Historiography: Ask The Person Who Owns One

Every generation offers it's own definition of luxury.

Our generation considers a wider definition of luxury, despite the obvious price connotation of it. Rolls-Royce and Bentley may just be touchstones in terms of luxury, but even their pricing might be not enough compared to the likes of Bugatti, Pagani and a few new Ferraris and Lamborghinis. While several hundred thousand dollars opens the door to a Rolls-Royce Phantom or Bentley Mulsanne, luxury is also measured by rarity of product and extreme levels of performance.

That is a familiar line – a sentiment of decades prior.

There was a time in USA history when luxury automobiles reached new heights. The Great Depression was that time. While most of the country tried to survive with no jobs available, the unscathed few continued to live well above the gloom of mainstream society.

For them, the few luxury automakers that survived the Stock Market Crash relied on those unscathed few to keep them going. One such automaker that continued through that era with some of the most magnificent cars of its time may be a name we might have forgotten since its demise in 1958 – Packard.

Before we get the 1930s, a look back on how Packard became one of the finest automobiles ever built in the USA is in order. Two brothers, James and William Packard, partnered with George Weiss to built cars in Warren, Ohio starting in 1899. By 1906, they began to cater to a wealthy customer base by creating some of the most advanced automobiles built in the USA. This prompted the advertising slogan that withstood the company's demise which first appeared in the 1920s: "Ask the man who owns one."

As arrogant as it sounded, the slogan told the story of the brand and its products. Taken literally, it is the reverse of "word of mouth," where the owner is proud to tell its story. Instead Packard invited the uninitiated consumer to seek out an owner to find out how to become a part of its fraternity/sorority. This is the kind of reputation Packard had leading into the Stock Market Crash.

By 1929, Packard was the leader at the top of the automotive food chain. You had Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, Duesenburg, Marmon, Lincoln and Cadillac right in that strata. Rolls-Royce was considered the only imported automobile to be a part of this exclusive club at the time.

After the crash, the fortunes of many automobile companies were shaken to the core. Peerless and Marmon closed shop by 1933. Duesenberg gave way for partner companies Auburn and Cord to finish out the decade. Though controlled by Studebaker, Pierce-Arrow stopped making cars by 1937. Cadillac and Lincoln were backed by their parent companies enough to continue moving forward into today.

Packard was an anomaly for its time, as it was still an independent automaker that survived the Stock Market Crash with its Detroit works in tact. Unlike some its prestigious competition, Packard beat the odds. To ensure they will continue through the 1930s, Packard decided to simply build cars that were more luxurious, had more performance and produce much more of them.

To do so, Packard relied on a lineup that began with eight-cylinder cars and added a twelve-cylinder to the mix. Twelve cylinder engines were considered to be the mark of performance, save for a couple of sixteen-cylinder motors – namely from Cadillac and Marmon. Showing no signs of slowing down, Packard introduced hydraulic shocks to its cars in 1932.

It was thought that design and engineering would sustain Packard through the Depression. Yes, but Packard was also smart enough to maintain one production facility to ensure interchangeability amongst its products, maintain efficiency and lower costs. They also maintained a different model turnover strategy by calling their models by "Series," rather than making changes every year. That way, Packard would not be obligated to make cosmetic and engineering changes for the sake of doing so, as was the practice amongst North American automakers. As long as Packard created beautifully crafted automobiles for its well-heeled clientele, it was all they needed to do in the face of economic hardships.

Packards were indeed beautiful machines. A distinctive grille design with vertical slots was the calling card to a world of absolute luxury. By 1934, the grille panes were split in half creating one of the most gorgeous faces in automotive history. From the grille and lights saw distinctive details that gave the Packard an identity. Wheel hubs that provided the core of wire, solid, or spoked wheels and its signature red hexagon and script denoting how many cylinders it had under its hood. Every interior began with a distinctive dashboard – wood finished, though sometimes specified by the coachbuilder or customer as to what wood to use.

It is not enough to build a Packard. As it was the custom for many luxury automakers, they would appoint at the customer's request a coachbuilder to finish the rest of the body and interior to suit an individual owner's tastes. If a coachbuilder came up with something worth selling multiple units of, Packard would commission a special body to be sold to customers who might be interested in them. However, Packard had a line of body styles to choose from that suited their customers perfectly – from roadsters to limousines.

Still, Packard was struggling to maintain its fiscal health as the Depression continued. A decision was made for the company to build a lower priced automobile – somewhere below $1,000. The Packard 120 debuted in 1935 as its first mid-priced, eight-cylinder car. Being a Packard, the 120 (or One-Twenty) debuted some new technology for the time, such as independent front suspension using uneven A-arms. The debut of the 120 resulted in the tripling of sales for Packard by the end of 1935. Sales continued to rise in 1936, now that the Detroit line split production between the Senior (larger cars) and Junior (The 120) lines.

Though increased sales by the 120's debut did turn around the fortunes of the company, it may have caused a problem for Packard. Before 1935, Packard lived on a lofty place in the automotive stratosphere where only the wealthy can buy its products. By introducing a lower priced line, it would distort the brand's image and the wealthy would walk away from Packard because of it.

What Packard did became standard practice for luxury brands to survive the Depression. Cadillac has done so to its own credit by introducing the La Salle line in the late 1920s to compliment its larger cars. Chrysler had a luxury line integrated onto its own lineup – the Imperial. Lincoln would soon experiment by offering a "junior" and "senior" model lineup to maintain multiple customer bases.

With the Depression over, Packard found success in the mid-priced field. The slogan "Ask the man who owns one" found new meaning with a growing customer base that once considered Buick, Chrysler, and Hudson as solid choices. In other words, Packard changed the mid-priced game. They have done so by including coachbuilders to make special editions of the One-Twenty well into the time production stopped for World War II.

By the onset of World War II, the Senior series were practically gone from its showrooms. Packard began to build a six-cylinder series, called the One-Ten. It was followed by the Clipper series, a modernized interpretation of luxury to engage Senior model buyers. These two models further cemented Packard’s future as a mid-priced brand, instead of one once considered the grandest of all American automobiles. These product moves spelled disaster for the company at a critical time in history.

The Clipper's timing was terrible. The attack on Pearl Harbor sent the USA into war. That meant automobile production had to stop to make way to build engines for airplanes and boats. Though seen as Packard’s way to the future, war production interrupted its momentum. When automobile production returned to Packard, the damage to its reputation was already done.

After the war, no one could distinguish a luxury Packard from a lower priced one. They practically looked the same. Yet, Packards continued to sell and the company was on good fiscal footing coming out of the war. The downside to this post-World War II success was how the lineup became devalued from amongst some of the finest cars built in this country to near-luxury retreads.

Cadillac now owned American luxury. Its 1948 models set many benchmarks in design and engineering. From Hydramatic automatic transmissions, high compression V8s and new tailfins that were influenced by bombers, the "Standard of The World" crested above all comers. This would be Cadillac's position – unchallenged until the 1960s.

It just seemed that Packard would go backwards while racking up sales due to postwar demand. One saving grace was the introduction of its own automatic transmission – the Ultramatic. The two-speed automatic featured a locking torque converter a few decades ahead of its standard use. Some have said this was the best of the early automatics, though some General Motors enthusiasts might beg to differ. Ultramatics continued in production amid improvements through 1956.

Though it had a good automatic transmission, they were first installed in perhaps the worst Packard design of them all – the "bathtub." They were seen as a postwar answer to restore the grandeur of the past, the Bathtub Packards were a result of management decisions that would ultimately spell the end of the brand. Yet, they still sold in the three years they were made – a miracle of the postwar era, you might say.

In 1951, the last of the true Packards were introduced. These were modern designs – boxy, big and had fewer Packard design elements from past decades. Yet, it did produce perhaps the best selling "novelty convertible" of its time – the Caribbean. While GM toyed with such ragtops, Packard pulled theirs off magnificently. Purists felt it returned some of the glamour of the coachbuilder roadsters and convertibles of the 1930s. Only 750 were built in its first year – more than any single GM novelty convertible in 1953.

By 1954, Packard ran out of money. The company's President James Nance was ready to develop an all-new Packard lineup, one that would elevate the brand one more time. Instead, they turned to Studebaker as a partner for survival. The merger happened, but not without some interesting developments.

Ford and GM were at war with each other by selling volumes of cars at cut prices. This caused some headaches at Chrysler, Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and, yes, Packard. While Chrysler was strong enough to be resilient, a larger merger was being proposed between Studebaker, Packard, Nash and Hudson. The idea was to combine the four forming American Motors by battling Ford, GM and Chrysler on equal footing. Though Packard did sell its Ultramatic transmission and V8 engine to Nash, Nance had one condition in executing this mega-merger: He wanted to installed as CEO of the new combined company. George Romney of Nash refused to accept that condition,. Therefore, the merger between Studebaker and Packard was finalized apart from the formation American Motors between Nash and Hudson.

The newly formed company was not without its problems. Unforeseen to anyone, Studebaker was in worse fiscal shape than Packard. To further the pain of this merger, Packard began to unravel due to the loss of a body supplier, growing quality issues, decision making miscues in regards to production and the creation of Clipper as a brand of its own.

By the end of the 1956 model year, Packard closed shop in Detroit. Studebaker dropped the Clipper brand. For 1957, a Packard was simply a rebodied Studebaker. By the end of the 1958 model year, Packard was done. Dealerships closed up, perhaps finding new opportunities with foreign cars or another domestic brand. Studebaker moved on into the 1959 model year by channelling their energy on a new small, car – the Lark.

Packard was not alone in their demise, as other brands would soon go away into the sunset at the dawn of the 1960s. De Soto would be dropped from the Chrysler lineup in 1961. James Nance helped launch Edsel, which did not do anything worth writing home about. That brand was dropped after 1960. Hudson and Nash were superseded by Rambler as AMC's sole brand by 1958. Studebaker survived, but barely. They finally went out of business in 1966.

Packard had a wonderful life – a charmed one during the most difficult of economic times. The way it died on the vine sent this cherished automotive brand into oblivion. We never had the chance to appreciate it, as it should be.

As the current automotive landscape continues to see growth in the luxury car field, perhaps it is time to recall this grand brand. The way we embrace today’s luxury is perhaps the best way to revisit Packard today. For every Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8, Genesis G90, and Lexus LS of today, the image of grandeur that made these cars possible came from the chutzpah of a company to build more opulent and powerful machines in the depths of economic ruin. Cars that should take more than just a glance to appreciate and behold for what they stood for.

When you see a Packard today, do yourselves a favor: "Ask the man – or woman – who owns one."

All photos by Randy Stern

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