Friday, January 7, 2011

You can get the history of Packard right here. You don't even have to ask the man who owns one

I think every story I’ve ever read about the Packard Motor Car Company opens by quoting their slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.” And in a way, I can see why. I mean, what a great slogan, right?

The problem is, you just don’t run into Packard owners every day. The company hasn’t produced a mainstream car in more than 50 years. I never see them on my daily work commute. And even if I did find a Packard owner, I’m not really sure what to ask him anyway.

Packard built some fabulous cars in its brief 60-year history (with a couple of clunkers thrown in that barely brought the average score down). The company was able to compete toe-to-toe with makes like Cadillac when Cadillac was at its prime. And today, when you see a Packard from the Classic era, it is impossible not to be completely impressed. What is the pinnacle luxury car these days—Maybach? Rolls Royce? Bentley? Pshaw. There are certain Packards from the 1930s that give a whole different definition of what a high-quality luxury automobile can be.

They say that James Ward Packard began his company in 1898 because he wanted to build a better car than the horseless carriage he already owned (it was a Winton, not that you are expected to know what that was). His new cars were built in Warren, Ohio, and the company was called the Ohio Automobile Company. The quality and reliability of this vehicle caught on fast, and by 1900, the Packard Motor Car Company was born.

Early Packards were extraordinarily expensive, so only the rich could afford to buy one. Normally, that limited customer base might be bad for business, but in this case, it caught the attention of some high-rolling investors. Detroit bigwig Henry Bourne Joy purchased Packard in 1902, and the company proceeded to build some of the finest cars in one of the most state-of-the-art new Detroit factories in the world.

With legendary automotive mogul Alvan Macauley at the helm, Packard quickly became the number one luxury car company in the country. But just as they were reaching their stride, the Great Depression hit.

Packard produced some of their finest cars in the 1930s. Opulent, ostentatious, and obvious, Packards shared some rarified air with the likes of Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, and Marmon early in the decade. And not only did they compete, but they persevered. When the stock market crash brought most of Packard’s rivals to inglorious deaths, Packard forged ahead with a range of twin-six (AKA V12) engines, undeniable reliability, and the flexibility to offer lower-priced models when things were at their worst.

Packard weathered the storm, but were soon brought to a standstill along with the rest of the surviving members of the auto industry by World War II. Of course, they built airplane and marine engines, and bolstered their reputation for performance and reliability even automobile production was on hiatus.

After the war, Packard continued to sell more attainable, lower-priced cars. Unfortunately, Packard’s biggest rival, Cadillac, had the strength of General Motors behind them, and the duty of selling to the masses was taken care of by the other divisions. So unlike Cadillac, Packard’s reputation began to suffer.

Packard came out with a radically different looking car in 1948. Gone were the graceful, flowing lines of the past, replaced with a bulbous, tubby exterior. I wasn’t even alive then, but when I see this style today, I can understand why it wasn’t for everybody. There is one really nice one that I see at the car shows around here, though, and it’s growing on me. A little.

Packard’s biggest problem was that, even though people were willing to spend money on things in the early ‘50s, the company didn’t have as much money to give people what they wanted as its competition. Even when Packards became relatively modern looking in 1951, they were still old underneath. Cadillac came out with an awesome overhead-valve V8 way back in 1949—people didn’t get excited about a flathead straight-eight five years later.

As a last hurrah, Packard finally did get with the times in 1955. A modern new design, a modern new suspension, and a modern new overhead-valve V8 were all important components to bringing back some of the former glory. But the damage was already done. 1956 would be the end of the line for the big, Detroit-built Packards.

Packard had purchased fellow independent car maker Studebaker in 1954, intending to capitalize on their strong dealer network. Unfortunately, Studebaker was in worse shape than Packard management realized at the time, and the company was soon in an unstoppable downward spiral.

The Packard name lived on for two more years, this time attached to some haphazardly restyled Indiana-built Studebaker Presidents. The buying public was not fooled, and the last Packard (often referred to as a “Packardbaker”) rolled off the line in July of 1958. Studebaker, meanwhile, hung on for another eight years.

Packard is an interesting study in perception. Toward the end of their tenure, the cars were good, but not that good. Earlier, especially in the early 1930s, their cars were outstanding. But even though their greatest cars were built before most people today were born, they are still the cars by which we define the company today. That should tell you something about how great those cars really were.

Today’s slideshow has at least one image from every year that Packard produced vehicles. They’re all ads or vintage factory publicity photos. Most of these images were, um, cribbed from the Internet, lest you think I have an awesome Packard library or something. But I think even the ad styles mimic the health of the company. The early ads were simple, elegant, and straightforward. The ads from the ‘30s were gorgeous, lavish works of art, much like the cars of that time. And the last images still tried to convey a sense of luxury and exclusivity, but they didn’t quite hit the mark the way the older ads did. These old images are as much a snapshot in time as the cars themselves. Enjoy.


  1. "Packard came out with a radically different looking car in 1948. Gone were the graceful, flowing lines of the past, replaced with a bulbous, tubby exterior. I wasn’t even alive then, but when I see this style today, I can understand why it wasn’t for everybody."

    I agree that the 22nd/23rd series Packard (1948-1950) is an 'acquired taste', but then... so is caviar. During that period, the slab-sided look was also in vogue to varying degrees with Nash, Lincoln, Mercury, Ford, and Hudson.

    The Custom Packard (like the one you see at the local shows) is 7 inches longer than the Standard 8 Packard. This extra length is all forward of the windshield and I think that helps lessen the bulbous look considerably. In any case it takes a very big, solid looking car to support that over-the-top giant chrome cormorant perched on the hood.

    Very good article. Thanks.


  2. I had a feeling you'd read this J.D. I think one reason that "local" car looks so good is that it is just so nice. You might be right on the length, though--it doesn't hurt! And yeah, I love the hood ornament.