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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.