Hat tips to “Disaffected Musings” and to “58L8134” for inspiring this post.
The last Packard-badged production car was a Mountain Blue Metallic Town Sedan built on 25 July 1958. The very last two Packard-badged vehicles were 2 Studebaker trucks re-badged as Packards and shipped to Argentina on a special order. Packard had not built a truck since 1923.
“Disaffected Musings” quotes from The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company by James A. Ward:
“The news of Packard’s demise was announced on July 13, but nobody at S-P [Studebaker-Packard] took responsibility for it. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran retrospective pieces, emphasizing Packard’s past, and explained its death by saying that S-P’s ‘destiny is tied to smaller cars.*’ The Times pointed out that with Packard’s demise, only 16 remained of the 2,700 nameplates that had appeared since 1893. Business Week headlined its story ‘Ask The Man Who Owned One’ and compared the fall of Nash, Hudson, Packard, Willys, Crosley, and Frazer to the disappearance of automobile companies in the depression.”
* “smaller cars” – referring, of course, to Studebaker’s upcoming Lark.
“This is indeed the day, 61 years ago when the news that the model line-up would include no 1959 Packards. Of course, it was July 25th when the last ‘58 Packard came off the assembly line, Mountain Blue Metallic sedan, VIN 58L-8134. July 25th was the last full day of car production before the line shutdown for changeover for the Lark. Rumor has it a local South Bend TV station had a filmed report which would be great to track down if it still exists. When one reads Champion of the Lark by Robert Ebert, pages 58-60, it becomes abundantly clear how touch and go it was during summer-fall 1958 with the financial restructuring that had to take place. If any one party had balked, the end would have come very quickly.”
I have long felt that in those stormy days of 1956 when Packard president James Nance was trying to cobble together funding for the all-new line of ’57 cars for both Studebaker and Packard and found himself having to settle for the agreement with Curtiss-Wright that gave the company a bit of breathing room that the wrong decision was made about closing Packard in Detroit. As we all know, Packard closed on 25 June 1956 and the decision had been made to offer a badge engineered Studebaker President as a ’57 Clipper built in South Bend.
The common body shell program for 1957 Packards and Studebakers
I am not aware of any executive that was hit with so many things going wrong all at once as Nance: the loss of the J-47 jet engine contract, the loss of their body supplier, the hemorrhaging at Studebaker because of Studebaker’s out-of-control labor costs and inefficient plants, the refusal of the banks and insurance companies to fund the all-new ’57s, etc. Out of all of that, I believe that the decision that triggered Packard’s collapse was the decision to turn the former Briggs body plant on Conner Avenue into a full production facility. I have always been a “fan” of James Nance, but I believe this was his single worst decision. The resulting delay in the introduction of the ’55s and the quality problems that accompanied building cars at Conner set in motion the events that brought about Packard’s closure.
Nance wanted a more modern plant than East Grand and he bought into Ray Powers’ (who came from Ford) line that Conner would be more efficient than East Grand. It just didn’t work and it killed Packard. They should have trucked the “bodies in white” (primed) from Conner to East Grand for final assembly and they would have gotten the ’55s to market on time (instead of in January) and without the build-quality issues that plagued them for months at Conner. They couldn’t even run 2 shifts at Conner because there wasn’t enough room for parts to build cars over 2 shifts.
The idea of building the Clipper line as the volume line was correct but with everything else going on it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. The capacity at East Grand was adequate for the realities of the market that both Packard and Studebaker faced.
My Monday Morning Quarterbacking of the situation 60+ years later is that they should have: (1) continued building bodies at Conner and trucking them to East Grand (2) Stayed the course with the Clipper line as the mid-price car but drop the low end Clipper Deluxe and (3) closed Studebaker’s South Bend and Los Angeles plants* and built a Studebaker Commander and Champion (no President) on the Clipper body shell and wheelbase (which was 5″ shorter than the Packard body). This would have solved their V-8 problem, too. The Studebaker President customers could step up to a Clipper Super or Custom. The alternative would have been to drop the Clipper but “Studebaker-ize” the Clipper body and market the 3 traditional Studebaker series: Champion-Commander-President while continuing the Senior Packard line (in either scenario).
* Which was always under utilized and they were shipping bodies to Los Angeles from South Bend, for Pete’s sake …
That Studebaker V-8 was one of the best engines of the era – but because it was designed to handle compression ratios of up to 14-1, the bore centers had to be designed in such a way that the engine was at its realistic size limit at 289 cubic inches which wasn’t competitive going into the ’60s. OTOH, Packard’s new V-8 had plenty of capacity and was being built in a brand new plant in Utica. The ’57 Senior Packards, had they been built, would have had a 440 cubic inch V-8. The Packard 320 cubic inch V-8 (as used in the ’55 Clipper Deluxe and Super and in the ’55 Nash Ambassador and Hudson Hornet) would have been just right for the Packard-built Studebakers.
The capacity of East Grand would have accommodated the realistic combined volume of Packard and Studebaker at a lower fixed cost than the inefficient and high cost Studebaker plant in South Bend. This would have kept the new engine and transmission plant in Utica open and given Studebaker a competitive engine. I believe there was one more stop-gap restyle of the Packard body they could have marketed for ’57. Had they consolidated into Detroit instead of South Bend, I believe they could have secured the funding to build the planned all-new ’57s and introduced them as ’58s as those cars would still have been competitive for 1958.
Below are the ideas for the stop-gap ’57 Packards. (These were developed by Andy “Harbor Indiana” and posted on Flicker. In his original presentation of them, Andy did not label them as ideas for the ’57 Packards. That said, these work-ups show what could have been done with minimal tooling expense and kept Packard in the game better than they were as the South Bend-built “Packardbakers”.)
The simple expedient of using ’53 Caribbean wheel wells transforms the car. This could have worked very nicely for a stop-gap ’57 Packard.
Virgil Exner, Jr. was working in Studebaker styling when the ’58s were developed. This is the link to the Chrysler-like roofline of the ’58 Packard and Studebaker Starlight hardtop. The ’58 Packards (or, as most prefer, “Packardbakers”) have been the criticized for the outlandish fin-on-fin at the rear of the car. But if you compare a ’58 Packardbaker with a ’57-’58 Dodge, you have to wonder if Exner, Jr. didn’t have a hand in this as well:
The Exner influence? ’58 Packard (above); ’57 Dodge (below)
There was talk of doing a low volume Facel-based Packard, but Mercedes-Benz (for whom Studebaker-Packard was now the U.S. Distributor) quickly quashed that idea. There was other talk – and that’s all it was – talk – that Packard could be revived. The reality of it was that the announcement on 13 July 1958 that there would be no ’59 Packard sealed the fate of the company that had begun in 1899.
The Last of the
Above: ’58 Packard Hawk – 588 built
Below: ’58 Packard Starlight – 675 built
Above: ’58 Packard Country Sedan – 159 built
Below: ’58 Packard Town Sedan – 1,200 built