The rear-view mirror: the latest Packard

The first Packard, a single-cylinder buggy built in 1899.

This week in 1958, the last car to bear the Packard name rolls off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana, a humbling ending for a revered marque.

For Blue Bloods, buying a car will never be the same again.

The end comes four years after a disastrous merger with debt-ridden Studebaker Corp., one of a series of mistakes that occurred as the company strayed after World War II.

The company was founded in Warren, Ohio in 1899 when mechanical engineer James Packard and his brother William produced their first automobile, a single-cylinder engine buggy.

Luxury leader

With the 1916 debut of the Twin Six and its revolutionary V-12 engine, Packard established itself as the nation’s premier luxury automaker, quickly becoming known as one of the “Three Ps,” a trio of top manufacturers. American luxury automobiles. : Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow.

At the time Packard built this 1932 Twin-Six Sport Phaeton, the company was America’s premier luxury automaker. Photo credit: RM Sothebys

The company’s reputation was solidified in the 1920s and its advertising slogan, “Ask the man who owns one”, was widely known. It was among the top companies in its field, producing handcrafted luxury cars renowned for their quality and detail. In fact, with the exception of 1931, 1932, and 1934, Packard outperformed Cadillac from 1925 through World War II.

But the onset of the Great Depression led Packard to introduce a low-cost car in 1935 to boost sales, just as Cadillac had done with LaSalle and Lincoln had done with the Zephyr.

Nicknamed the Packard One Twenty, it had the desired effect. But Packard continued to head to market with the 1939 One Ten, while continuing to sell high-priced custom One-Sixty and One-Eighty models. It would be followed by the Packard Clipper, which is priced between the One Twenty and the One Sixty.

Packard increasingly looked to mass production, not luxury vehicles, to generate profits. This, along with Packard’s decision in 1940 to contract its body construction to Briggs Manufacturing to save money, would prove disastrous. But no one knew—yet.

Post-war prosperity

The Packard One Twenty

After hostilities subsided, automobile production resumed in 1946 for the first time since 1942. Pent-up demand created a sellers’ market, and automakers sold whatever they could build. Still, Packard continued to emphasize its more affordable cars, rather than its more cost-effective high-end luxury cars. But there were other issues, like styling.

Just before car production ended in 1941, Packard had broken from its formal styling with the Packard Clipper, but its new look, revived after the war, often resembled a pregnant elephant.

Packard finally redesigned for 1951, but the popularity of its new look did not last long, sales plummeted and factory utilization dropped to 50%. Clearly, fresh blood was needed, and in 1952 James Nance, a Hotpoint appliance executive with no automotive experience, was recruited.

high hopes

The last real Packard appeared in 1956. Photo credit: Teddy Pieper/RM Sothebys

Nance moved quickly, splitting the Clipper into its own lower-cost brand, allowing the Packard name to honor only luxury cars. The company released an executive eight-passenger sedan and a limo, as well as formal sedans built by longtime custom coachbuilder Derham of Rosemont, Pennsylvania. Also arrived was the 1953 Caribbean, a sleek convertible based on Packard’s 1952 Pan American Show Car.

But the problems were starting to mount.

Packard’s new Ultramatic automatic transmission, the only automatic not developed by one of the Big Three automakers, proved problematic. Money was missing for a complete overhaul, so it was pushed back. Worse still, Chrysler purchased Briggs Manufacturing in December 1953 for $35 million, taking control of the company in 1954. Now Packard had to bring body production back in-house. This coincided with the automaker’s move from its large plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit to its smaller plant on Conner Avenue, which led to a disastrous drop in quality as sales plummeted to 31,000 units in 1954.

Amid this uproar, Nance decided to merge Packard with Studebaker Corp. of South Bend, Indiana.

Packard’s outlook darkens

Later Packards, like this 1958 Packard Hawk, were nothing like that. Photo credit: RM Sothebys

The merger made sense theoretically; the two automakers competed in different parts of the market. And platform sharing could help reduce unit costs compared to the higher volume of the Big Three. But in its rush to merge, Nance and Packard executives failed to do their due diligence. Studebaker’s overhead and costs were sinking the company. Packard was in much better shape, despite his issues. Nevertheless, they merged. Now Packard’s profits covered Studebaker’s losses, rather than funding new Packards.

It was clear early in 1956 that Studebaker-Packard would soon run out of money. In May 1956, the Curtiss-Wright aviation company signed a management agreement with Studebaker-Packard under pressure from the US government, which wanted to retain Studebaker’s military contracts, a relationship that dated back to the Civil War.

Curtiss-Wright was looking for a company with significant tax losses as a deduction from aviation industry profits. But their takeover led to Nance leaving and heading to Ford, where he was put in charge of Ford’s new Edsel.

Packard’s factories and proving grounds in Detroit were closed and sold, and Packard production was moved to South Bend. The stylists made the Studebaker Presidents and Hawks look like the Packards, but the masquerade fooled no one. The cars were derided as Packardbakers.

This week in 1958, the last production car to bear the Packard name rolled off the South Bend assembly line, a pitiful end to a once-great marque.

Just ask the man who owns one.