Starlight…Star Bright; Could It Have Ended
By: John Clark McCall, Jr.
Be sure to see John McCall’s ’56 Packard Patrician >>HERE<<
I have always had an affinity for the underdog…especially regarding automotive history and particularly the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. I am one of those individuals who truly believe that James Nance, S-P’s chief, from Packard’s buy-out of Studebaker in late 1954* until his departure in the cloudy summer of 1956, had his business heart and soul in the right place. He had an unerring mindset to make Studebaker-Packard America’s fourth largest producer of automobiles and trucks. He earnestly believed that in three years or so the Corporation would not only be viable but profitable.
* Nance arrived at Packard in 1952. The merger with Studebaker took place in 1954.
History shows that Nance’s goal was not to be, but in the process of trying…using every ounce of his driven persona and passing it on to S-P’s key personnel, some memorable automobiles emerged. We collect, cherish, and laude these products today. They appear to have transcended much of their earlier “orphan” image, and even a good deal of the bad press about issues such as poor weight distribution in the 1956 Packard-powered Studebaker Golden Hawk, the unreliability of Packard’s Twin Ultramatic transmission and the revolutionary Torsion-Level Ride system in the 1955-56 Packards and most Clippers. These cars draw a willing group of supporters. Maybe they are a bit forgiving—granted—but who blames defending cars as innovative, attractive, and road-worthy as these? Nance’s S-P showed the public that an independent producer could rock the industry with automobiles that were fresh and innovative—from a true family-sized sports car to a senior sedan that out-drove and out-styled the pudgy Cadillac, a competitor replete with the redolent scent of its owner’s brand new money. Cadillac was so concerned about the 1956 Packard Patrician that it procured one and did an exhaustive in-house report on how it stacked up against “the standard of the world.” Not surprisingly, this was a forbidden publication for prospective Cadillac buyers.
Alas, I suggest that it is now time to bestow some praise on at least one product besides the much-adored Lark of Nance’s successor, Harold Churchill, and in particular, his chief stylist, Duncan McRae.
I was taught to view the Studebaker-based 1958 Packards as cars that Studebaker Drivers Club member Richard Quinn once said had “a face only a mother could love?” Quinn posed this as a question…not a final opinion, and I’m taking that loophole and running with it hereinafter. Hindsight and posing “what if?” can give a whole new validity to at least the 675 examples of the Packard Starlight two-door hardtop sedan produced—not in Detroit—but on Studebaker’s venerable assembly line in South Bend, Indiana.
By 1958, the Studebaker-Packard Corporation was well into its exclusive distributorship of Mercedes-Benz cars in North America and took great pains to integrate those models into S-P dealer showrooms, authorizing what little display advertising the Corporation could fund in the cash-strapped recession year of 1958. Actually, the advertising was exceedingly attractive and innovative. Display ads (unlike earlier years) had a consistency and “corporate image.” They were primarily done in less costly black-and-white, bespeaking the elegance of a fine calling card or an engraved announcement. For color, S-P elected to produce the first ever newspaper magazine supplement highlighting its entire line of Packard, Studebaker, and Mercedes-Benz offerings.
The Packard Starlight Hardtop (and the companion Studebaker offerings) consumed almost the entire budget for re-styling in S-P’s 1958 lineup. Duncan McRae, operating on typical bare-bones resources, managed to fashion a much needed true hardtop for Studebaker Presidents/Commanders and Packard. They emerged as beautifully fashioned and well-proportioned additions to the sales floor. Noteworthy was a magnificently conceived roof **which belied the fact that the hardtops were based on the smaller wheelbase of the two Studebaker platforms offered that year. There were a few inhibitors, however. The sales side of S-P was not only crying for a real hardtop, but for dual headlights and yes—following the lead of earlier Hawks and Chrysler’s entire lineup beginning in 1957—FINS!
** There is a reason the Starliner hardtop roofline looks a lot like the roof used on the ’57-’59 Chrysler hardtops: the roofline was actually penned by Virgil Exner, Jr. whose father was head of Styling at Chrysler.
Unfortunately, McCrae had to fashion dual headlight pods as virtual tack-on units to the existing Studebaker fenders. That final and abrupt “bulge” gave the Studebaker a pronounced “goldfish-in-a-bowl” visage. And it was worse on the Packard due to a newly fashioned hood that had a severe tumblehome which left the pods—or “goldfish eyes”—almost floating in the midst. The front assembly of the Packard Starlight and the companion sedan and wagon featured fiberglass composition, posing a problem with the possibility of marrying the attractive previous 1957 Clipper metal fenders with their sweeping chrome eyebrows and adjoining higher hood height. How handsome that could have been is anyone’s guess.
The 1958 Packard Hawk, luckily, retained single headlights but did not escape severe criticism of its front end, often given the moniker of “catfish car.” Time seems to have changed those opinions to a great degree. And, try buying one now for a modest price!
One of 588 built: ’58 Packard Hawk
1958 Packards were marketed as Packards solely. The Clipper name had been dropped after 1957, although the retail price between the two sedan models was about the same. Even that didn’t promote enough “asking the man who owns one,” and sales were disappointing.
And then, there’s the thing about the fins. Actually they were adeptly proportioned and perfectly in scale on all three Starlight offerings, but again, they were tacked on—featuring a tell-tale seam that showed their uncommon marriage to the rear portion of the vehicle.
With all this said out in the open, these cars have actually—to my mind—aged very gracefully. They certainly beat most of the competition that year if one forgives the cut-and-paste characteristics. They are fluid, very European (advertising copy termed it “from the continent”), and even begin to foreshadow some of the stylistic practices of today’s better examples of computer-assisted modeling. If I had been an S-P salesman in 1958 after securing an order for a Starlight, I would have strongly suggested one of the darker colors for the lower body: Shadowtone Red Poly, Loch Blue, Glen Green, or perhaps Glasgow Gray or Midnight Black. These darker colors are much more forgiving of the tack-on components of the assembly line. And, mind you, these cars are well-assembled. They are quiet, very rattle free, and even without the innovative Torsion-Level Ride they take to a highway in solid comfort.
I experienced one in the early 1970’s at the local Kroger supermarket in Atlanta’s Druid Hills. The owner of this 1958 Packard Midnight Black sedan —one of Atlanta’s sedate matrons—noted my excitement in the parking lot and offered me a ride to her home, literally two blocks away from mine (how times have changed!).
The Packard made its way from North Decatur Road to a winding, clandestine road on a high incline. The sedan was very able with its 289 engine. We pulled under a porte cochere adjoining a Spanish style residence that could have been a double for Norma Desmond’s palazzo in the film Sunset Boulevard. After a sincere “thank you” and an offer to assist with groceries, I made my way home, realizing that I had experienced a rare treat—a possibility of one in twelve-hundred—if the total number of sedans produced was still extant, which, of course it wasn’t.
So what else could have made the Starlight or Packard’s other offerings a winner for S-P? With more money and thus more creative thinking in South Bend, the alliance with Mercedes-Benz could have actually been an integrative part of the models themselves. Mercedes was already legendary for superb assembly, finish, and the jewel-like precision of its fittings. Why not extend that, particularly to the Packard? The size of the 1958 Packard was much more manageable than its 1955-56 counterparts without a great deal of sacrifice in terms of interior space. This should have been touted as a major Packard asset and a boon to women (who were often the real buyer in the showroom). I can see it now:
In the Mercedes-Benz Tradition:
The 1958 Packard: Precision-Sized for Comfort and Driveability
Ford’s Mercury Division had the very same idea around 1965 when it boasted that their upscale Ford product was built in “the Lincoln Continental Tradition.”
S-P had already adopted the “Where Pride of Workmanship Comes First” slogan, so there was a direct tie. And why not give each Packard a 10-mile road test with a certificate for the new owner…perhaps a beefier warranty…perhaps a hand-finished final coat of paint with a sign-off from the fastidious S-P production line supervisor? Maybe some polished wood veneer like that in some of the Mercedes products? If the initial integration of the two nameplates helped sales figures, then more commonality could appear in future model years.
Then, there are the small things and the not-so-small:
• A Caribbean derivative would have been a relatively simple thing to accomplish (and if it was successful at first in hardtop form, perhaps it could have been offered additionally as a convertible in 1959 since the main tooling of the greenhouse and door configuration already existed).
• The Mylar insert on the two-door hardtop could have been removed to allow a secondary feature strip similar to the 55-56 Caribbeans. The 1958 Mylar even swept up over the back tail lights just like the painted feature on those earlier magnificent examples. I can see a Glasgow Gray specimen with a feature strip of Parade Red. And it would have been an easy move to make the Paxton supercharger standard on the Caribbean’s 289 V-8 as offered on the companion Packard Hawk.
• The small touches; to wit: a Packard medallion on the glove box and a V-and-Circle on the rear trunk handle/lock assembly. Perhaps a coat of arms on the rear sail panel for coupes. And the return of a red Packard hexagon to newly-tooled senior taillights inspired by the Packard Predictor show car. The extant “Packard” script on the right rear of the trunk could have been relocated logically to the left, with a “Starlight” or “Caribbean” script on the right. And on the front grille, more detailing could be added: perhaps a gold mesh insert behind a bolder die-cast grille screen with the addition of the gold and chrome V-and-Circle from 1956.
• Hardtop interiors—already attractive, featuring a plaid weave fabric that was very similar to the reversible-cushioned 1956 Caribbeans–could have offered a third leather accent color on seating and door panels, and the addition of stainless steel headliner bows and perforated headliner material as seen in the senior hardtops of 1956. The Hawk medallion in the steering wheel would be replaced with the Packard hexagon or the time-honored polychrome crest. Windshield and back window garnish moldings could be chrome plated and for heaven sakes, a chrome handle should replace the plastic one for the emergency brake! Chrome accents on the accelerator and brake pedals. The details could go on and on. But then, that’s what made a Packard a Packard. And while we’re on the subject of that grand old name, it is a fact that the word “Starlight” was never actually used as a script on the car. It was an older Studebaker label. As an update, consider The Starlight Four-Hundred. That is a fender-full, but it might have had sales appeal, recalling another premium model in Packard’s past: The Four-Hundred.
• S-P wisely used this tooling in later Lark hardtops and convertibles in 1959.
Wheel covers? The status-quo is very acceptable. The actual 14” wheel covers featuring built-up vanes and the Packard hexagon are quite attractive; they appeared only in 1958.
• About those “goldfish eyes”…
After contemplating this styling cue for several years, I secretly admire the idea that three of the last Packard models appeared with dual headlamps. They actually led Packard’s last gasp toward a new contemporary look, even if the marque was on the funeral pyre. I would have suggested to McCrae—after increasing the budget of the Styling Department—that the real problem with those pods was that they flared out so abruptly—especially on the outside of the front fenders. Why not play up the bulge and let it taper and fade the length of the front fender just forward of the door edge? Why not even chrome plate the taper AND the pods housing the headlamps? I have learned in music and design that sometimes the perceived “mistake” can become a virtual winner if it is played up rather than unceremoniously dismissed.
And, since the front fenders, with new wrap-around parking lights would benefit from a slight retooling, why not take the existing wheel opening sweep into the edge of the front door? The visual effect would contribute to a perceived lengthening of the car. At the back fenders, why not elevate them slightly as was done on the Italian-built Packard Predictor? If all of the styling cues were followed, there would be very little that screamed “Clipper” and much that embodied the look of a senior automobile.
• The continuance of “integrated” air conditioning…
A real must for 1958 would have been to offer air conditioning as a fully integrated system like the 55-56 Packards. If the hardtop incorporated two front bucket seats, an easy fix would have been to offer a center console joining the existing dashboard which could accommodate the controls and vents as in the later 1963-64 Studebaker Avanti.
This narrative really serves one purpose: to demonstrate that the 1958 Packards…especially the Starlight Hardtops… had vast potential. But as built, they screamed “Studebaker” and not enough of Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard or the European tradition of the House of Mercedes. And they certainly did not fill S-P’s coffers which, in 1958, were flowing with red ink. In a way, however, they were saviors. The innovative 1959 Lark used the basic body shell (minus front and rear fenders) of the 1958 Studebakers and Packards. The Hawk soldiered on to become, by 1962, one of the most beautiful cars of that era.
Maybe Duncan McRae ran out of time more than he ran out of money. A few more days at the drawing table could have produced a series of very low-cost enhancements that would have given dealers a Packard more welcomed in the showrooms that once boasted Caribbeans and Patricians, and in an efficient new package. It’s the old story of the debutante forgetting to put on her mascara. And before I forget, we should include those rear dual antennae for the Caribbeans!
The author wishes to acknowledge Studebaker Drivers Club member Dick Rechel who made his entire collection of Turning Wheels available to me. And, within those pages, I wish to especially acknowledge the excellent article by Richard Quinn: The Last Packard [August, 2002], which provided useful research material for this article.
Above: Side View, 1958 Starlight Caribbean Coupe:
In this sketch by the author, Packard’s flagship would have featured a pronounced and purposeful “play up” of the headlight pods—tapering and finally fading past the length of the front fender into the door. Wrap-around parking lights and a C-pillar treatment similar to 1956 would also distinguish the model from its Studebaker inheritance. The existing tooling for the wheel opening sweeps would be carried into the door edge to help visually lengthen the car.
Above: Rear Composite View, 1958 Starlight Caribbean Coupe:
This area provided a great opportunity to get some production mileage out of the Predictor show car. To wit, the heightening of the tops of the rear fender shrouds and the use of tail light housings that were based on the 1955-6 senior design rather than the stock Clipper carry-overs.
Above: Front View, 1958 Starlight Caribbean Convertible:
Packard’s distinctiveness is readily apparent with the use of a beefier die-cast grille, sectioned with a screen behind the ‘egg crate” casting. There is an opportunity to do more branding of the car as a Packard—using 1956’s circle-and-vee grille medallion, the Packard coat of arms, and a hood vent—though single—more akin to the previous Caribbeans.
Above: Interior View, 1958 Starlight Caribbean Coupe and Convertibles:
Bucket Seats—already emerging as must-haves for sportier cars and inspired by stock Mercedes-Benz products would have allowed S-P to integrate the air conditioning system on these models. This low-cost trick actually appeared on the 1963-4 Avantis and allowed a center console to become an air plenum and control center. No one was fooled when ordering A/C in 1958 Packards as built. The system was a bulky and unharmonious tacked-on unit that turned its back on the well-integrated system offered in 1955-6.
Below: Photos of a ’58 Packard Starlight for comparison with John’s idea sketches above.
Below: Front and rear views of the ’58 Packard Town Sedan
Below: the fourth model in the ’58 Packard line up was the station wagon. Only 159 of them were built.
Below: The very last two vehicles built with the Packard name were two ’58 Studebaker trucks ordered by the Packard distributor in Argentina. Packard had not built a truck since 1923.