential — but not nearly so much as you’d think.
Since writers and readers of later eras are accustomed to the much lighter thinwall engines of the sixties and seventies, it’s easy to assume that the big Packard engine was 150 lb or 200 lb heavier than the Studebaker 259/289. In fact, the difference was around 75 lb, and adding the McCulloch supercharger kit to the Studebaker engine makes it more like 30 lb. The Studebaker engine was not a thinwall casting, so the 289 weighs something in the realm of 680 lb, nearly 200 lb heavier than the later Ford Windsor V-8 of the same displacement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Had another thought based on the discussion we’ve been having at this link:
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.
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.)
[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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
[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.
[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.
“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.
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.
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.
You’re right — I’ve amended the caption.
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.
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.
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.
MY TAKE ON THE PACKARD DILEMMA AS FOLLOWS:–1]THE MODERN OHV V8 WAS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL–THE V12 -A FURTHER WASTE OF MONEY//–DID NOTHING FOR JAGUAR// 2]THE UNIQUE TORSION BAR SELF LEVELLING SUSPENSION WAS AN OUTRIGHT WINNER 3]TO A LESSER EXTENT THE’TWIN TRACTION’LIMITED SLIP REAR AXLE WAS ANOTHER FIRST FOR PACKARD 4] THE NEW GEN ULTRA-MATIC NEEDED ANOTHER 100 HOURS OF DEVELOPMENT 5]USE STUDEBAKERS BEST ASSET–THE LEGENDARY STYLIST ROBERT BURKE TO TAKE OVER THE STYLING DEPARTMENT-EVEN IT MEANT BRINGING ALONG RAYMOND LOEWY TO ADD SOME EUROPEAN ‘FLAIR’ TO THE STUDIO–COULD YOU IMAGINE WHAT THE ‘PANTHER’WOULD LOOK LIKE WITH THE ‘BURKE’TREATMENT WITHOUT BORROWING ANYTHING FROM THE STUDEBAKER HAWKS//
This article (and the one preceding it) are very interesting reads.
Both my grandparents and my father were Chrysler employees, as I am currently. I read this article through Mopar-centric eyes, but the family history begins with my maternal grandfather building both Plymouth and Packard bodies for Briggs after he returned from WWII. (He became a Chrysler employee through acquisition.) He told me a lot of stories about Packard; including bringing home seat material that my grandmother turned into clothing. Even the rank and file it seems considered Nance’s decision to build cars at Conner “crazy”. There were areas in the plant were the cars simply couldn’t be driven because the distance between support columns was too small. Sometimes they were driven. And damaged.
Thus allow me to propose alternate histories, beginning in late 1950.
Joint Venture: Packard needs a V8 and Chrysler needs an automatic transmission. Even at the time, Chrysler promotes the Hemispherical cylinder head as the key feature separating their 180 HP 331 V8 from Cadillac’s 160 HP 331 V8. Thus they agree to sell Packard short-block assemblies with Packard adding their own conventional wedge heads. Nothing mechanical would prevent this. Chrysler retains the marketing advantage and Packard “saves face” with a twist on the basic architecture; perhaps a bore change, cam differences or multiple carbs. Chrysler continues its Fluid-Drive branding by labeling Packard’s transmission “Fluid-Matic”.
Merger and/or purchase by Chrysler: Begins as described above, but continues with a shared metal forming operations purchased from Briggs. After a transition period, Conner does nothing but stamp and ship metal to a new Packard body shop within their Grand Boulevard factory, and to Chrysler’s new Lynch Road Plymouth body shop. All of which (except a new Packard body shop) occurs anyway. Chrysler no longer has to try moving Imperial upmarket in 1955 because it has a prestige make. Packard gains a much larger dealer network and achieves economies of scale on commodities items. The inefficiencies of the Grand Boulevard plant aren’t a pressing concern because the Packard (brand) no longer needs volume.
Pros: K.T. Keller and George T. Christopher are both “manufacturing men” from GM with a conservative bent. Pre-1955 Chrysler and Pre-1953 Packard are considered producers of technically superior (if unexciting) automobiles; there probably wouldn’t be a culture clash. It’s easy to imagine many garages in the US where the husband drives a Packard, the wife has a Chrysler and the maid uses a Plymouth wagon. Both companies eventually move to torsion bar suspensions. Both companies are defense contractors. Both companies need all-new lines by 1958… Perhaps this prevents the ’57 Mopars from being “rushed” out the door?
Cons: Do Keller and Christopher convince each other not to invest in styling departments and ultimately wither by producing cars for a dwindling demographic of librarians and old-money snobs? That’s about the only downside I can imagine. I can’t see the government getting in the way with GM at near 50% of the market.
Post Script: Chrysler [I]Corporation[/I] achieves a measure of status that reflects positively on the entire company and never gets distracted by trying to create a separate Imperial division that goes nowhere. Packard hums along for another decade at Grand Boulevard almost semi-autonomously with their Predictor re-touched by Virgil Exner. Chrysler Defense reaps the rewards of Packard’s defense contracts throughout the 50s and 60s. Much like the actual Imperial, the Packard continues with separate B-0-F while the rest of the company moves to unitized construction in 1960. In the mid-60s, Packard division moves to a modern one-story plant in the Detroit suburbs and the quality difference (due to the tooling and workforce) becomes even more apparent vs. Cadillac’s built at the ancient Clark Street plant. By 1966, Chrysler realizes the profit potential of near-luxury cars like the T-bird and Rivera and introduces a high-style Chrysler coupe known as the Cordoba on the B-body platform (never having felt the pressure of not producing “junior edition” Chrysler models.) The success of the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark III spur the Packard division to produce its first unitized body car in 1969… A coupe built on the new C-body platform, known as the Packard d’oro. It’s hard to see the 80s being much different as traditional luxury/prestige cars all take a beating. The generation gap means that any American car (luxury or not) has been perceived as a symbol of the “establishment” since the boomer generation was in college overheating their Fiats or pop-riveting the structural rust on their Hondas. Thus Chrysler is feeling the same hurt in would have felt circa 1980, even if their full-framed Senior Packard 400s are still selling in modest numbers in retirement communities and to funeral parlors. Lee Iacocca still must come to the rescue, but this time he has a legitimate Town Car/Brougham competitor being built at Packard’s Utica plant (Packard proving ground work having moved up to Chelsea, MI in the late 50s; the land became the site of the new plant.) In 1991, Lee Iacocca decides to retire from the auto business and takes on a more active role in the diabetes research charity he founded. (A cure is found by 2007.) However, this time he feels confident handing the role of CEO to Jerry York, who processes both financial and engineering degrees. He’s just the right personality to both encourage and rein-in the team of Robert Lutz, Tom Gale and Francois Castang. In 2002, a mid-level GM executive named Bob Eaton is unceremoniously fired from their Opel division for funneling corporate money into the construction of an ugly stucco McMansion in Naples, FL.
Writing alternate-history fiction is fun!
With regard to the move to Conner Avenue, I don’t think it was either crazy or a blunder. It was certainly a miscalculation — obviously, both Nance and the finance people who proposed it in the first place underestimated how much trouble it was going to be — but the potential reward was dramatically cutting overhead and reducing the break-even level to a sustainable figure. That’s not a trivial thing, so I can see why Nance was willing to do it.
As for merging with Chrysler, I think what’s easy to forget with regard to alternate-history merger speculation is that another or different merger wouldn’t have avoided a basic philosophical question with regard to Packard’s future: what sort of brand Packard should be and what it should offer. The general presumption of a lot of these things is that Packard would have been the ultra-luxury brand for whatever company or conglomerate ended up with it. However, Packard had realized almost 20 years earlier that trying to be solely an ultra-luxury brand was not sustainable anymore. One may certainly criticize (as I do) Christopher’s apparent determination to make Packard into Buick, but the point remains that Packard could not have survived as solely an upper-crust brand. Even if they had sustained more of their former old-money pedigree into the ’50s (which they really didn’t), the market just wasn’t there; the commercial failure of the Continental Mark II and Cadillac Eldorado Brougham makes that clear enough.
If you threw Chrysler into the mix, the question would have gotten even messier. One of Chrysler’s bigger problems during the period in question was that its Chrysler, DeSoto, and Dodge brands were like cats who all want to sit on the one choice spot in the sunbeam, which ultimately killed DeSoto. If Packard were a separate division, its leadership would likely have gotten frustrated (and tired of getting yelled at by dealers) at not having a cheaper, higher-volume model to sell, so you would probably have ended up with a Packard Clipper competing directly with the Chrysler Windsor, Dodge Custom Royal, and DeSoto Firesweep. If Packard were in the place of the historical Imperial, you might still have had the same thing (with Chrysler hoping the Packard name would lure away some DeSoto and Dodge buyers) or else have Packard fall into the same third-rank niche Imperial ended up in, for most of the same reasons.
So, in the scenario you’re envisioning, I mostly see the unanswered questions vis-à-vis Packard’s brand identity leading the merged entity to make a lot of the same historical mistakes, albeit under different names…
*Nance and the finance people who proposed it in the first place underestimated how much trouble it was going to be — but the potential reward was dramatically cutting overhead and reducing the break-even level to a sustainable figure.*
How well things work on paper vs. practice is the eternal argument, isn’t it? Of course there was a great potential for reward; people at that level (usually) don’t make crazy decisions in the truest sense of the word. But with 20/20 hindsight, Nance bet on the wrong horse. I think if I’d been there to argue, much of it would have been based on the costs/delays of moving fixtures/equipment for a vehicle that was largely unchanged since ’51. The time to move would have been when they built an all-new car, building pilots (and making mistakes) on vehicles that never see the customer while the last year of production winds down on Grand Boulevard.
*a basic philosophical question with regard to Packard’s future: what sort of brand Packard should be and what it should offer. The general presumption of a lot of these things is that Packard would have been the ultra-luxury brand … Packard could not have survived as solely an upper-crust brand. Even if they had sustained more of their former old-money pedigree into the ’50s (which they really didn’t), the market just wasn’t there…*
I don’t argue this point one bit. If you want to see where the ultra-luxury Duesenberg/Packard money went in the modern era, you need look no further than the cottage-industry of exotic and Euro cars that existed in the 50s-present. That isn’t a market that can be conquered by any mass-market brand, because by definition they are mass-market. We don’t see beige 4-cyl. Mercedes Taxis in the USA. The place for Packard would have been right there with Cadillac/Lincoln with an occasional foray into something like an Eldorado Brougham, Mark II or Ghia Limo. Those are image makers, even if money losers. The profits have to come from people who could be content with a Buick, but either want to show off a little OR simply purchase the car because THEY love the style (the latter is never given consideration by the “inconspicuous consumers”, but I digress). Volume can come from black cars and other professionals. That’s where I would have positioned Packard, pretty much doing what the Imperial did, but with an identity/history to draw upon as well as a dealer network more accustomed to Packard customer expectations. I probably should have stated that Packard franchises in metro areas would be exclusive, but available to pair with Chrysler dealers in rural areas (with separate showrooms/service counters).
*If you threw Chrysler into the mix, the question would have gotten even messier. One of Chrysler’s bigger problems during the period in question was that its Chrysler, DeSoto, and Dodge brands were like cats who all want to sit on the one choice spot in the sunbeam, which ultimately killed DeSoto.*
Again, no disagreement. In 1950, I would have slowly begun killing both Dodge cars and Desoto lines while my (metro) dealers transitioned to Packard (exclusive, top level), Chrysler (exclusive, upper-middle with multiple size models when the market fragmented in the 60s) Plymouth/Dodge Trucks (volume brand, muscle cars in the 60s. Remember that Dodge Trucks also extended well above 1-ton in this era). In rural areas, I would have paired C/P/D and allowed Packard showrooms on the same property. Of course I’m saying this through the lens of time. To know how the market would shake out 60 years later (and be able to convince others) would make you a genius.
*If Packard were a separate division, its leadership would likely have gotten frustrated (and tired of getting yelled at by dealers) at not having a cheaper, higher-volume model to sell, so you would probably have ended up with a Packard Clipper competing directly with the Chrysler Windsor, Dodge Custom Royal, and DeSoto Firesweep.*
One thing that I don’t think would require genius-level intelligence would have been recognizing, even in 1965, that Chrysler’s “no junior editions” philosophy was stupid. Perhaps that realization would have prevented some of the ridiculous model-overlap. You could try that argument with Imperial, since no US luxury make was doing less-than-full-size cars (I hesitate to call an Eldo/Mark “small”). But Chrysler? How is a manual brake/steering, blackwall Newport NOT a junior edition, but a ’65 T-bird/Riv is? Dumb, dumb, dumb. I suppose my hope is that bringing Packard into the tent forces the marketing department to realize Chrysler is a near-luxury/specialty brand. If Chrysler had invested in distinct, shorter-overhang sheet metal for the ’65 300, using the Hemi as planned in ’66, you’d have a perfect T-bird/Riv killer. Instead they took it downmarket for short term volume and squandered a great brand.
But back to the original argument… Remember there would have been a transition period, lasting from about 1951 to 1960 (when a new car would be required) where Packard would have functioned much more autonomously. Their own factory, their own engineers, distinct bodies. I draw the parallel of Jeep/Truck engineering being entirely separate from Chrysler at CTC until 2008. My hope would be that during the period of 1951-1962 Chrysler (brand) stops trying to move up and downmarket at the same time (Imperial separation, Newport intro, end of letter series 300) because Packard’s presence forces them to focus on the upper-middle market. Of course I say hope… I’m sure you have to overcome a lot of short term thinking, but I believe a Packard acquisition makes this easier, much like buying Jeep kept Dodge focused on on-road trucks, rather than an off-road capable SUV. The purchase of AMC/Jeep is the only merger I can think of in the modern era that was well-done, and part of that was staying distinct for such a long period… basically until everything was redesigned a few times.
*So, in the scenario you’re envisioning, I mostly see the unanswered questions vis-à-vis Packard’s brand identity leading the merged entity to make a lot of the same historical mistakes, albeit under different names…*
Don’t forget that I solved Packard’s V8 and Chrysler’s automatic trans issue. I think that buys Packard some time and adds some sales to Chrysler. I didn’t suggest Packard turn itself into a niche company, but having some scale with Chrysler allows them to build a few niche models. I also the think the market place was more forgiving in that era… Pontiac and Oldsmobile both climbed out of their doldrums in that era, I believe Packard could have done the same with the right product mix and marketing.
At any rate, the whole thing is speculation done with the benefit of hindsight. The automotive equivalent of Fantasy Football I suppose, but a much better mental exercise.
The question of Packards engines always left me a little baffled. Packard, after the war, probably had more experience than anyone in making sophisticated engines. They had already made v type OHC engines for thirty years. What kept them? Didn’t the marine and aircraft engine departments associate with the car division? Studebaker had a OHV 8 by 1951.They were also involved with Borg Warner in developing an automatic. They couldn’t have been that bad.
I don’t think it was a lack of technical knowledge so much as the financial challenges of developing and tooling for an all-new passenger car engine in general. After the war, Packard management was stuck on the idea of trying to raise their sales volume and reduce costs to let them compete lower on the price scale. Packard’s straight-eight engines were still competitive on power (and remained so almost to the end), so I think the argument kept coming back to, “Well, if we have to amortize the tooling on a new engine, that will cost us X dollars extra per car, and we can’t afford that yet. Can’t we wait until we hit 100,000 units a year? Then we can pay it off faster.”
If anything, Studebaker’s example suggests the financial dangers of an independent undertaking that kind of additional capital expense. Even though their volume was much higher than Packard’s, the V-8 (and its early warranty problems) cost them a bundle and if Grant’s post-merger financial analysis was correct, Studebaker management miscalculated the net impact of that (and various other factors) on their per-car costs. In other words, the V-8 was probably a not-insignificant part of the financial hole Studebaker dug for itself during that period.
Aaron, I think that your point is well-taken here. There can be no question of Packard’s technical abilities, from Jesse Vincent’s Twin Six to improving on the design and manufacture of Rolls-Royce’s aero engines, and many other technical achievements, as well. The issue here is, what cost-effective sense does a new engine make?
It seems that, sometimes, we get our eyes clouded by our affections: for instance, with all of Chrysler’s engineering prowess, such as the WW2 development of aircraft engines, Their early Hemis (and especially one each for Chrysler, DeSoto, and Dodge) were probably a marketing mistake, which is why they retrenched and came out with a cheaper, lighter, and more powerful big block copy of a small block Chevy in 1958. What Don Garlits and others ran does not necessarily make for a marketing success.
Ford, also, had developed a technically advanced aero engine, but it was shelved until 4 of its cylinders were shaved off and it became a V8 Sherman tank powerplant — probably the best one, in fact. But this also had little to do with their automotive products. They kept on with their venerable flathead V8 until introducing a pushrod 6 in the early 50s, which was probably a more powerful and better engine, overall. Here too, technical razzle-dazzle did not translate into market success.
Even GM, with all of their money, and later, their aluminum blocks, turbochargers, flat sixes, and rope driveshafts, did not mean that they dominated the market, no matter their technical elegance.
This is why sales and marketing makes the big bucks, while engineers pout on payday: talking money out of someone’s pocket is always what “talks,” while technical jargon often “walks.”
re: Studebaker, I have to question their management abilities in the development and manufacture of their V8. This may illustrate the point that actually designing and making the car efficiently has more to say for it than exotic machinery. It pains me to say anything positive about the man, but perhaps McNamara and his Falcon were right on this score. Even GM had to put out a “Flint Falcon” “No-Go” to compete, when the technically more advanced Corvair didn’t live up to the hope and hype.
The whole business seems to me to highlight your article’s point: engineering skills are one thing, but it probably was not within Packard’s combination of management and engineering to pull off a success in the face of the Big Three. We all wish that this was not so. Emotionally, when I see a turbocharged Packard flathead in a Bonneville car, my heart is drawn to Packard, but that is not marketing reality in the face of the three-headed colossus of Detroit.
I admire Packard very much, but appreciate that, for instance, Pierce Arrow’s “purity” was unsullied, even if it meant that marque’s pre-war demise. Likewise for Deusenberg and many others who went defunct or moribund before the War.
I don’t entirely disagree, but this is an area where I think there’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer, and that depends greatly on a number of different factors, including the manufacturer’s market position and sales reach and the market segment involved.
In low-cost, bread-and-butter models like the Falcon, Corvair, and Valiant, it’s clear that buyers were not very interested in radical engineering or radical styling, and Ford made the smart choice by keeping the Falcon a basic and orthodox package (a point Chrysler reaffirmed later with the third-generation Valiant and Dart). On the other hand, Ford also benefited greatly from Chevrolet’s miscalculations with the Corvair. Had Chevrolet led with the extremely conventional Chevy II/Nova in 1960, perhaps introducing the Corvair later as a sporty car, Chevrolet’s larger dealer base and advertising/marketing clout would have almost certainly steamrolled the Falcon out of the gate. (The principal reason that didn’t happen when the Chevy II actually debuted was that by then the Falcon had a clear head start and Chevrolet was essentially trying to sell two distinctly different products that were notionally aimed at the same market.) If the Chevy II had debuted in the fall of 1959 instead of the Corvair, the conventional wisdom today might well be that Ford handicapped the Falcon by making it a little too ordinary (and too flimsy) to be more than an also-ran against the might of Chevrolet.
Engineering novelty can be an important selling point for niche markets, like sporty cars, and the same can be true of products offered by second- or third-tier brands. If you’re trying to compete with well-established players with more dealers and more resources, it may not be enough to offer a completely conventional product, even if it’s a perfectly decent one — buyers looking for a decent, conventional product are more likely to go with the bigger name. When I bought my current car, for instance, I chose it over its better-selling rivals because it had a bigger engine and additional features that the bigger-name choices did not (then) offer at any price. Had it been basically the same as its key rivals in terms of specification, it probably wouldn’t have made the list.
However, for novelty to be a meaningful selling point, it needs to provide some clear benefit, and it can’t be so costly that it either makes the product unaffordable to its intended market or causes the manufacturer to lose its shirt. The former is an area where GM’s sixties novelties often fell down. For example, the rope drive Tempest was a pointless engineering exercise in a compact family sedan, and the key advantages of the Toronado’s novel UPP concept (wet-weather traction and the elimination of the driveshaft hump) would have made vastly more sense in a Vista Cruiser than in a personal luxury hardtop; I assume Oldsmobile decided they couldn’t sell enough UPP station wagons at a high enough price to pay off the investment.
A lot of the enthusiast what-ifs surrounding Packard presume they would — or at least should — have eventually tried to reestablish Packard as a prestige luxury make, in which case more quickly introducing a V-8 and perhaps even adding a new OHV V-12 would have made some sense. Of course, Cadillac didn’t have, or need, a V-12, and their attempts at bucks-up ultra-luxury models were money-losers, but Packard was in a different position, stuck in fourth place in the luxury market with greatly diminished prestige and disastrous resale values. Even if Packard had been able to offer a completely modern package matching Cadillac point for point, they would still have been an also-ran in that segment unless they had SOMETHING different to get buyers’ attention. Unfortunately, if one is starting from both a weak marketing position AND a weak capital position, that’s an enormous financial risk. So, it’s not an easy call.
I think postwar Packard leadership greatly underestimated the extent to which they were still facing the same challenges in the mid-price field they assumed would be a safer bet. The bigger question in that case is not necessarily “Would introducing this or that technology have helped?” so much as “Was there any realistic way that Packard could have carved out a sustainable space in a segment absolutely dominated by Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, especially in a period of such rapid technological and stylistic change?” I’m honestly not sure there was, which makes speculation about engines or transmissions or what have you a somewhat secondary consideration.
Aaron, I’d like to add my own views to your interesting reply, but I’ll number your paragraphs to order my thought, as I can be guilty of digression:
#1 “not necessarily a clear-cut answer”: Certainly! Anyone who can hit the nail on the head in the marketplace by identifying what the public wants, often before they know it themselves, is generally pretty successful. Lee Iococca and the minivan come to mind, as does Steve Jobs in another market.
#2 “buyers were not very interested in racical engineering” Again, I agree with this, at least as it is apparent to the buyer. The buyer was smacked in the face by the Corvair’s engineering, no doubt. But the Falcon’s engineering wasn’t quite as plain as it might appear at first glance. Ford always had a thing for foundry and metallurgy, and their thin wall casting technique, first offered in the Falcon, gave it a powerplant that quite efficient for its size and weight, and set off a wieght-saving trend in Detroit’s cast iron diet.
Whether the Chevy II could have “steamrolled” the Falcon, had they been introduced at the same time — I’m not so convinced (see paragraph #). Ford’s high spring front suspension proved quite light weight and successful, as iterations were used on all sorts of Fords, like Mustangs, Fairlaines, Torinos, etc. GM’s attempt to copy this pattern in the Chevy II was not as durable as the Falcon front end, and GM abandoned it for the Camaro/Nova subframe system used later in the 60s. The Falcon was plain (tho it wasn’t plain ugly, like the Valiant) and its technical advances were more subtle, but they were there.
#3 “Engineering novelty can be an important selling point for niche markets” This is an interesting thought, but perhaps it depends on the buyer. My uncle, for instance, was always interested in performance and engineering, and bought one of the first Toronado. He bought a new Corvair for his daughter earlier. But, when you look at performance and custom cars, most prefer the Small Block Chevy — hardly innovative thinking. Perhaps it depends on buyers (going back to #1 again). The Vega might have been a bigger hit, had quality control and cylinder wear patters been addressed. The Pinto, on the other hand, was fairly long-lasting and successful. Everyone knew about the cylinders of Vegas washing out, even after GM had fixed the problem.
#4 “for novelty to be a meaningful selling point, it needs to provide some clear benefit” This is an interesting statement. I think that the key word here is “clear” as this means not only to the engineer, the accountant, and the salesman, but also to the buyer. This last part is at least as tricky as the other three. Sometimes the buyer is right, and other times, they are wrong (technically), but it’s there money, and what they spend it on makes them right — in a way, doesn’t it? You are right about cost. There is a long list of new models that had interesting options that elicit the comment, “why didn’t people buy that one; it was so cheap!” Your citing the Toronado is pertinent here, I think. When my uncle bought his first one when they first came out, he said it was common to have people laying on the ground in restaurant parking lots, examining the underside of his new car! There was a novelty there, but it didn’t translate into sales. Buick still had their Riviera, but the Thunderbird, pretty plain compared to a Toronado’s engineering, walked away from both of them.
The key point, again, is what is “meaningful” and what is “clear” especially to the buyer, and that can be a pretty tricky set of things to understand.
#5 “reestablish Packard as a prestige luxury make” I’m reminded here of a quote — I don’t recall the famous woman who said it — about disdainfully declining a Cadillac “because every bartender owned one.” Here, she has a point that’s often missed: the real prestige models, as I believe you observed in your Cadillac V12 and V16 comments, were prestigious, but they weren’t common. Somehow, their prestige did “trickle down” to the common lesser models, unlike the Packard 120. Why was this so?
Here, I’d like to digress a bit about overhead cams and V12s. I don’t think that this would have done anything for Packard, because I don’t think that the buyers of prestige luxury cars would have been interested. There are only a few reasons to use overhead cams in a design:
1. It’s cheaper. (not so common, but I will have comments about the Pontiac 6 later.)
2. It allows head porting that’s more convenient to high flow rates
3. It allows higher RPM due to less valve train weight
4. In DOHC form, it permits variable valve timing advantages
5. It facilitates the installation of a “moteur cannon”
However, it isn’t the best choice for low hood lines.
The big question is, how to conveniently drive the cam(s)? A full gear train, as used by Offenhauser and Miller, is expensive, noisy, and heavy. A shaft and bevel gear arrangement is often used on aircraft engines, do to its light weight, but it also comes with its own engineering and manufacturing drawbacks, like the Miller gear train. This leaves us with (yeech!) the chain. It’s cheaper, and more allowing for manufacturing tolerances. However, chains have an angular velocity that guarantees vibration and noise. They also stretch and wear. When Ed Pink built SOHC 427 Fords for drag racing, the cams were timed 8* apart to account for the stretch at peak RPM. Chains are noisy and crude, no matter how they are refined. Finally, there’s the toothed belt, but I’ll leave that for now. It’s not pertinent to a early to mid 50s timeframe that we’re discussing.
I can’t imagine what sort of creation is going to fit the bill for driving an OHC prestige luxury car engine! (Hear, I know people will point out: “Deusenberg!” but these cars were toys of the very rich — how many were made? They hardly provide an answer for how Packard would overtake Cadillac and become the top prestige luxury car after WW2.) Some noisy, chain-driven collection of cams thrashing away under the hood — I can’t see it in the prestige luxury car we’re discussing.
V12s aren’t much different when it comes to gadgets that would be accepted by the buyer of the cars we’re talking about. At least 50% more machining, a long hood requirement — no, I don’t think so. Cadillac themselves even investigated this, and dropped it.
Packard, I think, had the ideal answer in their pocket already: their V8 set them up for whatever needed to be done in the luxury market. Here, I would like to provide a few examples of what I mean, using your “Counterfactuals” point from another article.
Oldsmobile: Its Rocket V8 came out in 1949 and lasted into the 80s, in one form or another. All of these engines retained their 4 5/8″ bore spacing, from the first 303″ to the last. I would imagine that tooling was easy to modify. Foundry changes and some machining adjustments could take care of raising the deck for longer stroke, but in 64-65, when Olds thin wall casted them, they still retained the same machining centers. The “small blocks” (330, 350, 403) retained the same centers as the “big blocks” (400, 425, 455), only the deck heights were changed for a longer stroke. I am thinking Olds made the transition from the 303, 324, 371, 394 boat anchor era to the light weight 330-455 era with minimal expense.
Pontiac: Like Olds, they retained the same machining centers from the ’55 287 all the way until the end. While the 421, 428, 455 line did have a different crank size, all of these were pretty much the same engine, with smaller bores for the 326s in intermediates and a larger bore for larger cars. Again, Expense is kept to a minumum.
Ford: The 221, 260, 289, 302 line was expanded through Cleveland and Windsor flavors to 400″, all keeping the same bore centers, and with minimal changes in machining, I suspect. Even the old Y Block shared these bore centers: back in the day, 312 crankshafts were turned down and the snouts shortened to be used as strokers in 289s.
Chevy: The 348 and 409 series shared the same centers as the later Mark IVs. A 454 crankshaft can provide a stroker crank for a 409.
Etc, etc, etc — I could go on and on (and already have, to some extent.)
My point here is that the Packard V8, with its 5″ bore spacing, could provide anything needed up until the present day. Cadillac even copied this to some extent in 1968, with their 472 and later 500 inch V8s. Big cast iron “vanilla” motors, the Cadillac had enough port flow to support 500+ horsepower, as street racers can tell you. The valve train isn’t good for much above 4000 RPM, but that’s not what Cadillac wanted or needed. The buyers did not need a Main Street hotrod, or a Mercedes Benz jewel. What they wanted was something that always ran, and did so unobtrusively. Enough size to give it decent, yet smooth and quiet performance was the solution Cadillac identified.
No razzle-dazzle here: Packard needed an engine that provided smooth, quiet, and reliable performance, and that could be enlarged to meet these requirements in the future. It had that engine in 1955. Having it sooner would have helped, but otherwise, this wasn’t an issue in Packard’s demise, I think. Relatively simple foundry and machining changes would have made this motor viable into the 70s or later. No V12s or OHCs were needed, nor were they desirable.
But here, I get to your last paragraph, Aaron. Packard had a harder time controlling their costs, vs Pontiac, Olds, and Buick. They outsourced axles and electrics, for example, and carburetion, too. BOPs shared a common floor pan and body. Their engines were different, true, but they all used Delco electrics and largely Rochester carburetors (with some occasional Carters thrown in). Although Buick retained torque tube drive, there was some cross fertilization between Olds and Pontiac axles, as well as transmissions. The sheer scale of BOP production compared to Packard’s tells one that BOPs had to have a production cost advantage.
Yes, the combination of Studebaker with Packard offered none of this production cost sharing, including scale of production. Studebakers, as well as Hudsons and Nashs, were totally different machines. As you have pointed out, it would be years before sharing between these two marques could have cost sharing dvantages, and the same would be true for a combination including Hudson and/or Nash, as well. This is true for manufacturing, engineering, and research and development. It would also be true to a great extent for marketing and sales organizations, as my experience with these things in industry has informed my opinion. Combinations, as Nash foresaw, might have given a little more money and a little more time, but probably not much more. Nance, for all he is vilified, was a step in the right direction and shows that Packard recognized this. I, too, wring my hands and wail when I read of Packard’s records being sent to the dump, dating back to the dawn of automotive history in this country, and I, too, hold Nance as partially responsible for such abominations.
But recognizing that things needed to radically change at Packard if it was to (or, if it could) survive, was a completely necessary step. Whether Nance was that man or not can be debated, but it must be expected that anyone in that position was going to make some mistakes. Comparing Nance with perfect hindsight isn’t productive, and besides, I doubt that even perfect hindsight would have saved Packard, anyway.
Big companies, especially ones with an established history, don’t turn on a dime and don’t meld easily with other companies.
All of this does tend to agree with your thought that Packard’s survival or demise wasn’t due to engines and transmissions. you ask:
“Was there any realistic way that Packard could have carved out a sustainable space in a segment absolutely dominated by Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, especially in a period of such rapid technological and stylistic change?”
No, there wasn’t, in my view.
Regarding #4, I meant “clear benefit to the buyer,” which is an important distinction — choices that can have clear benefits to the manufacturer may be decidedly unfavorable to buyers, for obvious reasons! Of course, “benefit” can encompass a lot of things, including the subjective areas of styling and sheer novelty.
Regarding #5, the question of what makes an automotive marque prestigious and how that prestige can best be maintained is a complicated one, and in recent years, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been really challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom on this point since the fall of Packard, continuing a rather dizzying proliferation of smaller, less-expensive, and arguably less special (in terms of mechanical distinction, at any rate) models in search of greater volume. This doesn’t yet seem to have substantially impaired their prestige — not enough to give their product planners any discernible pause, at any rate — and I honestly don’t know at what point it will, particularly for BMW. (Mercedes-Benz has the advantage of the S-Class sedan still being something of a default choice for big executive cars, I suppose.) So, I no longer feel confident in making pronouncements about the sustainability of prestige automotive brands, even beyond the usual caution about counterfactuals.
However, the point I was trying to make is that the position Packard would have been in was, by the ’50s, distinctly different than Cadillac’s position. As you point out, Cadillac did not, in the ’50s or ’60s, have any particular need for a V-12 engine (as they eventually concluded in the mid-sixties) or special exclusive models. However, that was to a large extent because they were already firmly established as the default choice in that segment. Cadillac were producing pretty much all the cars they could build, transaction prices were high, and depreciation (as a percentage of initial cost) was impressively low. So, they didn’t need a lot in the way of engineering or product novelty to get attention or bring in buyers; the big question for prospective customers was whether there was any compelling reason NOT to just buy a Cadillac. Had Packard been serious about trying to play in that segment (which I don’t think they were by then), there would have been a stronger case for a V-12, not because Cadillac had one or needed one, but precisely because Cadillac DIDN’T, and Packard would have desperately needed to make a case for well-heeled buyers to even consider stopping at a Packard showroom. I’m not sanguine that a V-12 would have helped enough — certainly not without an all-new body shell not shared with Studebaker, and perhaps not even then — but there would have been some justification for it, especially if it were derived from the V-8 and didn’t involve a ruinous additional tooling investment.
That’s the point I was trying to make; the two companies’ relative market positions significantly changed the calculus of whether offering something different, in an engineering sense, was worthwhile or not.
Aaron, you said, “. . . how that prestige can best be maintained is a complicated one, and in recent years, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been really challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom . . .”
This prestige business was even more critical for Packard in the 50s, since they weren’t trying to maintain prestige, they were trying to get it back after they had lost it (or discarded it through their choices).
My understanding, from my limited exposure to such marketing concepts, is that it is much harder to regain a former customer than it is to attract a new one, and much more expensive, advertising-wise. I go back to that example of the Vega and washed out cylinder finish: Once the reputation was damaged, the car was essentially finished. It was extremely unlikely that anyone was going to buy them.
We’re currently seeing Cadillac facing a similar kind of music: The people who bought them up into the 70s are gone, and there is no replacement customer to buy Cadillacs. (Its similar to what Harley-Davidson is facing.) Younger people aren’t interested and don’t care about Cadillacs. GM is trying to remarket them as a luxury performance car, but they can’t even command the same prestige as cars that are much cheaper.
For instance, would a luxury customer in the 90s prefer a Cadillac to a Lexus 400?
Unless something unforeseen happens to people’s opinions, I think Cadillac is toast, just like Packard was in the 50s. Cadillac lost a tremendous amount of prestige with their 4.1 liter engines, wet cylinder V8s that would leak coolant into the oil. Customers simply weren’t interested in doing GM’s R&D when they could buy a real car from Japan or Germany.
Cadillac has thrown away its prestige with an assortment of junk engines and rebadged Cimarrons, and they won’t get it back.
Here are three things I’ve learned about Cadillac quality over the years:
1. Back in the 60s, I read that Cadillac engines were made in temperature controlled rooms to maintain tolerances and to eliminate dirt and grit from the manufacturing process. 2. A friend who was an insurance agent back in the 50s told me that, to adjusters, the Cadillac was a 100,000 mile motor, Buick was an 80,000 mile motor, and the lesser divisions were less. 3. When I had a 440 built once, a long time ago, I visited my machinist and he was honing an International Harvester block, and doing quite a bit of cursing. He told me that IH blocks had a lot of tin in them and were quite hard, which gave them longevity. I went through a bunch of car makes, which he repeatedly told me were “soft.” Then, he added, Japanese cars, which American car lovers like myself looked down upon at the time (I now own a Honda and a Volvo) also came with very hard blocks, giving them greater longevity. I have found out that Cadillac also used hard cast iron blocks up into the 70s, as well, and their machining and engine build quality were still held to the high standards.
i don’t think that the general car buyer realized these things. When I look at Cadillacs of the 70s, I see a plusher version of a Chevy Caprice of that time, with fake plastic wood and vinyl, but apparently, the quality was still there in the engines. While customers may not have known this, I would guess they did expect a Cadillac to last longer — you’ve mentioned this as a basis for high resale value.
The above is meant to say that, while Cadillac did not have a technical novelty in the sense of V12s or fuel injection or other such things, they did have a technical reputation of quality that was based on tangible attributes, even if buyers didn’t recognize them. Customers still maintained Cadillacs in high repute, which apparently was good enough and something Packard no longer had.
Packard had quality control issues in the 50s that people wouldn’t associate with a prestige marque, and the traditional buyers were getting older. Turning these impressions around would not have been quick or cheap, and time and money were two things Packard didn’t have.
Also, it took so much money to keep a prestige brand afloat. I think Packard NEEDED the lesser brands that Cadillac or even Lincoln and Imperial had — brands that could provide technical and marketing clout that they weren’t going to get from Studebaker, Hudson, or Nash in the short term. In light of this, I don’t think that a V12 in a prestige-targeted brand, even without negative customer perceptions, would have turned the tide for Packard.
Once they had lost their financial independence and capital reserves, and spent their (shrinking number of) customer good will and respect, they were pretty much done.
You pointed out that, “That’s the point I was trying to make; the two companies’ relative market positions significantly changed the calculus of whether offering something different, in an engineering sense, was worthwhile or not.”
This is true! But consider all of the gadgets that were offered in the 50s and early 60s: there were Rochester and Bendix fuel injection, IRS, knock off wheels, front wheel drive, switch-pitch converters in Turbo Hydramatic 400s, multiple carburetion from every GM, Ford, and Chrysler product line, turbocharging and supercharging, but none of these features, or many others like them, made a go of it in the market. They didn’t alter the basic market conditions or positions of the competitors. Rather, things like the late 60s Grand Prix, early 70s Chrysler Cordoba, mid 70s Olds Cutlass, early Mustang, and Lincoln Mark III (and not the Mark II!) were the things that buyers wanted.
My point here is that I don’t think a technical attribute was going to work. Even if one had, Packard was probably beyond developing and engineering it in a way that was acceptable for a prestige car.
Going “razzle dazzle” with a slick new model would have cut off their existing customer base.
Finally, I do think that Packard, to have had any hope of survival, needed a sound footing in the BOP market, at least. I don’t think that they would have been able to have made enough money or prestige from a V12, considering what it would have cost them to develop one. Really, their time frame even for a V8 was five years or more too late. Someone there should have been thinking about this during the War. Thinking about this, even Ford was nearly too late in developing a modern V8, with all of their resources and research, and they gave up a lot of ground to Chevy for their tardiness.
Maybe I’m all wet in these views — I can accept that. I’m the one to who a ’63 Avanti looks better than a ’63 Corvette, and who has loved Citroens since I saw them flashing by on French highways at high rates of speed, slammed to the ground. My tastes aren’t what most others hold. But after years of business and seeing what works and what doesn’t, I think I’d have been with those insurance companies when they refused to loan Packard any more money. The Packard “business case” just didn’t make sense by then.
Arguably, Packard had something like that in the Torsion-Level suspension, which was genuinely novel and did provide some tangible advantages, but obviously didn’t move the needle in any useful way. I think there’s a case to be made that its novelty was as much to its detriment as its advantage, in part because of Packard’s diminished reputation and questionable future. Today, a buyer might think twice about choosing a technologically ambitious product from a company that looked like it was about to go under, potentially leaving you with a hard-to-maintain white elephant, and I don’t doubt some people in the fifties felt similarly. The fact that it felt a bit odd on a test drive undoubtedly didn’t help.
I should stress that the reason I keep returning to the V-12 idea is that Packard did give it at least semi-serious consideration. Since the engine they were considering would have been a 90-degree V-12 derived from the new V-8, it wouldn’t have been an enormous engineering investment, although it would have further exacerbated issues with the torque capacity of the Twin Ultramatic transmission, which might have been enough to kibosh the whole idea. The other practical problem the V-12 might have presented, which was more logistical than technological, was that manufacturing a handful of V-12s on the same line as the V-8 might have ended up being more of a hassle than a help. (This was one of the many issues with the Triumph Stag V-8 15 years later; the V-8 had been designed to share the tooling of the Triumph slant four, but demand for the four was so much greater that the plant was loath to interrupt four-cylinder production to make a comparative handful of the troublesome V-8s.)
In any event, you may well be right that it would have been a waste of time, and in any case, I don’t think Packard management or the Studebaker-Packard Board were particularly set on trying to rebuild Packard prestige, at least in the carriage trade snob appeal sense. Even if they could have done so, Packard had long since concluded that there was no point trying to return to 1935. They wanted to be Buick, with Clipper in the Pontiac/Oldsmobile realm.
Regarding the technology question in general, I do think it’s important to consider, however, that we’re looking back on a rather tumultuous period with the considerable benefit of hindsight. Since the prewar days, there had been substantial technological change, and in the early to mid fifties, how certain things were going to shake out wasn’t yet clear. For instance, it was evident that buyers were willing to pay a premium to not have to shift beyond Drive and Reverse, but even within GM, there was still an ongoing battle over the optimal format for an automatic transmission. In a climate like that, it’s very hard to know until it’s too late what’s going to catch on, what’s going to be a flash in the pan, and what isn’t yet ready for prime time, which is a difficult and perilous situation for a smaller manufacturer. GM could afford to have a whole army of corporate and divisional engineers and designers doing advanced projects and throwing things at walls in search of adhesion, but companies like Packard didn’t have the resources for that.
Also, I suspect some automotive engineers of the early fifties would have been surprised to learn how stagnant mainstream automotive technology became in the sixties, and how much longevity some engine and transmission designs of the time ended up having. In a lot of technological fields in that period, there was not yet any clear endpoint to the course of development; in aircraft design, for instance, the most advanced propeller-driven aircraft of barely a decade earlier were fast piling up in the boneyard, and the newest jets seemed likely to be superseded by more advanced designs before the current ones even got into service.
Aaron, if you are wondering why I don’t go away, it’s because your articles and responses to my posts cause me to think and challenge my ideas. This is especially true with the broad scope of your latest response.
Your bringing up the Torsion-Level suspension is a good point in this regard. Why would the public reject the technical merits of this, when they seem to have broadly accepted Chrysler’s torsion bar suspension? Your idea that people rejected a new technology from a maker on its last legs, for fear of getting an orphan is a reasonable response, but I wonder if that is the whole picture or not. The Olds Toronado was similarly rejected, yet from a sound marque. I have never driven a Torsion-Level Packard (I did look at buying a rusted-out one as a young person), and that’s probably part of it, as well.
Regarding the V12, it is reasonable to think of an expanded version of the existing V8, but I see several issues here. Firstly, the weight, and secondly, the length. I can easily see an engine of 1000# and four feet long in this configuration, requiring an under-hood capacity closer to the old straight eight Packards — a different car than the one Packard made in 1955, and one that would need to be engineered for it.
I had not considered an expansion of the existing engine, which would be close to 500 cu in, and as you point out, would certainly tax Packard’s Ultramatic. Unless Packard wanted to get into another development program, the only alternative here would have been buying Hydra-Matics. Rolls-Royce and Ferrari did it 10 years later without losing face.
I have only seen pictures of engine manufacturing, but have not seen it in person. What I’ve seen shows an assembly line transporting the block to machining stations. These stations had a full 90* arrangement of milling tools for all eight cylinders and, I presume, tappet bores — everything seems to have been done at once on one machine. At the bottom of old Detroit cast iron blocks, there were usually two large dowel holes located along the oil pan rail, front and back, which I presume located the block for the machining process. Some engines, Oldsmobile for one, were located longitudinally from the camshaft bore. I can’t find the pictures of this now. Such processes would work, when going from a V8 to slant four machining setup, as only one side would need to be worked on the fours. But a V12, where one went from a four station to a six station requirement per bank, would have been a different matter, I think.
Connecting rods, pistons, valves, etc, could be used, and I assume sand casting cores at the foundries could be dealt with for blocks and heads, but I wonder about cooling and oiling. These are issues that bedeviled the Lincoln Zephyr V12s, though admittedly, cooling wasn’t the parent flathead V8’s strong point for other design reasons. Still, the V8 had a robust oiling system that didn’t transfer well to a V12 design. Also, sixes and V12s are not quite the same thing as fours and V8s, when it comes to shoving water back along long lengths of block. Certainly, the problems can be solved, but again, there’s a developmental issue which Packard didn’t seem to be handling well at the time, even with what they already had on their plate.
BTW, have you seen the experimental pre-war Packard with the straight twelve? Very interesting, and apparently successful!
My thinking was that Packard would have started with a clean slate again, using a block with smaller bore centers to lessen the length of the engine somewhat. A 90* bank angle should have worked, as V12s were made with all sorts of bank angles. I’ve read a Toyota research paper on V12 bank angles (it had a lot of math I didn’t follow) and it seems that, at least theoretically, V12s were amenable to all kinds of bank angles, and I assume that even a common pin crank would work. It would be interesting to know the details of Nance’s V12 discussions!
You pointed out: “Regarding the technology question in general, I do think it’s important to consider, however, that we’re looking back on a rather tumultuous period with the considerable benefit of hindsight.” Yes, and the different approaches you mentioned within GM alone were great examples of this. Car companies tried all kinds of things, and my dependence on hindsight here is questionable.
You also observed: “I suspect some automotive engineers of the early fifties would have been surprised to learn how stagnant mainstream automotive technology became in the sixties”
Yes, and perhaps they would have been quite disappointed, too. As you pointed out elsewhere, most of these people were quite interested in automobiles and probably relished being trailblazers. But the public didn’t seem to be very interested in most of this. The automatic transmission was an exception, appealing to a more trouble free driving style. But why people would pay a fairly considerable sum for a Powerglide (which, in my estimation, having owned one, considered a dismal experience), but didn’t care for a Turbo-Hydramatic 400 switch pitch converter, boggles my mind, in a way. I’d have happily paid a reasonable bonus to add the switch-pitch feature (which I owned in a ’65 Dynamic 88), but wouldn’t spit on a “Powerslide” or any of the other 2 speed automatics (I also owned a BOP 2 speed and a Powerflyte).
To digress a moment, as I said, my tastes are different from most. I’ve driven rental Fords and Chevies and quickly made up my mind that I would never own a CV transmission as a result of my experiences. I’ve been a convinced automatic lover for most of my adult life, but I’d never have one of those things! But most folks happily buy them — another of many “go figures” in our conversation, as we think about what the public will want and what they won’t.
And another digression: you point out the rapid technological march in aircraft engines at this time, which is a very valid observation. What is odd to me about this situation is that it was obvious that piston technology was headed out the door by WW2, yet look at how long piston engines survived in top line service into the fifties, even in the face of turboprops and jets. Americans kept churning out DC-6s and DC-7s, and Constellations, with R-2800s and R-3350s, even adding the complexity of turbo-compounding in the latter and achieving over 1 hp per cu in in air cooled radials, and these aircraft were not displaced as cost effective transoceanic transports until the 707s. (Failing with the first-generation Comets and the non-acceptance of the corrected versions has some parallels to our Packard discussion!) The military’s experience here was similar, with SPADs (Douglas Skyraiders) and Douglas A-26s hanging on, because they could perform missions that newer technology couldn’t.
Summing up, while we discuss the “could have beens” regarding Packard, certainly in my mind, the real imponderable, which you alluded to re: Mercedes Benz and BMW, is what the public will actually buy (as opposed to giving lip-service to) and what they will reject.
For a V-12 engine, a 60-degree bank angle is optimal from a standpoint of mechanical smoothness. However, because a V-12 is essentially two inline sixes — a layout whose forces are intrinsically well-balanced — on a common crank and has so many firing impulses, it’s a layout that’s quite “forgiving” of less-than-optimal bank angles. (Packard’s prewar V-12 was a 67-degree vee, and its smoothness left little to be desired.) Given the Packard V-8’s early issues with oil starvation, getting adequate cooling and lubrication might have presented some challenges, but perhaps not as difficult as the transmission torque capacity issue. The V-12 project was in the hands of Jesse Vincent, who had ample experience with the V-12 layout, so Packard was not exactly flying blind in these areas.
(Rolls-Royce, incidentally, actually made its own Dual-Range Hydra-Matic transmissions, produced under license. They later bought Turbo Hydra-Matic, but continued to use the older four-speed model on a few cars into the seventies, believe it or not.)
Packard Torsion-Level and Chrysler Torsion-Aire are a fascinating study in the disconnect that sometimes exists between engineering reality and marketing hooey. Torsion-Aire, for all the hype, was a pretty conventional double wishbone front suspension that happened to use longitudinal torsion bars rather than coil springs. Using torsion bars in this way has a couple of advantages from a manufacturing and assembly standpoint, but the only real differences in ride and handling had to do with Chrysler using higher spring rates than most of its key rivals. It was therefore an ideal engineering novelty for a salesman: It was visibly different, if someone cared to stick their head under the car, so it was something from which all sorts of great and nigh-magical benefits could be suggested, but it wasn’t really functionally different, so the only thing a prospect would notice on a test drive or test ride was that the ride was a bit firmer than the class norm (which was by no means an intrinsic feature or unique to torsion bars). If a prospect didn’t seem technically inclined, the salesman could just not mention the feature and the buyer not give it another thought. Torsion-Level, on the other hand, felt and behaved in a somewhat unusual manner. I’ve never driven a Torsion-Level Packard, so I can’t present a firsthand description of its dynamic behavior, but contemporary testers said it oddly disconnected — bumps affecting the front wheels were dissipated in the rear and vice versa. There was also the self-leveling feature, which demanded a certain degree of buyer education. I don’t think any of that was necessarily a deal-breaker, but it FELT different in a way the later Torsion-Aire clear did not, and it couldn’t be ignored as Torsion-Aire could.
I’ve written at some length about the Toronado and its convoluted development, but suffice to say the car Oldsmobile engineers conceived initially was quite a bit different than what they ended up building because the corporation ultimately had limited tolerance for costly novelty in anything that seemed like a volume line, and only very grudging interest in anything that wasn’t or couldn’t be a volume line. I think probably the most worthwhile application for the Toronado’s unusual powertrain would have been a station wagon, where its packaging efficiency, lack of driveline intrusion into passenger and cargo space, and excellent wet traction would have been warmly received. Toronado customers repeatedly asked why Oldsmobile didn’t offer something like that, so there was some interest, although since it would have been a costly item, it seems more likely that it would have been a cult item like the early Jeep Wagoneer, beloved of a small contingent of fairly affluent loyalists, but not a big enough market for GM to consider it worthwhile. Had GM been willing to use the UPP concept more widely, it would have brought the unit costs down and made it a more feasible volume product, but that becomes the old saw about belling the cat.
The two- and three-speed automatic question is one I’ve dealt with elsewhere on the site, but the window in which both were offered on the same models at the same time was relatively small. Some mid-sixties Oldsmobile and Buick models had a choice between two-speed Super Turbo 300 (which did in fact also have the switch-pitch feature in some applications) and Turbo Hydra-Matic, as did a few late ’60s Chevrolet cars, although Chevrolet didn’t offer Turbo Hydra-Matic at all until 1967. Where there was a choice, it generally came down to whether a buyer was willing to spend the extra money (something in the realm of $30 to $40) for the superior transmission and understood the difference well enough to care. (As late as the nineties, some automakers argued that buyers didn’t care as long as they didn’t have to shift for themselves, an argument Chrysler used to rationalize offering the Neon with only a three-speed automatic.) In the sixties and early seventies, some GM engineers argued that the two-speed automatic — which was lighter and consumed significantly less power than the big TH400 — was more efficient for smaller engines, an argument that was finally overcome by the advent of the lighter-duty TH350 and TH200.
The persistence of older or even obsolescent technology, like piston engine aircraft, tends to come down to some combination of “it’s already paid for”; “we know it works”; and “it’s still better at certain specific things that remain more important than the designers of the newer technology anticipated.” Conversely, newer technology may need some bigger impetus than just incremental superiority to be worth the investment. (A new refrigerator might be more energy-efficient than an old one, but few people are eager to replace major appliances that are still working!) For a lot of automotive technology, that impetus ended up being emissions control, which is a major reason why features like electronic fuel injection are now universal on passenger cars and still not common on light aircraft.
Regarding fuel injection, it should be noted that the Bendix Electrojector system was not so much a failure as a false start. That system (and its associated patents) was subsequently licensed to Bosch and became the basis of the Bosch D-Jetronic system, adopted on quite a few European cars of the late sixties and seventies and eventually used on some Japanese models (manufactured under license by Nippon Denso). That arrangement was later superseded by electronic systems using mass airflow rather than manifold air pressure for metering, but some automakers continued to use D-Jetronic for certain applications into the eighties.
Tangentially, the realization that the slower speeds of piston-powered aircraft might actually be a tactical advantage for military aircraft was an extremely counterintuitive result. In the early part of WW2, slower prewar aircraft and the last military biplanes were utterly at the mercy of faster, more powerful monoplane fighters; there had been some argument (or at least rationalization) that superior maneuverability might compensate for lack of raw speed, but that didn’t prove to be the case. It wasn’t until the advent of much faster jets, with their substantially larger turning radii (and frequent reliance on guided weapons), that being substantially slower made an aircraft potentially less vulnerable rather than just a hapless sitting duck, or that jet fighter-bombers’ speed started to become an impediment to their accuracy and usefulness in certain roles. This gets back to what I was saying about the value of hindsight in making these judgments!
Aaron, the V12 article I am referring to is “Bank Angle of a V-Type 12-Cylinder Engine” by Norio Ito, Akihito Nakagawa, Ryuji Kitamura, Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers. (Please forgive me, I’m not using a style manual for this reference!) I don’t know whether you allow links or not, but you can find this paper by googling and scrounging around, or you can use this link: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jsmec/44/3/44_3_643/_pdf
The authors note that there are a great many arrangements that work with a V12. As you note, the straight 6 arrangement is a particularly serendipitous one, and this is not lost with the V12.
As you say, Packard would not be flying blind with the name of Jesse Vincent associated with its V12 development program in the slightest. As you note, cooling and oiling are issues should have been able to be solved, given enough time and money, but both were in short supply. I would tend to think that, if the Ultramatic was challenged by the V8, it would be necessary to outsource if an automatic was wanted for a much larger V12. I did not know that Rolls-Royce also used the Dual Range Hydra-Matic. I would point out, however, if Rolls-Royce could outsource automatic transmissions, it certainly should not have been something that Packard saw as beneath them.
Regarding torsion bars of whatever flavor, They were sometimes made to be exotic and even magical, however they are nothing more than a coil spring unwound in a straight line (and vice versa). No magic at all there. I will say that, when I dropped a HiPo 440 into the engine bay of a Chrysler that had a lean burn thin wall casted 400, it was a handy thing to get on a flat piece of concrete with a tape measure and socket wrench and adjust the ride height to match factory specs. So I suppose Chrysler torsion bars would win the shade tree mechanic seal of approval. It would have been a better match to have used the proper torsion bars, which, I believe, were 0.030″ thicker, but that was beyond me in those days, and the car worked well as I finished it.
The issue with that Chrysler, as it was with so many late 70s vehicles, was that the industry had moved on from the 60s, in which you noted that innovation was put to bed, and transitioned to “bean counter” engineering and shoddy manufacturing (which you also noted in your Vega article). I also had a 454 Chevy pickup at this time, and both vehicles had this in common: their engines and transmissions were bulletproof and very durable. The vehicles themselves were made like junk. I would imagine that half the paint came off of the Chevy truck in the first rainstorm, and it rusted like an old muffler. The Chrysler’s door locks (both the cylinders and the latching mechanisms) failed regularly, and I needed to keep a replacement supply on hand. The pistons in the disk brakes seized. The model car chrome trim on the plastic dash knobs flaked and cut my fingers. Frankly, both were not built well at all, and were not nearly in the same league as my Hondas or the Volvo. I have a longer sob story along these lines, but the short story is that I doubt that I will be won back!
You did do nice treatments on the Toronados, and the Eldorado, as well. What proves your analysis and speculation pretty well regarding station wagon use was GMs use of that drive train and Olds engine in their motor home, which you also wrote about at some length.
I’ve gone through your automatic transmission articles, which are excellent and easily understandable. Your treatment of automatics in these articles is both in depth and superb. My point is that using the 2 speeds I mentioned, a Powerglide in a ’64 Chevy 283, the BOP 2 speed in a ’65 Lemans 6 cylinder, and the Powerflyte in a ’55 Chrysler C300, was not a thrilling experience in any case (although I’ll note that the C300 Powerflyte was tuned quite well, for what it was, and that it was by no means smooth!). My theory, especially formed from driving the Pontiac, was that some amount of power was needed to make them nearly acceptable, but they would never be my choice. Newer cars with small engines seem to do well with automatics having more than 3 speeds, at least, however. This is opposite of the opinion you attribute to GM engineers. They can cite their data, and I’ll cite mine, but it’s still my money. All I can say is that they must take pride in the fact that outsourcers are using AISIN transmissions now, not Hydra Matics or Borg Warners.
Aircraft engines and obsolescence: The DC-7s and Constellations with Turbo-compound were sometimes noted for an occasional fire or two, but both were used successfully in commercial Transatlantic service until the 707s ran them off. I would have to think that, if there was a cheaper alternative before that point, a penny pincher like Juan Trippe at Pan-Am would have chosen it. I can’t say that R4360s in Boeing Stratocruisers were a big hit, however, with only about 100 made and some spectacular accidents on their record. The DC-6, not quite long legged enough for Transatlantic service, was noted to be one of the most-cost effective commercial liners, due to that marvel of human design, the P&W R2800. That was an engine with a most enviable service record in so many applications. You said, “Conversely, newer technology may need some bigger impetus than just incremental superiority to be worth the investment.” Truly, jets needed quite a leap before they could top the R-2800s bar, but the ultimate issue with piston engines in both commercial and military use was their lack of power, which jets and turboprops could supply, but piston engines couldn’t, reasonably. Care for a Napier Nomad? Think of the Tu-95!
Your citation of Bosch’s use of Bendix’s patents for fuel injection is an interesting fact, isn’t it? I’ve often thought that Bendix engineers must have felt as if they had the last laugh, because their approach at least proved more long lasting than did the Rochester systems. They may even had some degree of satisfaction in having developed a superior idea when Detroit ushered in the era of throttle body injection.
I must make one more comment, however, and it regards the Toronado: Not only do I like the engineering, but I also like the styling of the first series. They had a significant influence in that department, and I recall the Olds sales literature of the time making the most of it. Perhaps I was like too many others: I liked them a lot and would have liked to have owned one, but there were other things that kept me from getting one.
I have the comment system set to pretty aggressively filter comments with links, but in this case I fortunately caught it before it was deleted. (I get a really obnoxious amount of obvious spam!)
Regarding automatics in smaller engines, the issue that GM engineers principally cited was the actual power consumption of the transmission itself, through mechanical and friction losses and the requisite transmission oil pump(s). The figures I’ve seen suggest that Powerglide consumed roughly HALF the horsepower required by the TH400, which was a more mechanically complex transmission with a whole array of clutch packs to manage. Again, part of this was because the TH400 had much greater torque capacity than the aluminum Powerglide used in cars like the Chevy II (although beefed-up Powerglide transmissions were even offered behind the 396 and 427), which for cars with a six or a 283 was a bit like jogging in hiking boots. Chrysler dealt with this issue by developing the light-duty A904 TorqueFlite, and Ford a bit later with its C4 transmission, but GM was slower to develop light-duty versions of Turbo Hydra-Matic, and when they did, the results were (at least initially) less than satisfactory from a durability standpoint.
None of this changes the fact that smaller engines have greater need for torque multiplication and for a transmission that can keep the engine in an optimum RPM range through a broader range of road speeds, but Chevrolet engineers saw Powerglide mainly as an alternative to three-on-the tree, and most three-speed manual transmissions were not exactly ideal in that respect either. (Ford used the same logic in developing the two-speed Fordomatic offered on the early Falcon and Comet. The earlier Fordomatic was functionally a two-speed with a separate emergency low range, but it did have three forward speeds, whereas the Falcon/Comet unit did not.)
I’d also like to add this afterthought with regard to the Toronado: I have often considered one of the ’79 Eldorados, with a 500 inch DeVille motor swapped under the hood. My Wife, however, would never countenance such foolishness, which might be a good thing . . .
My modern small car experience is somewhat limited to mostly small cars.
It always seemed to me that 2 speed automatics “gobbled up” the small engine’s power. The Pontiac 6 with the 2 speed (Super Turbine 300 or Jetaway?) was particularly bad. Stepping on the gas would cause engine RPM to flair to a certain level, where it stayed during the entire acceleration, while the car crawled faster at a dismal pace. A 3 speed manual would have been much superior in this regard. The Powerglide car I had was similar, but with a 283, not as pronounced.
However, I would note that my elderly Hondas did quite well with their 4 speed automatics and small engines. My understanding is that Honda used a countershaft automatic design, rather than a planetary one. The shifts were harsher, which the owner’s manuals noted and advised, but in general, I never got the feeling that the engine power was “gobbled up” as with American cars.
Do you have any comments or advice about this?
I tend to refer to that transmission as “Super Turbine 300” (the Buick name) simply because there’s less chance of confusion; Oldsmobile called it “Jetaway,” but they had previously used that name for the four-speed dual-coupling Hydra-Matic (quite a different transmission!), and Pontiac seemed to mostly call it “automatic transmission” or “two-speed automatic transmission,” which is accurate but not very specific.
Two-speed automatics — which, in the interest of pertinence, also include Packard Twin Ultramatic — typically had a low gear of about 1.8 to 1. For the Packard, or for Powerglide, the low gear ratio was 1.82:1; Super Turbine 300/Jetaway/Pontiac two-speed automatic was 1.76:1. Considered strictly in terms of geared ratios, this was just slightly lower (higher numerically) than second gear in a typical wide-ratio three-speed manual transmission. However, that’s only part of the story: The torque converter provides additional multiplication in some operating regimes. A torque converter is functionally a continuously variable transmission, offering maximum multiplication at stall (the point where the engine precisely matches the inertia of the vehicle and the frictional resistance of the drivetrain, just before the car starts to move) and gradually dropping off to close to 1:1.
Packard, which like Buick had originally intended that most driving rely solely on the converter for maximum smoothness, used a rather high stall ratio, which in Twin Ultramatic cars was up to 2.9:1. Six-cylinder Pontiacs were very similar, with a stall ratio of 2.8:1. These ratios were close to the ratio of first gear in the three-speed manual transmission, but if you were starting in low gear, you’d get a maximum (“breakaway”) ratio of low gear times stall ratio: 4.93:1 for the Pontiac, 5.28:1 for the Packard. The converter multiplication would gradually fade as speed increased, dropping to nil at some point before the shift to high gear. So, on paper, the two-speed automatic was clearly superior to the three-speed, particularly since the converter multiplication was also potentially available in high gear (for example, when going up a hill while moving too fast for a kickdown to low).
However, subjectively, it felt like the engine was revving its guts out without producing any commensurate increase in forward motion. A torque converter provides mechanical advantage based on the speed difference between the impeller (driven by the engine) and the turbine (driving the transmission main shaft); in other words, it gets torque multiplication from slippage. The greater the multiplication, the greater the speed difference. This is true of any torque converter automatic, but it’s more pronounced with a higher stall ratio. (Had the Tempest had a 326, it would have had the same mechanical gearing, but a converter with a stall ratio of only 2.4:1; I don’t know offhand the stall ratio for 283/Powerglide Chevrolets, but it was probably similar.)
If the engine “flare” reminds you of a modern car with a CVT, that’s no coincidence. While the details of operation are different, the principle is essentially the same: Engine speed remains relatively constant as road speed gradually catches up with it. This is distinctly different than a conventional manual gearbox, where you (hopefully) have slippage only briefly as the clutch engages and each gear gives you a fixed ratio of engine speed to road speed. In fact, in the lowest gears, the ratio of engine speed to road speed may be so high that slight throttle variations make the car seem to lurch and waddle at parking lot speeds, where a torque converter transmission just oozes along as if the engine and transmission were communicating by leaving each other notes rather than actually interacting directly.
The Pontiac 6 — and I’m not sure if you mentioned if this was the pushrod 215 or the (presumably non-Sprint) OHC variety — was not an especially muscular engine. The pushrod version had 140 gross horsepower, the OHC 165. I don’t have net ratings for either, but given that these were low-revving 1-BBL engines, net output was clearly a fair bit lower, and the A-body Tempest was no lightweight (around 3,400 lb with a six and automatic). Figures I found for 0-60 times for the 1-BBL OHC engine and two-speed automatic range from 16.2 seconds (with the optional 2.78 economy axle) to 13.3 seconds (with the optional 3.36 performance axle), suggesting something around 15 seconds with the standard 3.08 rear end. The two-speed automatic may have consumed less power than a TH400, but any automatic was still eating up some power the six could hardly spare, so the three-speed manual was undoubtedly at least a bit quicker.
Modern conventional (non-CV) automatics typically have less of this “slipping the day away” feel for a number of reasons. For one, they generally don’t have high-stall converters (unless you install one for drag racing use or something like that), tending to run something in the realm of 2.0:1 and keeping stall speed low, so you feel the converter effect mainly at parking lot/crawling traffic speeds. For another, they have more forward speeds and lower (numerically higher) low gear ratios — something between 2.5:1 and 3.0:1 is customary for four-speed automatics. Finally, modern automatics are usually programmed to try to keep the converter locked as much as possible. Honda’s dual-shaft four-speed automatic had an aggressive lockup except in first and reverse (and their later five-speed automatic was similarly programmed in many applications), so the converter would be locked pretty much any time you were moving faster than a jogging pace. With the converter locked up — a feature, incidentally, of which Packard was a very early adopter — there’s no converter multiplication and no slippage because the engine is mechanically locked to the transmission input shaft.
I should clarify that the slippage noticeable during torque multiplication is completely different from the transmission’s power consumption. Any transmission consumes a certain amount of engine power due to internal friction and mechanical losses. With an automatic transmission, you also have a transmission oil pump (or, with some older transmissions, two pumps) that provides the operating pressure for the converter or coupling and for the hydraulic controls that operate the transmission’s various brakes and clutches. That’s entirely separate from transmission slippage; it’s more akin to the power consumed by running the air conditioner or accessories like a hydraulic power steering pump. In that respect, some two-speed automatics consumed less power than contemporary three- and four-speed automatics, particularly for light-duty applications.
Aaron, thank you, your explanation makes a lot of sense. The engine in the ’65 Lemans was a pushrod 215, and later, a Chevy 230 that I swapped in lieu of a rebuild. Also, your weight figure sounds right, as I had a 64 GTO that weighed 3460 lbs on a feed store scale without me and with 2/3rds of a tank of fuel.
Also, I’m guilty of comparing apples and oranges here, I think, as one of my Hondas weighed 2400 lbs and had ~106 HP. However, on reflection, I note that the Pontiac’s horsepower was gross, while the Honda’s was net, which would alter the power:weight ratio considerably. As you might imagine, the Honda felt peppier, and I do think that it was.
About the CVT: I was working a project in the Chicago areain 2013, and rented a small Chevy. I can’t recall the model, but it was by no means luxurious. Every morning, when driving from the hotel to the worksite, I had to make a left hand turn at a large intersection of federal highways. This was, I found out, a very dicey proposition. Sometimes (but not always), I would floor the pedal to make the turn, and the car would go; other times, the engine would rev, but the car would barely crawl. This was quite disconcerting when several semis in three lanes of oncoming traffic were approaching rapidly. Also, at times in mall parking lots, I would give the car a little pedal, trying to negotiate a speed bump, and the transmission would seem to lock up, rather than slip, and nearly snap my neck back. I never knew quite what I was going to experience when I stepped on the pedal.
I attributed behavior this to some sort of programming issue in the car’s software. I was, hoever, convinced that I did not want such a vehicle for my own. I also had a Ford rental, again I can’t recall the model (all I recall is that the dashboard controls looked like an old Wurlitzer juke box and were quite incomprehensible), that had similar properties as the Chevy, but not as severe. A somewhat larger Dodge V6 that I rented with a conventional transmission behaved normally. I can’t say that my CVT experiences interested me in owning one.
Thanks for your views on these matters — it was enlightening!
Aaron, I have been thinking about this 2 speed automatic issue more. Drag strip performance is a reasonable indicator of power, although a number of factors can enter into such data, like suspension and traction, but when looking at similar cars of lower power (e.g., ones that don’t have enough power to generate wheelspin on take off) it would seem that valid data regarding a transmission’s efficiency could be obtained. I’m not talking here about a theoretical efficiency, but something that could be used to gauge and compare real application of engine power to moving the vehicle.
We often have performance data for comparing an automatic-equipped car with a manual transmission car, with otherwise the same specifications in body weight and engine. Are there any data by which we can compare 2 speed vs. 3 speed automatics, or multiple speed automatics? For instance, in the early 50s, there was the Hydra-Matic factory fire that caused Olds and Pontiac to use different transmissions — is there any data by which we can compare similar cars using Hydra-Matics vs Powerglides or DynaFlows?
My take from your transmission discussions is this: torque converters make a valid contribution to car performance, as do gear boxes. Combining the Hydra-Matic gear box principle with the torque multiplication of torque converters, as seen in DynaFlows and Powerglides, as examples, resulted in the Turbo Hydra-Matic, a transmission superior to either the Olds-Cadillac approach or the Buick-Chevy approaches by themselves. My question here doesn’t involve driver quality issues, like smoothness of shifts and such, just how much engine power is really contributing to the car’s performance.
My impression of the 2 speed has been dismal. The ’65 Lemans with its 215″/230″ six could not get very close to the gas mileage I obtained from the ’66 Ford Fairlane station wagon I owned, equipped with a 3 speed C4 and a 289. The wagon must have weighed at least as much as the Lemans, and while the 289 was more powerful than the 6 by 30 or more horsepower and might have been expected to be quicker, despite a possibly heavier car, one would have thought that a more powerful engine in a car at least as heavy would have gotten less gas mileage than the Lemans. This would indicate to me that the 3 speed C4 was doing a better job on the ground than the 2 speed in the Lemans, even though some engineer’s slide rule at GM said otherwise.
Besides the Honda 4 speed auto in my Civic, I also have the 5 speed AISIN automatic in a S60 2.5T Volvo. It’s not quite as harsh as the Civic transmission, but seems to apply engine power quite well with minimal slippage and snappy performance. The sophistication of the transmission seems apparent to me, as the 3400 lb car doesn’t seem like it would give up very much performance at all to a manual transmission.
I would also like to add this note about automatics: regarding the 440 I built for a big Chrysler, and the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 in the 454 powered Chevy truck, in both cases, I felt that the automatics (A727 and TH 400) were superior to any manual, including a 4 speed, and I also feel the same way about a 425 Olds 88 and a 389 Pontiac Catalina I had, both with TH 400s, as well. Very few people can shift a 4 speed with the skill needed to gain an advantage over a good automatic consistently, so I considered the automatic to be the better performance choice, as well as the more convenient choice — in other words, a superior technology.
Barring engineering documents that may no longer exist, the principal means of estimating power losses from a powertrain are a chassis dyno and examining standing quarter mile acceleration data. Quarter mile results include two components: elapsed time (ET), which of course is what wins races, and trap speed, which provides a good measure of developed horsepower. A better launch, superior low-speed traction, greater torque, and other such factors will reflect in a better ET, but trap speed depends mostly on how much power the engine ultimately puts out. Drag racers have done a lot of shade tree experimentation on this sort of thing, although unfortunately they don’t necessarily publish engineering monographs on the results!
The superior mechanical efficiency of Powerglide is, in drag racing terms, reflected in trap speeds, where its lower power consumption becomes evident. Now, there is a compelling argument that in judging real-world performance, elapsed times are significantly more relevant, and a two-speed automatic tends to be a handicap in an elapsed time sense, especially with engines that need a lot more help in terms of torque multiplication. Fuel economy falls into dichotomy: A transmission’s mechanical efficiency may be clearly visible in steady-state fuel consumption figures, but real-world consumption may ultimately benefit more from additional geared ratios that allow the torque converter to slip less.
Also, as I mentioned before, the comparison GM engineers were making was not yet based on light-duty Simpson gearset three-speed automatics like the C4 and A904 TorqueFlite (which GM did not yet have), but on the big dual-coupling four-speed Hydra-Matic, the TH400, and to some extent the dump-and-fill three-speed Roto Hydra-Matic, which were bigger, heavy-duty transmissions designed for use with what we may loosely call big block V-8 engines, and were overkill for a six or a small V-8. (There was a light-duty Roto Hydra-Matic, used by the Y-body F-85/Cutlass and a number of bigger Holden and Opel cars, but it ended up making the case for a decent two-speed! The F-85 and the Y-body Buick Special weren’t exactly the same car, but they used variations of the same engine, and the Buick’s two-speed automatic provided better performance than the Oldsmobile’s three-speed auto.) The C4 and A904 were developed to address that same issue; I don’t have power consumption estimates at hand, but while they might have consumed a bit more power than Powerglide, PowerFlyte, or the two-speed Fordomatic, it wasn’t that much more and the benefits of the extra ratio more than made up for it in the real world.
I don’t want to minimize the point that a two-speed automatic was obviously cheaper to build, and there was obvious incentive to rationalize continuing that cost-saving. Slide rule calculations aside, the fact that every GM division but Cadillac decided in the early sixties to go on building two-speed automatics for years after their rivals had competent light-duty three-speeds (and it was years before GM had a light-duty three-speed as good as the A904) was more than a little perverse, particularly since the TH400 was an excellent transmission that could be extremely well-matched to contemporary V-8 engines.
Aaron, thank you for all of your information. It helps me understand these things better, besides making a lot of sense.
A few personal observations:
TH 400: I’ve had a total of four of these in my automotive experience. They were all excellent performers, very smooth and reliable. My Dad had them in vehicles and pulled travel trailers with them, also with perfect service. There were three 454s in this count, plus three 425/455 Oldss, and a 389 Pontiac. Great Detroit engineering! for performance, I found it best to start in low and leave it there for while, as it would shift up ~5200 RPM. No fuss or muss with these!
A727: I had one of these behind a built 440. I found it the equal of the TH 400, as it was very tough and reliable. It wasn’t as smooth as a TH 400, in that it upshifted with bands and clutches, rather than just clutches, but it was smaller in shape (this did nothing for my applications) and it had a 3-1 kickdown — going, say, 35 mph in drive and mashing it to the floor would kick it down to first, which was nice! Another great piece of hardware.
A904: I had one of these behind a 318. For the smaller car and engine, it acted just like its big brother: perfect!
C4: I had one of these behind a 289 and it was also a good performer, and totally reliable for me. I liked its “green dot – white dot” that allowed a start in 2nd, which was great for icy Montana driving. Too bad it wasn’t continued.
Then, a Honda Accord and Civic, both with 4 speeds, and a Volvo with a 5 speed AISIN — no complaints with either, and all with durable and pleasing long term service.
For me, if I gan obtain the performance and durability of these sorts of devices, I’m all for them and willing to pay for what I want (unlike a lot of the rest of the automatics I’ve described.
To return to Packard for a moment, it’s worth reiterating that the original (1949 to early 1954) Ultramatic was not, properly speaking, a two-speed automatic like Powerglide, but a “pure” torque converter transmission, akin to (though significantly different in detail from) the Buick Dynaflow and the earliest Chevrolet Powerglide transmissions. The object was not efficiency — which wasn’t a strong point, although Ultramatic was better in that respect than Dynaflow, at least for cruising economy — but a continuously variable transmission that would provide seamless, stepless acceleration. The only “shift” was the engagement or disengagement of the torque converter lockup clutch. Until it locked up, there was a lot of the flare-and-spin effect you noted with the later two-speeds, in particular because Packard’s twin-turbine converter design was intended to extend the torque multiplication stage over a broader speed range. Even with the biggest straight eight, this obviously wasn’t very brisk, especially since the stall ratio was initially only about 2.4:1.
The three-speed Simpson gearset transmissions (TorqueFlite, Turbo Hydra-Matic, C4 and C6 Cruise-O-Matic) eventually proved to be a much better match for American V-8s. Even smaller V-8s like the Ford 289 or Chrysler LA-series engines had good mid-range torque, and they were not high revvers in an absolute sense, so the wide gear spacing of a typical Simpson gearset (approximately 2.5/1.5/1.00) was fine for most real-world operating conditions with typical axle ratios. The torque curve of most V-8 engines of the sixties made it fairly easy to match the shift points to the engine; when it was done well, which it often was, the engine and transmission matched steps like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with the converter smoothing out any gaps and of course providing easy flexibility at very low speeds. (I personally am a pretty staunch manual gearbox partisan, but the ability to crawl along with just the converter has its appeal for slow traffic and parking lot speeds.) Where that arrangement eventually proved inadequate was with smaller-displacement engines, which needed shorter gearing to make up for their modest torque and thus a taller top gear to keep cruising RPM within reason.
One element to what you are saying, Aaron, is that customers would have found Ultramatic good enough — being relieved of the burden of shifting must have been a great advancement to folks of the 1950 timeframe.
Many years ago, I drove a friend’s dad’s Packard. It was one of the bathtub models, and I’m sure that it was a lesser model. As I recall, it had been owned by a rural postman. For the life of me, I can’t recall what sort of transmission it had. I only drove it around an old subdivision neighborhood, so I never got it going very fast. I only recall that it felt extremely ponderous, that the steering wheel was like a ship, in that it needed to be flung around and rotated many times to make it around a corner, and that the ride was very smooth — almost like the car smashed bumps flat, rather than going over them. Someone in the market for such a car probably wouldn’t be impressed by snappy acceleration.
Still, it would have been interesting to see how such a car would have responded to a 60s-style 3 speed automatic, as there would have been torque aplenty there, as well.
But back to the point, the fact that so many bought Powerglides in full-sized Chevys, and that Dynaflow was retained through the 50s and into the 60s, and that other 2 speed automatics remained with Ford and Mopar in bread and butter cars shows, I think, that most people wouldn’t have minded such performance in 1950.
Judging by contemporary reviews, it was not uncontroversial even in 1950.
Basically, no one was happy with the contemporary three-speed manual transmission: Even if you weren’t philosophically opposed to shifting for yourself, the typical manual transmission of the time had a ropy column shift linkage, no synchromesh on low or reverse, and less-than-ideal ratios. Four-speeds in those days were mainly found on imports and pickup trucks (the latter having extra-low granny gears intended mainly for getting out of a muddy ditch with a load), barring accessory overdrive units added to standard three-speeds. So, generally not a happy arrangement by most standards.
However, as to self-shifting, buyers did have a choice. Hydra-Matic was quite well-established by 1950, and provided reasonably reliable self-shifting with relatively little cost in efficiency. There were also ongoing improvements in passing kickdown and so forth. However, Hydra-Matic tended to be jerky, especially if the bands and linkages weren’t adjusted just right, so you felt every shift, and there were a lot of those. Also, because it had a straight fluid coupling rather than a torque converter, there was a sizable gap between first and second that was less than ideal for performance. Hydra-Matic was an engineer’s transmission — effective, but maybe a little too busy and complicated for the tastes of laymen. Dynaflow, Ultramatic, and Powerglide were exactly the opposite: completely seamless, in a manner more fitting the character of a late forties Buick or bathtub Packard, but at enormous cost in performance and efficiency. (Packard mitigated the cruising efficiency problem with the lockup converter, but with the early Dynaflow or Powerglide, you kept paying for its smoothness at the gas pump.) With the Buick and Packard, eight-cylinder torque made the performance hit fairly acceptable as long as you were okay with a leisurely pace, but Powerglide-equipped Chevrolets were pretty hopeless unless you made regular use of Low gear.
Chevrolet swiftly realized that wasn’t going to fly and extensively reengineered Powerglide (for 1953) to start in Low normally and shift automatically to High. Packard eventually followed suit about two years later, although the two-speed Ultramatic still let you start in High and rely on the converter if you wanted the smoothest driving experience. Buick resisted pretty strenuously, adding a whole lot of bells and whistles to Dynaflow (and its Twin Turbine successor) to give better converter performance; Buick didn’t introduce its first true two-speed automatic until Dual-Path Turbine Drive arrived for the Y-body Special in 1961!
The later Twin Turbine transmissions, used until the introduction of Turbo Hydra-Matic, came reasonably close to doing what the original Dynaflow had tried to do, in providing smooth, stepless, reasonably brisk acceleration on the converter alone. There was still a performance advantage to using Low (maybe 1.5 to 2 seconds to 60 mph), but it was pretty adequate in Drive. Where Twin Turbine still didn’t measure up was in passing response, which was mediocre even with the variable-pitch stator. The later four-speed Hydra-Matic transmissions were much better in that respect, as was Turbo Hydra-Matic.
It wasn’t until TorqueFlite arrived (in late 1956, not broadly available until 1957) that the three-speed torque converter automatics had a clear advantage. The BorgWarner/Ford/Studebaker variety, were essentially two-speed transmissions with an additional low gear that had to be manually engaged. The lockup version of the BorgWarner DG provided good cruising efficiency, but wasn’t very flexible, and the non-lockup variety (or the related Fordomatic) wasn’t anything like as crisp or efficient as TorqueFlite or the later Ford C6/C4 transmissions. TorqueFlite was a strong alternative to Hydra-Matic, but it wasn’t yet as smooth as the dual-coupling Hydra-Matic or the later Turbo Hydra-Matic, much less the better-developed Buick twin-turbine converters.
So, this was an area where buyer tastes might well have steered people to one make over another. In particular, the comparative advantages and drawbacks of Hydra-Matic and Dynaflow gave Oldsmobile and Buick distinct identities in ways they had trouble maintaining after Turbo Hydra-Matic finally took over. (There were strong feelings about the comparative merits of Buick and Oldsmobile V-8s, but those were arguably less tangible than the transmission differences had been.)
Aaron, you aren’t doing me any favors, offering the choice of a Dynaflow or a Slim Jim!
Some of the early 60s GM cars are great favorites of mine, starting with the ’62 Olds Starfire, which I like from boyhood. I also liked the ’63 Olds styling, and tried but failed to buy a ’63 Olds 98 convertible as a youngun. ’63 Rivieras are also quite a favorite of mine.
However, when I got old enough to learn a few things, I found out that an Olds with a Slim Jim was a recipe for failure — they were common disasters back then. Also, GM cars from ’58 to ’64 had very weak frames over the rear wheels. Even though Buick didn’t have the X-frame and came with a torque tube, it was weak and failed in the same way as the rest of GM’s offerings from those years. This isn’t just opinion, including on the Buick, as my demolition derby experience can back this up. (As you see, I’m a person of rarified tastes!)
As far as the other aspects of performance, The big Olds 394 was a heavy monster, but not much for breathing, a very “vanilla” design with a reasonable, but not exceptional amount of power. Buick’s 401, with its odd head design and port/valve arrangement, was no great shakes in the power department, either. Ford, Mopar, and Pontiac had it all over Buick and Olds in the power department back then.
Still liking the Starfire’s looks and all, and hating Dynaflows in all their permutations, I’d now have to choose the ’63 Riviera from the choice you offered.
But back to shifting and the 3-speeds, I am reminded that Packard’s 3 speed manual transmissions were of their own design, and not from Warner Gear, like Studebaker and so many other independents. Packard offered a synchronized first gear in their 3 speeds of those days, and I think that this was offered before WW2.
I have no experience with cast iron Torqueflites, but the aluminum case A727 allowed Mopars to dominate Automatic Super Stock classes at the drags for quite some time in those days, because it was the only automatic that stood up to big block torque and put power to the ground.
I will admit that a Torqueflite may not be quite as elegant as a Turbo Hydramatic 400, but it was a capable and durable unit that had no problems being coupled to Cummins diesels in later years.
But referring back to the Ultramatic period that we’re talking about, there’s always the “Fluid Drive” they offered up until the Powerflites of the early 50s. I have never driven one, but without even torque multiplication, they must have been a truly dismal performance choice.
Chrysler’s Fluid Drive and Fluid-Matic were actually not terrible in terms of performance IF you used both driving ranges, which most people did not. As with the old Oldsmobile Automatic Safety Transmission, it had four speeds divided into two ranges. The brochure said you could just use High range for most driving, so that’s what people did, sacrificing the added multiplication of the lower gears. This is part of why PowerFlite wasn’t seen as step down; Fluid-Matic theoretically had more ratios, but drivers rarely bothered!
There were a few all-synchronized three-speed manual transmissions, including Packard’s, offered at least as early as 1932! (Packard also added overdrive (Econo-Drive) as an option from 1939, although it would have been appreciated on earlier 120 and Six models, which had a rather steep axle ratio.) However, it wasn’t the norm, nor was it the priority as true automatics became available. It really took the popularity of European and Japanese imports to revive interest in decent manual transmissions. The only reason the old three-speed survived as long as it did was as an excuse to compute the list price of all but the top-of-the-line models without automatic, although finding a midsize or full-size car with three on the tree wasn’t easy, and you would not be rewarded for your diligence in either driving experience or resale value.
I’m not sure that the Ford 352 or 390 had much if anything over the Oldsmobile 392 Rocket or Buick 401 in terms of performance. (The relationship of the NASCAR variants to the normal cooking item found in a Galaxie or Thunderbird was remote, and the standard engine was not long on breathing or performance either, as evidenced by the mediocre performance of Ford’s intermediate Supercar wannabes.) The pick of that class was probably the 383, the 383-equipped Barracuda notwithstanding.
For the record, the ’63 Riviera still had Twin Turbine, trading it for the TH400 (Super Turbine 400) the following year. So, if you wanted an original-flavor Riv with ST-400, you’d want a ’64, although I have to say I personally would not be satisfied without the ’65 Riviera’s clamshell headlight doors, presuming they could still be coaxed into working.
Generally, I gauge performance potential by head flow, especially intake head flow, and multiply that x2 for V8s, x1.5 for sixes, and consider cfm = hp for fours, speaking of potential.
Even the early Hemis were not the magic bullet in this department, as is most commonly accepted in “Old Stove” societies, where pining for the “Good Ole’ Days” is de rigueur. It’s hard for some folks to accept that 392s in ’58 300s were not as powerful as the 413s in ’59s, for instance.
When the early 60s came around, things began to change with American V8s. For instance, in ’62, the Chrysler 300 413s had some exceptional heads made available from the factory, and these heads came out again on the ’67 HiPo 440s, and in ’68 with the open chamber 3902 castings, even the vanilla 383s and 440s got some potentially fine-flowing heads. (I’ve run these 3902 heads myself, and they do work!)
Pontiac had a similar situation: The heads used on 389s up to ’66 were really doggy, compared to the ’67 400 heads. I had a 65 GTO with a 389, and a ’64 GTO with a ’69 400, both with the same tripower intake, and what I experienced on the street was shown by the difference in head flow, which was a real step up in ’67.
Buick, in going from the Nail Head motors to the 400-430-455 big blocks, experienced a big boost, due again to head flow, and the Stage 1 motors were even more of the same. A Stage 1 Buick in the late 60s was a real sleeper. But regarding Nail Heads, even retro-builds today don’t really get very much power from them. As a kid looking at library books, I often thought that Nail Heads were shortchanged: Looking at the cutaway of the X100 V8, it seemed clear to me at the time that someone left off half of the 4 valve cylinder head from the production engines.
Over in Chevy-ville, 348s were not especially high-flowing and had the reputation of “boat anchors” (I had a friend who had a HiPo 305 horse 348 — it had a hipo Powerglide, if you will excuse the expression), but the HiPo 409s later on could deliver some real big-block style horsepower. The lopo 325-350 396s were nothing much, compared to the competition, but the big ported HiPo 396s and 427s did make plenty of power. Part of this also had to do with cams. I cammed an oval port 454 with a mild grind and the thing really woke up, for instance.
383s and 440s were always a threat, especially with the good heads in the later 60s, but Chrysler really did a good job with their performance cars. Even the 340s, based on the lowly LA, were nothing to take lightly in a little Dart.
I’ve had pretty good experience with Fords, but this was by observation, not personal ownership. Ford really didn’t get into really awesome territory until they got better heads for 427s and 428s, like the 428 CJ and SCJ (“Medium riser” style). One issue here, I think, was sticking with small carburetion and little cams in a lot of their cars. I do know from humiliating personal experience that a 389 Pontiac was no match for a 429 SCJ!
Olds never did really have anything with good heads. Some of their performance cars did well on the street, such as the W30 motors. I had a vanilla 425 that I tricked up a little and scared up some pretty interesting street action. The 442s, Toronados, and later W30 style stuff had larger lifters with pretty authoritative cams in some applications, but even these engines didn’t have as much potential as the contemporary Stage 1 Buicks.
My estimation of power potential for 394 Olds and 401 Buicks (remembering that they all came in large cars, except for one 401 installation) would be to pass them by for a Pontiac, if one was to stay in pure GM territory. A rare HP 409 would be above a Pontiac in the early to mid 60s. (Recall that Mickey Thompson selected four Pontiacs for his Challenger I LSR attempt car.) Cadillac would be in the Buick-Olds category until the 472-500 era, and those were in tremendous barges.
Up until the mid-60s, the 383-413-426 was a good bet, depending on the state of tune, for most any challenge.
390s and 406s, and even the earliest 427s with the same heads, were in the nothing to go wild about department, but Ford soon fixed that and, in the end, even Ferrari found out about the FE. Furthermore, the 428 CJs turned in some fine drag strip performance.
But anything with a Slim Jim, I would certainly pass by. Even a Dynaflow is a better choice.
Regarding transmissions, Ford had a nice 3 speed toploader that came out in the early 60s, with a synchronized first. GM even bought it for some of the base performance applications. I have nothing bad to say about any 4 speed, but my hands on experiences were with BW T10 and Muncie boxes, after which I went with Turbo 400s and Torqueflite A727s. I did not miss rowing gears at that point.
I agree with you wholeheartedly about a ’64 Riviera with Turbo Hydra Matic 400 over the Dynaflow equipped ’63. I only wanted to make a fair comparison between a dog (Dynaflow) and a disaster (Slim Jim). ’65 is OK, but the visor headlights are little too much over the top for me, I confess. My interest at that point would be a Nail Head 425 with two fours. Very few American V8s look as nice as a dressed up Nail Head! Also, back home in New Mexico, an old “Riv” is the height of low rider royalty, so I have a culturally ingrained preference for the Riviera.
One thing about the Fluid Drive: looking at those, and all of the iron Chrysler cast into the installation, I would have to think that the huge weight of that conglomeration of Fe atoms would have been enough to anchor the Queen Mary.
I don’t disagree with your observations except to note that during the period you were mentioning (1963–64), Ford did not yet have a lot in the way of performance choices for the street beyond the 427, which was not well-suited for general use and not widely used outside of racing (the unavailability of automatic and power steering were pretty strong deterrents). The Thunderbird 352 Special was a stone, the 390 was at heart a station wagon engine, and the initial non-CJ 428 was just more of it. The 428CJ, with its hybrid of 428 block and 427 heads, was a distinct improvement, but it didn’t come along until, if I recall correctly, mid-1968. A 390-4V Thunderbird Special was not a match for a Pontiac 389 in breathing or performance.
Yes, as I recall, the Medium Riser FE heads didn’t come along until around 1966, and were an outgrowth of the LeMans project, I believe. The CJ and 390 GT heads were based on these, but without the machined combustion chambers. The “7 Litre” 428s used in regular sedans were “vanilla” motors.
The earlier “Hi riser” heads, with their tremendously tall intake ports, were not practical for the street, since they required a hood with the famous bubble scoop. Anyway, it wasn’t the size that did the job for the Hi riser heads. The flow was along the roof (as usual), giving a straighter shot for the flow through the valve and into the cylinder. It probably would have been more advantageous if Ford would have just moved the port up, rather than made it larger.
The Medium riser heads had nearly the flow of the High risers, but being much smaller in cross section, had better mid-range torque, which was needed for the turns of Le Mans. They fit under the hood, too!
Later, around ’67, Ford came out with the Tunnel Port, which were great oval holes that went directly to the valves, and used a pressed in tube for the pushrod to pass through. These used a giant 2.25″ intake.
But the ultimate FE was the ’65 SOHC 427, which even slightly exceeded the flow of the 426 Hemi. Banned by NASCAR, for which it was intended, it made 617 hp with a single quad and 667 with the dual quad setup, was successful in Top Fuel, and dominated Funny Cars for a time.
The final 427 in the late 60s had a hydraulic cam; before this, all 427s had solid lifter cams.
Pontiac did have some good performance from the Super Duty 389s and later 421s in the late 50s and early 60s. Ford 406s, Chevy 409s, and Mopar 413s would have had hard times with this sort of iron. Mickey Thompson’s 389s were seen as having the greatest power potential of their day. This gap didn’t last long, as Max Wedge 426s and Z-11 409s (really 427) came along, and then Ford’s 427 as a 63 1/2 year release. (406s were little more than a 390 with a 4 1/8 bore.) During this time, Pontiac made a really strong push for performance, despite GM’s “ban on racing” that was in place at the time, not only at the drags, but in NASCAR, as well.
Ultimately, however, in their final performance iteration in the late 60s, Pontiac began to fade. The basic head design turned down the exhaust port to tuck the exhaust manifolds into underhood confines. There was no way the original designs were going to out-breathe a big block Chevy in either intake or exhaust, although Pontiac tried with a Tunnel Port Ram Air V version. Pontiac even spaced the ports like an FE tunnel port in this case, and the heads were intended not only for the 400s, but for a short stroke 303 version intended for Trans-Am racing under Jerry Titus.
Pontiac had agressively tuned high performance machinery available from the dealer, and granted, the “Police” options available for the 352 and 390s in the early 60s were not especially powerful, even including the 406. This was real performance on the street. Ford did campaign MEL-motored Square Birds in NASCAR, but the MEL was never refined as a performance motor at all, despite some of them sporting the obligatory 3×2 carb setup (as did the 390, and as did, famously, Pontiac and the J2 Olds.)
To digress: i ran Tri Power, and it sure did look good. But by the late 60s, even a Quadrajet had more power potential. A dual plane 3×2 manifold is a labyrinth of downtubes. Furthermore, the 2G Rochesters were not particularly large, even the bigger versions used on the end. Pontiac went to a pair of AFBs for their true performance motors, and by the late 60s, even the Quadrajet intake was a fairly respectable piece of hardware, and even if the piece of zinc on top of it was not, it still flowed as much as Tri Power without the convoluted manifold. Why GM and Ed Cole, who should have known this, got to clutching their pearls over Tri Power (including the Olds version0 in ’66, I’ll never understand. It made no difference for the 442, and in ’67, Pontiac’s Qjet 400 was a much bigger gun than any Tri Power 389 could hope to be.
I hate Quadrajets almost as much as a Slim Jim, but were I intending a Pontiac for serious work, a Qjet-equipped Ram Air or even SD 455 would be a starting place, if limited to stock pieces, not a antiquated Tri Power setup.
Performance aside, I would like an M-code 3×2 Tbird!
As far as head flow of early 60s Bonneville 389s versus Galaxie 390s, I don’t think that there would be a lot to choose from when limited to street (~0.400″) lift cams. Both are going to net about 200 CFM and give, potentially, about 400 hp when the intake and exhaust is optimized. Both would probably come in at about the same weight with an aluminum intake, and both would have a fair exhaust system based on factory iron manifolds, though I’d agree that Pontiac iron is more readily available than Ford iron in this department, and that stock 390 exhausts are dismal.
Summing up on this last point, for me, it would come down to the car more than the engine to make the choice. Both used the same BW T10, but if automatics are concerned, the Cruise-O would beat any Slim Jim, hands down. For sedans, I like the 63-64 Fords better than the same year Pontiacs, although the Grand Prix was a nice looking car. The T Bird, however, is another story and would more properly compete with the Riviera of those years.
Going past into ’65 and after, I like the build of the GM sedans better than the Fords, and the Turbo Hydra Matic 400 is also a big plus. Here, Olds and Buick would be more interesting for me: the new Olds was a good engine, and I still like the Nail Head. ((BTW, I had ’65 and ’66 Olds 88s and a ’66 Catalina.)
Later than this, and I’m not keen on the newer 335 and 385 Ford engines, and the big cars are “meh!” GM is slightly better in this department. Mopars mostly before ’68 had some nice style, but after aren’t appealing to me. But B-RB engines are always a plus, and on the street, they could run with anyone’s stuff in whatever level of tune one cares to specify. Recall the true facts of “Bullitt”: the big 440 Dodge had to be sandbagged for Steve’s 390 Mustang to keep up, even though the Mustang is an icon now.
For intermediates, I still think that my ’65 GTO was one of the nicest styled cars of the ’60s. ’66 and ’67 were nice, too, but ’65 was clean and crisp, to my eyes, while ’64 (I had one of these, too) was too “Pontiac-ish” with an ugly grille. But I could still go for a 401 Buick, or a ’66 – ’67 Fairlane 390. Some of the Plymouth-Dodge intermediates of ’65 are nice, and even though 440s weren’t available then, that would make quite a nice car!
But seriously, Aaron, all of this is quite a bit of nostalgia. I must be getting old, for none of this is equal in quality build or refinement to my Volvo. And, to twist wrenches again, a tuner Honda would be, I think, more interesting now.
The quad headlamps on the ’58 Studebakers and Packardbakers were extremely awkward, looking like the add-ons they were. A net esthetic negative.
I’m curious as to how long a Packard that did everything “right”, and have had more work out for it, would have survived. I share Aaron’s suspicion of alternate history mergers-my feeling is that the “best” case for Packard is living as a clunky badge-engineered model that’s basically a higher trim level for its buyer (likely AMC/Rambler) in practice, and the worst case is it gets grabbed for its dealers and nothing else.
My gut instinct is that an independent surviving Packard gets its mid-level stuff walloped by the 1958 recession and then either folds or gets bought out (see above for its fate in that case), or shares Studebaker’s fate if it “successfully” diversifies. Even the rosiest scenarios in my mind have it stagger into the 1960s with an aging loyalist customer base and then collapse in the face of increased regulations and imports.
I’ve not read all these remarks, but I have couple of remarks. My father was a body engineer in the final days. As I was not quite a toddler, I’m not certain, but one obituary I’ve seen said he was head of body engineering. I do recall the test track when I was three years old including the badlands. That said, aside from bad management at the top of the company I believe that neither GMC or Ford wanted a viable Packard. Had Packard been able to maintain its position as the luxury car it had been Lincoln and Cadillac would have been the losers. I was too young to see the economy, but aside from obvious competition problems and bad decisions at the top, size was against Packard. All that said I have very fond memories of Packard.
I note a comment about Romney. Though I’m not an engineer, where my Dad was, I did work as a CAD designer at Morrison Knudsen in the mid-1990s before it went down. A number of our process engineers and paint engineers had worked for AMC while George was running it. None of these men had positive remarks about him and each said he ran the company into the ground.
In principle, GM and Ford actually wanted Studebaker-Packard to survive, although both stopped short of actually taking positive steps to make that happen. (Ford came closer, as it happened.) The reason was that they — and most particularly GM — were uneasy about how it would look if they and Chrysler were the only players in the U.S. industry rather than just the dominant players. (GM corporate management spent the fifties and sixties being mortally afraid that the Justice Department was going to split them up on antitrust grounds.) Now, how Cadillac and Lincoln-Mercury management felt about that was probably a different story, although by the mid-fifties, it had been years since Packard had been a serious threat.
There were things that GM and Ford did that made it harder for the independents to survive — the price war and the rapid advance of styling changes, to name two — but there wasn’t some secret plot involved.
A few comments –
On the caption of the 2nd photo of the 1953 Caribbean, wire wheels were standard on the 1953 and 1954 Caribbean. They were optional on all models from 1954 to 1956 (the wheels were different between the Clipper and Senior models).
On the “Conner Avenue” section – Packard built its engines and transmissions at the East Grand Blvd. plant until the end of 1954. The engines and trans were built at the Utica plant for 1955 and 1956.
On “The Studebaker Merger” section – At Packard’s board of director’s meeting on April 19, 1954, George Mason’s proposal to merge Packard with AMC was made to the Packard board. The minutes read: “Mr. Nance had advised Mr. Mason that [the presentation that Mason made to Nance in January 1954] would be presented to the Packard Board. Therefore, at Mr. Nance’s request, Mr. [Walter] Grant, using charts furnished by Mr. Mason, made the presentation to the Board. No official action was taken.” Thus, the Packard board never officially turned down Mason’s proposal – they just tabled it.
On “The Fall of East Grand Blvd.” section – The Caribbean pictured is a 1955 model. Note the smaller clock (all 1956 models had a larger clock, with a sweep second hand, the first ones used in an American car).
Thanks for the notes — when I have a few moments, I’ll take another look at the text, in particular regarding the photo IDs.
Okay, I have gone through the text and my notes (which are somewhat fragmentary, since they’re now over a decade old) and sought to correct the text. Your last point was rather embarrassing for me because even the filename of that image clearly identifies it as a ’55 model, which it unequivocally is! I also corrected the with regard to the Utica plant, which as you note was quite new, at least as an engine/transmission plant, and deleted the reference to the wire wheels in the other photo caption you noted.
Regarding the Mason proposal, you are of course correct (and I amended that paragraph), although I think in context, it did constitute a pretty clear rebuff. It wasn’t in Packard’s interests to burn bridges with Nash, but the board’s collective heart was set on Studebaker, and I assume it was clear to everyone concerned that the intent was to leave the door open to other Nash-Packard collaborations rather than imply that the board was likely to revisit Mason’s proposal.