Gear Head – The End of the Detroit-built Packards: 25 June 1956

Gear Head

'56 Packard_Patrician_Mojave_tan-Dover_white

One of only 4,775 built – a 1956 Packard Patrician Touring Sedan. The colors for this particular car are Mojave Tan and Dover White.

25 June 1956, Conner Avenue, Detroit, Michigan: instead of closing the assembly line down for changeover to the new tooling for the all-new ’57 Packards, when 5682-4775, a Patrician Touring Sedan, was driven off of the final assembly line, Packard production in Detroit ended completely. We’ve covered most of this ground previously, but on this day, the anniversary of Packard’s demise, we should briefly visit it again. I was nine years old when Packard closed. Even as a kid, I was a Packard nut. When I heard on the radio that Packard was closing, I cried.

james-ward-packard

James Ward Packard

The Packard Motor Car Company had its beginning in 1899 when James Ward Packard, unhappy with the Winton car he had purchased, accepted Winton’s challenge: “If you think you can build a better car, do it” (or words to that effect). The first Packard was completed in 1899, and the car has survived.

Packard Golden Anniversary-Old_no._1

The first Packard ever built leads a procession of 2,000 Golden Anniversary model Packards out of the Packard Proving Grounds in 1949. Seven model years later, the real Packards would be gone.

The Packard Motor Car Company earned fame early on for a four-cylinder aluminum speedster called the “Gray Wolf,” released in 1904. It became one of the first American racing cars to be available for sale to the general public. With the 1916 release of the Twin Six, with its revolutionary V-12 engine, Packard established itself as the country’s leading luxury-car manufacturer. World War I saw Packard convert to war production earlier than most companies, and the Twin Six was adapted into the Liberty Aircraft engine, by far the most important single output of America’s wartime industry.

While Packard early-on developed a significant business building marine and aircraft engines, its mainstay business was it automobile line. As a single-line manufacturer, with the onset of the Great Depression, Packard was challenged to find a way to survive when other single line manufacturers were failing. The answer was to build a lower-priced car.

packard-120-1935-5

1935 Packard 120 Touring Sedan – the “120” designation refers to the length the wheelbase: 120 inches.

To do so, Packard hired George Christopher from General Motors as production chief. Christopher had performed brilliantly for GM at Pontiac and Buick. At Packard, he gave the company the production finesse needed to successfully bring the lower-priced Packard, the 120 to market.

While Christopher was a production genius, he had a flawed view of Packard’s role as an auto producer. It is supremely ironic that while he “saved” Packard during the Depression, he sowed the seeds of Packard’s destruction in the mid-1950s. No one has ever argued that Packard should not have built a lower-priced car, a line that would generate volume that would cover plant overhead and fund development of new cars with new features. Aside from the mistake of building the six-cylinder 110-115 series spun off of the 120, Packard’s fatal mistake under Christopher was to build too few luxury models. The six was a mistake, not because it didn’t sell – it sold very well for Packard. But it cheapened the Packard image and Packard’s traditional luxury car buyers turned in increasing numbers to Cadillac for the exclusivity they sought. The six should not have been called a Packard. It is, correctly in my view, often argued that the 120 also should have been named something other than Packard.

PACKARD-GGB-TOLL_BOOTH

This 1937 Packard 115 business coupe was the first car to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge when the bridge opened in 1937. Here it is seen as its driver, the head of the Golden Gate Transit District, is paying the last cash toll ever collected on the bridge. The 115 (and it’s 110 sibling) sold in great quantities for  Packard – but these six cylinder Packards helped cede Packard’s luxury car reputation to Cadillac.

In the immediate post-war years, Christopher seemed to increasingly try to aim Packard at Buick and completely shut Packard out of the luxury market. Buick hung on to its straight eight engine while Oldsmobile and Cadillacs went to modern overhead valve V-8s. Christopher refused to let his engineers develop a V-8 for Packard. Buick went its own way with its automatic transmission, the Dynaflow, while Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Pontiac used GM’s Hydramatic Drive automatic transmission. While refusing to allow the development of a Packard V-8, Christopher, who was now calling all the shots at Packard, green-lighted the Ultramatic Drive automatic. Buick see, Packard do.

Stylist John Rinehart at Packard had his fine design ready and that car SHOULD have been the Golden Anniversary model 23rd Series. But Christopher wouldn’t build it.

'51 Packard Patrician

1951 Packard – this design should have been the Golden Anniversary 23rd Series cars introduced in 1949. That it wasn’t was one of a series of post-war blunders that brought about Packard’s end.

In 1949, the Packard board had at long last had enough and forced Christopher out. Packard approached the highly-regarded James Nance to replace Christopher. Nance didn’t have an automotive background, but was looked upon as being one of the most capable managers in American industry. Nance turned Packard down – at the time, but was finally lured to Packard in 1952.

In the meantime, the chairman of Nash, George Mason, correctly saw that the post-war sellers market wouldn’t last and there would be a shakeout of independent manufacturers. Mason intended to be among the survivors and hatched a plan to become the fourth full-line manufacturer of cars. His vision was to merge Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard into what would be called American Motors.

Initially Packard resisted as did Studebaker. However, Mason and Nance had talks about how this might all come together. A parts-sharing plan was outlined. It was agreed that Mason would buy Hudson and Nance would buy Studebaker. Then the two halves would be folded together to complete American Motors. There were flaws, serious flaws, in how the plan was carried out. In retrospect, it seems that some of the flaws may have been visible, but were ignored under the assumption that it would all be sorted out in the final merger.

Just at the time Nash bought Hudson and Packard merged with Studebaker, Mason (who chain-smoked cigars) died of pneumonia. His successor, George Romney, had a very different vision for Nash than did his late boss. It didn’t help that Romney and Nance didn’t see eye-to-eye on many things. While Nance and Romney each in their own way were fine executives, it appears that some testosterone-fueled rivalry kept the two from working together as they should have. The result was that Romney refused to complete the merger and cancelled the component-sharing agreements with Nance.

In the meantime, Nance was working to modernize Packard and launch an all-new car and develop a volume line of a different name. The new Packard would share many components under the skin with the new volume Clipper line and with Studebaker. Belatedly, Packard launched development of a V-8. The late Packard historian Robert Neal argued, correctly in our view, that Packard should have had the V-8 on the market no later than 1953. As it was, the V-8 was rushed to market for 1955. Its hasty development put it on the market with some issues that would have been sorted out prior to going to market had proper development time occurred. This wound up hurting Packard severely in 1955 and was one of the factors in Packard’s closure on 25 June 1956.

Aside from Romney welching on the completion of the merger plan, Nance and Packard were hit with a perfect storm of events that culminated in Packard’s closure. All the things that hit Packard take one’s breath away:
• Packard built a new engine and transmission plant in Utica, MI, near the Packard proving grounds. This new, modern, automated plant was built to produce Packard’s new V-8 and revised Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission, but it was also built to manufacture the aviation and marine engines Packard built. Packard had secured a contract to build many of the jet engines for the Air Force B-47 bomber. Nance was counting on the cash flow from this contract to fund the new car line. Ex-GM chairman, now Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson yanked Packard’s (and Studebaker’s) defense contracts. It is highly likely that this was a deliberate move on Wilson’s part to protect Cadillac as Wilson certainly knew of Nance’s determination to restore Packard’s role as America’s luxury car leader.

Packard-1956patrician

A 1956 Packard Patrician Touring Sedan. These cars are particularly elegant in dark solid colors as seen here. With Torsion-Level ride, the industry’s first power door locks, and the most powerful engine on the market, these were the most advanced cars of their time.

• One of the things Christopher had done to help seed Packard’s destruction was to contract the building of Packard bodies to Briggs at the time Packard introduced its original Clipper prior to World War II. Briggs was building Packard’s bodies at its plant on Conner Avenue in Detroit. In 1953, with Briggs’ founder dead, his heirs elected to sell the company to Chrysler. Chrysler announced that it would not build Packard’s bodies. Packard was suddenly faced with having to build its own bodies again. All the events around that were a nightmare scenario in themselves. The debate was whether to move body production back to the main Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard, buy or lease Conner and continue to build bodies there and truck them over to East Grand for final assembly (as had been the practice) or move production completely to Conner. Conner was never intended as a complete production facility. The decision was made to lease (there was no money now to buy) Conner and move production to Conner. This resulted in making Conner a very cramped facility. It was difficult to lay it out for full production. This delayed the introduction of the ’55 models until January of 1955. Packard missed the historic fall introduction of new models. The initial cars out of Conner were full of assembly defects. The ’55 Packards quickly earned a bad reputation in the market. Although the bugs had largely been worked out by the time the ’56s were introduced, the damage had been done and customers were reluctant to buy. The 1955 model year had been the best year for sales in the history of the industry. Packard had benefitted to a degree from that, but not as much as it would have had they been able to get their cars to market on time and built to traditional Packard standards of quality. The 1956 model year slumped from 1955 for the industry and that slump hit Packard and Studebaker hard. Packard had to close the factory for the entire month of February 1956 to get production in line with inventories.

'57 Four Hundred

What we missed: the planned but still-born ’57 Packards

'57 Convertible jpg

• Nance fought hard to get funding to launch the all-new 1957 line. The banks and the insurance companies who were approached for working capital took a gimlet-eyed look at all that had befallen Packard and refused to fund the ’57s. Roy Hurley, the boss at defense contractor Curtiss-Wright wanted Packard’s engine/transmission plant in Utica for his own defense work. He stepped in with a “management contract” that led to Nance leaving Packard, Packard closing in Detroit, Studebaker continuing – but with no funds for new cars, and badge-engineered Studebaker Presidents posing as Packards for the 1957 and 1958 model years.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why 25 June 1956 (to borrow Roosevelt’s phrase) is a day that lives in infamy among lovers of the Packard marque.

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“I blame George Christopher for the whole come apart. He hated the Senior line and planned to salt the earth with junior Packards. There is your beginning of the end right there.”
“PacDoc1956”

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'56 Caribbean ad

Related:

The Greatest Packard of them All

Packard’s Executive Decision

Attempts To Revive Packard Over the Years

The Man Who Loves Packards (Part One)

The Man Who Loves Packards (Part Two)

6 Comments

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  1. What I wouldn’t give to have that 1937 Packard!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Brownell 26/06/2017 — 05:31

    Although Packard survived for 59 years, the last three decades of its existence included a perfect storm of decisions that ultimately caused a premature death. This article includes the two edged sword of the lower priced line of cars, the fateful decision to contract bodies to Briggs, the delayed postwar innovations of bodies, transmission and engines, and the disasters of mergers and cancelled defense contracts that were key to financial survival. For those interested in the ultimate failures and outside influences in Packard’s downfall, I suggest trying to find the now out of print “The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company”, James A. Ward, 1995, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-3I65-9. This fascinating book has been used by numerous business schools as an instructive and cautionary account of what can happen when things, manageable and not, happen to fine companies like Packard. June 25, 1956 did not have to happen the way that it did. Every time I look at my Packard, built the week before, I realize that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent addition, Dave! You are right, for Packard aficionados, Ward’s book is a “must have.” It certainly captures the agony Nance went through trying to save the company. That they came as close as the did to pulling it off is a testament to the brains and sweat that went into their efforts. Nance and his team really gave it their all!

      Like

  3. Little if any is spoken of the Packard’s unselfish
    war effort in re-tooling their factories to fight and win WW II. There were no government subsidies to revert the factory after the war back to auto production. This is one of the key reasons Packard never fully recovered after the war. I often wonder what would happen today?
    I was told that there was a book written titled, “The Little Company that saved the Western World.” Has anyone seen of this or heard of it, or is it just a myth?
    Bill Packard

    Like

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