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Home/Technical Info/ Packard/
Orphaned Brands - Packard Motor Car Company 1946-1958

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By Society Staff – reprint with permission only

The post-World War II story of Packard Motor Car Company is in many ways a sad tale. After the war, and as one of American's oldest car makers, Packard continued to create outstanding automobiles, but it failed to find popularity with a post-war breed of buyers who wanted a product that exuded modernity and saw solid conservatism as archaic.

For years, Packard's business philosophy had been constructed on the thought that buyers of luxury brands did not care for radical change on a model-year basis. The directors of the company felt that their customers preferred a quality product that would retain its style and value over multiple years. Unfortunately, from the late ‘40s on, this was no longer the case. From 1949 and going forward, style consciousness became an ever more important role in the marketing of cars---whether on a high-volume basis or not.

Another factor contributing to the eventual demise of Packard was the company's independent, boutique status. With no lower-priced models to sell, and lacking the resources of the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and GM), Packard just did not have the financial means to adjust quickly to changing buyers' demands for newer, longer, more powerful cars. Even when Packard identified marketplace issues or trends, it had no way to react to them. Unlike the major manufacturers, Packard simply could not afford to restyle its cars and add more features on an annual basis.

The first postwar Packards arrived in October 1945.  Like pre-war Packards, they were built to the same high standards held by the manufacturer since its inception in 1899. At war's end, America just wanted new wheels, so the fact that Packards were warmed-over 1942 models had little effect on sales. Returning from wartime production to automobile manufacturing resulted in only about 31,000 cars sold for 1946. Since all other automakers were in the same situation, though, Packard was able to keep up with its competitors.
For 1947, the Packard line was changed little, but it already began to lose ground in reacting to new trends. The problem was not yet serious, but a foreshadowing the troubles to come surfaced in more modern offerings from smaller companies like Studebaker and Kaiser-Frazer.  Fortunately, the company's major rivals, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Chrysler, were also selling rehashed 1942 models.

But the next year, 1948 was the beginning a different ballgame. It was in that year that Cadillac delivered much more sweeping styling and introduced P-38 fighter plane-type tailfins. Packard had anticipated that new sheet metal would be required post-war and had countered with a new look, but it was much more conservative than GM's offerings. Packard’s 1948 offerings, however, were praised by a number of internationally respected design organizations, and Packard sold 99,000 1948 models and 105,000 the following year.

Toward the end of 1949, three factors began to impact Packard. First, output by all manufacturers was at full-swing to satisfy the demand for new cars. Second, the Big Three all had new and much more modern styling. General Motors' new hardtop coupes were way ahead of the curve and were the fashion hit of the season.  Third, Packard's weakness began to show in slow engineering advances and stodgy styling.

Though the slab-sided 1948-1950 cars were labeled with new, "Twenty-Third Series" nomenclature, by 1950 they were considered archaic in styling, and, more importantly, in engineering, having no answer for the modern overhead valve V-8 engines then coming on-stream. Buyers began viewing Packard as old-fashioned in the new automotive world.

Thinking quality was more significant, or just neglecting the need for a V-8 motor, in 1951 Packard came out with a completely new car, but it still featured the huge, heavy, straight-eight L-head engine that had been around since 1930. The '51 model had all new sheet metal and trim, a new frame, updated interior styling, and even the addition of the handsome "Mayfair" hardtop. Packard also wisely touted their "Ultramatic" automatic transmission which had been standard on the Custom Eights of 1949 and available on all 1950 Packards.

The result, a significant 115 percent increase in sales over 1950, should have been enough for Packard to see what it needed to do from then on. But tooling costs and generally low sales volumes just would not allow this. Despite a smart re-tweaking of the design for 1952, 1953 and 1954, Packards remained virtually unchanged in the eyes of potential buyers.

But dropping sales figures did not send a clear signal until 1954. Though Packard went from the 16th largest producer in 1951 (76,000+ cars) to the 14th for 1953 (81,000+), this success was illusory as Packard was passing already failed brands and was falling behind in market share compared to other luxury brands. Thus, when a general market downturn hit after the Korean War, Packard's 1954 sales were only 27,593 units, not enough to be profitable.

Facing buyer apathy, Packard rushed to offer a new a body shell and finally V-8 power along with an advanced, torsion-bar front suspension for 1955. Color schemes went from bland two-tones to splashy three-tones along with new, crisp front fascias, fashionable, hooded headlights, wrap-around windshields, and a hint of tailfins. Finally, a lower-priced Clipper line was offered to compete with DeSoto, Mercury, and Oldsmobile.

Its cars now current in styling and engineering, Packard saw an immediate improvement in sales, with deliveries climbing to 55,000 for 1955.  But for Packard to fully recover, sales needed to be much higher. Though they brought sales success, these rapid revisions in styling and engineering added greatly to expenses due to the new tooling required. Packard was overextended as a result, and its purchase of Studebaker, a move which seemed logical on the surface, only exacerbated Packard's problems.

Studebaker was in even more dire financial straits than was Packard and would drag its new, barely solvent parent to its grave. Another recession impacted all luxury brands in 1956, and Packard's sales dropped to less than 29,000, which effectively finished the new Studebaker-Packard Corporation. In an agonizing and embarrassing finale, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation acquired the "rights" to buy S-P stock,  but neither actually exercised those rights nor bought into the company. 

Rather, Curtis-Wright had a "Management Advisory Contract" with S-P begun in the dark days of 1956, where they recommended the course of action that resulted in the consolidation of production in Studebaker’s South Bend, Indiana plant and the merging of the two car lines. This agreement was terminated when the 1959 Studebaker Lark was introduced in late 1958.  Curtis Wright did acquire some property from S-P in South Bend and Detroit. 
For 1957 and 1958, the Packard became a badge-engineered car built on the Studebaker platform. Though a fine automobile, this new Packard appealed to neither its former luxury-car buyers nor to traditional Studebaker purchasers. After 1958, the name Packard disappeared from the U.S. automotive market.

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