Thursday, January 20, 2011

Third runner up: 1958 Packardbacker

Before we get into this one, I have to disclose that I am a huge Studebaker fan - I love the cars and up until two weeks ago, I owned a Studebaker Lark.

That said, however, the full size Packard's that came rolling out of South Bend in 1958 (this excludes the Packard badged Hawks from that model year) were duds in more ways than one.  They are known by their detractors as Packardbakers - Packards in name only, they are really Studebaker's in disguise.

This is a "Packard"?

The back story (and an over simplification of the problems faced by company) on these cars is that Studebaker, the nation's oldest manufacturer of cars, had been purchased by Packard in 1953-54.  The resulting company, Studebaker Packard Corporation, had the least amount of working capital in the business, some of the oldest production facilities and the highest manpower costs in the business.  When combined with Henry Ford's price war on GM from 1953-1955, the company's cars couldn't compete on price. 

S-P was under the governance of James Nance, a capable, driven executive who was doomed by aging products, a dealer network of old fuddy duddies and Studebaker's overhead costs driving the company into the ground.  It was Nance who discovered that Studebaker had been shielding its production costs from Packard.  The marriage of convenience was really a shotgun wedding in disguise.

To see what went wrong you have to see the before, the future and the reality of how Packard died in a whimper.

Above is a 1956 Packard - think of it as the before.  It's tasteful for the era, but it was also in the sixth year of its body cycle - next to a concurrent Cadillac or Lincoln or Imperial, it looked old in an era of when "new" sold and old faded away.  This was "Packard" before the situation became hopeless.  And there were high hopes for the future.  Remember this image as you work your way through this ramble.

This is the Packard Predictor - the show car that Packard trotted out showing the direction it would go once bank financing was secured.  You can see this car today at the Studebaker Packard National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

Well Nance never found the funding, and in the spring of 1956 Studebaker Packard was in free-fall.  Nance left for Ford's Edsel, and then after butting head with HFII, he assumed the Chairmanship of National City Bank in Cleveland.  "After years of having to make nice with bankers, I got smart and became one," he said in an interview with Business Week.

When the 1957 Packard Clipper was introduced to Packard dealers - they almost rioted.  Tempers flared as the dealers were presented with a tarted up Studebaker President sedan featuring taillights similar to the previous years Packards.  Detractors called these cars "Packardbakers" and consumers stayed away in droves.  While these cars were handsome, but they weren't Packards.

For 1959 Studebaker would introduce its Lark compact line.  But for 1958, they had to do something, and fast. 

The answer was to take the 1957 Studebaker/Packard sedans, and modernize it with new trim. Changing the trim on last years car to make it look like this years car was nothing new in Detroit, but S-P had almost no money to spend for tooling or stampings, so changing to anything steel stampings was out.  The answer was to use fiberglass fittings and make the cars look more modern by allowing for four headlights instead of two (it was all the rage), and to adding fashionable fins to the back of the cars.

This is what they got:

Out back, things got even stranger. Again, with the fiberglass pods, this time to the rear fenders.  Instead of designing pods that would have added vertical height to the rear, designs opted to cant the pods outward.  The result made the additions look like something tacked on, rather than thought out.

Studebaker's fin-ettes were tear drop shaped at their ends, inset with a panel of corresponding color and one round taillight.  But the poor Packard received the same fin-ettes, chopped off and at an angle,  Because they were shorter than the Studebaker fin-ette, this made the Packard rear look "off" - like a garage shop experiment gone wrong.

Or looked at a different way - from the air, the incongruence of the design becomes rather evident:

From the air, looking down, you can see the 3d horror of what was done to these cars.  Note that the 1957 fenders (tipped in light blue) are fat but vertical.  Now look at the fiberglass toppers that are 1)shorter, 2) have a different angle than the base fenders and 3) appear to attach at an awkward angle on the inboard side.  Up front, you can see the short pods that attached to the 1957 front fender.  Nothing makes design sense, and it all looks tacked on, which is exactly what it was.

But wait - there's more!

S-P management did one other thing that was incredibly stupid.  In addition to short changing the trim modifications on the above mentioned cars, they green-lighted a costly and superfluous addition that did nothing to improve the allure. 

The Starlight was graceful and both Packard and Studebaker got it.  But it didn't sell either, and when the Lark line was introduced for 1959, the Starlight hardtop was gone - all that development and tooling cost for a one off year change was the type of mistake that Studebaker couldn't afford to make. 

Also gone in 1959 was Packard - 1958 was its last year, and in 1962 the company removed the Packard name from its corporate identity.  And by 1966, Studebaker ended production of automobiles.  Today the last vestiges of the company that was cannibalized for the benefit of its share holders is in the business of renting party tents in New Jersey.

How bad are these cars designed?  In an industrial design class at OSU, one exercises that a professor had his students (who were studying the history of automotive design) undertake a "fix-it excersize"  All he did was post up pictures of a 1958 Packard and told the students that they had an hour to just "fix it" without redesigning the whole car.

While die hard collectors love these cars, and they will take great umbrage with what I have just written, they are awkward, poorly executed and American consumer sensed that and ignored them for that reason.  Remove the Romanticism and they are just a sad end to a noble company.


  1. In that overhead picture it looks like the top fin is attempting to give birth to the lower fin.

    But considering that all the cars today look like they're designed from a bar of soap poorly carved with a pocket knife, it's beautiful to me.

  2. This is a wonderful entry. Teague did a great job updating the body for 56 but those packardbakers with the tacked-on fins are just sad. When I was in high school in TX in the 70s, the father of one of my friends had a '56 Caribbean 3-tone convertible. It was fabulous!

  3. Those 1955 and 1956 Packards are totally fabulous - and they are built like tanks.

    Felix, seriously - if you have never seen one of these in person - when you do, you will be appalled by the fit an finish.

    I will say this, though - about five years ago I saw a 1957 Buick that had been customized (a bad concept to me, in general) with its taillights replaced by a set from a 1956 Packard Executive and it was breathtakingly beautiful - a match made in auto heaven.