THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE PACKARD TWELVE
Despite the sluggish sales of the Twelve, Packard made a nominal profit for 1933. There were further losses in 1934, but they mostly reflected Packard’s massive investment in the launch of the new One Twenty, which went on sale in January 1935.
The One Twenty represented a paradigm shift for Packard. Unlike the Light Eight, the One Twenty was aimed squarely at the mid-priced field, competing with Buick and Chrysler. Although it was a well-designed, quality product, the One Twenty was also the first Packard built to a price. Packard’s previous models hadn’t exactly been cost-no-object, but expense was not the first consideration; even the hasty combination of the V-12 engine and DeLuxe Eight chassis was done more for reasons of time rather than cost. That had hampered the company’s previous attempts at an “entry-level” car, which had been too expensive to build and consistently lost money. By contrast, the One Twenty, developed under the supervision of GM veteran George T. Christopher, was designed from the start as a less-expensive mass-production car.
Perhaps inevitably, Christopher and new sales VP Max Gilman, who became Packard’s general manager in the summer of 1934, saw the Twelve and the senior Super Eight as dinosaurs. Although the Twelve’s sales were always modest — only 781 units in 1935, 682 in 1936 — it was expensive and labor-intensive to produce. To Gilman and Christopher, that simply made no sense. Gilman recognized that Packard needed the senior cars to maintain its prestigious image, but from an accounting standpoint, they were hard to rationalize. As a result, the Twelve slowly faded from view as the thirties went on.
Most of the changes to the Twelve were minor. The Eleventh Series added a short-wheelbase (if one can call 134.9 inches/3,426 mm short) Runabout Speedster and phased in aluminum cylinder heads for the V-12. The Twelfth Series, launched in August 1934, had a wider track and a vacuum booster for the clutch. The V-12 was stroked to 473 cu. in. (7,756 cc), providing 175 hp (131 kW) and 366 lb-ft (494 N-m) of torque, 180 hp (134 kW) with the optional high-compression heads.
With the 1937 Fifteenth Series, the Twelve belatedly received hydraulic brakes and Packard’s “Safe-T-fleX” independent front suspension, both of which had been used on the One Twenty from the beginning. At the same time, Packard demoted the Super Eight to the shorter chassis of the Eight, so the Twelve now had the long-wheelbase platform to itself. Those changes, along with a slowly recovering economy, brought the Twelve its best sales ever, about 1,300 units.
Although giving the Twelve its own exclusive chassis probably helped its marketability, it also rubbed George Christopher the wrong way — Christopher saw little reason that a car with such limited production should have its own expensive platform. For the Sixteenth Series, the Twelve and the Super Eight once again shared the same wheelbase. It was a sign of things to come: Christopher and Gilman had already decided that the Super Eight would eventually move to a stretched-and-strengthened version of the platform used by the junior cars.
The consolidation meant there was now little reason to buy a Twelve over a Super Eight except for the snob value of the extra cylinders. While the Twelve was more powerful, it also outweighed the Super Eight by more than 700 lb (320 kg), so its performance advantage was not vast and its price premium over the eight-cylinder car was enough to buy a One Twenty sedan. Combined with a new economic downturn in 1938, sales of the Twelve plummeted to 566 units.
By the arrival of the Seventeenth Series in September 1938, the Twelve’s days were numbered. That summer, Christopher transferred production of the Super Eight to the Junior Plant, which had been established in 1934 to manufacture the One Twenty. The slow-selling Twelve was now the sole product of the older “Senior Plant.” Given Christopher’s disdain for inefficiency, it required no great prescience to see what was coming next; production of the Twelve ended on September 19, 1938. Total production for its final season amounted to only 280 cars.
By then, most of Packard’s one-time rivals were gone. Peerless, which had contemplated a V-16 of its own, had left the auto industry by 1933. Pierce-Arrow, which introduced a V-12 engine in 1932, struggled through the Depression under the control of Studebaker and finally went bankrupt in late 1937. Cadillac’s own V-12 disappeared in 1937; a second-generation V-16, launched in 1938, survived for a year after the demise of Packard’s Twelve. Lincoln’s 12-cylinder Model K also died in 1940, leaving the Lincoln Zephyr’s undistinguished flathead V-12 as America’s only remaining multicylinder. It departed in 1948.