In honor of the "Last Packard"

This morning, on the FP’s Morning Shift under Reverse, they noted that on this day in 1956, the last Packard was made, and linked to this article on the History Channel’s website. Only problem is, the last Packard was not made in 1956, but in 1958. The June 25, 1956 date marks the last Packards made in Detroit, MI at the Conner Avenue plant that Studebaker-Packard had been leasing from Chrysler since the latter bought Packard’s bodymaker Briggs in 1954.


I’m not sure whether the last Detroit-made Packard was a 1956 Clipper, Executive (launched just 2 months prior to the shutdown), Four Hundred, Patrician, or Caribbean, but regardless of what it was, it was one of the most innovative and clever vehicles Packard had made in its 57-year history to that date. For 1956, all Packards and Clippers had powerful overhead valve V8s - the Caribbean’s was the most powerful on the American market in 1955-56 - automatic load-leveling suspension, torsion bars at all four wheels, and many came with push-button automatic transmissions that Chrysler also showed that same year.

While they showed lines that had been warmed over a bit by Richard Teague (future head of AMC styling) from the 1951 Reinhardt Packard bodies, they looked completely up-t0-date in an era when the Big 3 were completely redesigning their cars every 2-3 years. 1956 would mark slight styling updates over the heavily redone 1955 models. But despite all the innovation, Packard’s sales collapsed in 1956. When Packard moved its entire production operation from East Grand to the cramped Conner Ave body plant they were leasing, Packard found that the newer plant’s small size put the company in the 1955 version of “production hell.” Cars came out too late in the model year (i.e., January 1955), too slowly to satisfy customer and dealer orders, and with poor quality to boot. The moment Packard worked the bugs out of the production process, customers had been stung by poor quality and word-of-mouth spread, leading to canceled orders. The production lines got completely up-to-speed building the 1955 models, only for new cars to pile up unsold on dealer lots instead of being delivered to eager customers.


By 1956, Studebaker-Packard was in a serious fight for its life. When Curtis-Wright took the helm of the company that spring, they’d determined that Studebaker - the volume marque that had been responsible for most of the company’s losses up to that time - had the best chance at survival and that Packard, with its lower volumes but higher and more stable margins, would be phased out. The Conner plant would be shut down in June, and the East Grand offices at the old and defunct plant would close along with it, relocating everything in South Bend alongside Studebaker production. It would prove to be the second time a vaunted American luxury marque died to save Studebaker, as Pierce-Arrow had done during the Great Depression.


Packards continued to be built in South Bend for the 1957 and 1958 model years, mostly to satisfy dealer contracts, but also because many true believers within the company hoped the Studebaker President-based Packards could provide a bridge to a new line of Packards that might materialize again should times get better for the ailing company. There was even a deal proposal in 1957 to license Facel-Vega’s Excellence sedan, install the old Packard 374 V8 and Ultramatic transmission, and mildly rework the styling to transform it into a new Packard for 1959. But by then, S-P was already selling Mercedes-Benzes out of its dealers, which were keeping their struggling dealer network afloat. And M-B wasn’t interested in continuing the agreement if S-P sold their own European-sourced Benz competitor out of the same dealers.


Thus, Packard was killed off after the 1958 model year, which featured a supercharged Hawk line and a standard Packard sedan and station wagon, as well as a newshort-wheelbase hardtop coupe, all based off the President chassis. Hawks used the supercharged Studebaker 289 V8, while standard Packards did without the supercharger, which had been standard the year prior. All were literally just Studebakers with special fiberglass hoods, grille, and tailfin extensions grafted on, with upgraded trim thrown inside. For ‘58, standard Packards and Packard Hawks even lost the signature Packard “ox yoke grille” styling cues. Predictably, only 2,622 1958 Packards left the South Bend production lines for the ‘58 model year.

But they were the real last Packards, even if in name and trim only.

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