1955 Packard Caribbean
June 15, 2009 4:09 PM
During the first half century of the automobile age, Packard produced the most prestigious luxury motorcars of any American manufacturer. It was the car of presidents, royalty, and super wealthy individuals of discerning tastes. Although its contemporaries were typically faster and louder, the Packard offered refined sophistication, with a quiet, super smooth ride. Somehow, despite financial solvency coming out of WW II, Packard had lost its edge in the luxury market by the late 1940s.
When former Hotpoint CEO James J. Nance took the helm at Packard in 1952, his goal was to re-establish Packard as a luxury brand. Although Nance admittedly knew nothing about cars, he did know something about marketing, and so asked his team for "a difference to sell," and thus the Packard Caribbean was born in 1953. With a shoestring budget, designer Dick Teague had to contend with a body design that essentially dated from the 1948 line-up to yield what Nance would bill as "America's Most Glamorous Sports Car."
In an ironic bid to stem the red tide on their balance sheet, Packard acquired Studebaker late in 1954, making 1955 a turning point in the company's history. Now the company's halo vehicle, the Caribbean went through a bold new facelift on a budget, gaining a wrap windshield, eggcrate grill, faux hood scoops, twin radio antennas, three-tone paint job and Teague's own distinctive "cathedral" taillights. Under the hood was Packard's first V-8, a 352 cubic inch overhead valve engine producing 275 hp, fed by dual Rochester four-barrel carburetors. Packard's proprietary transmission was updated to become the new push-button "Twin Ultramatic," and an innovative new self-leveling torsion bar suspension boasted the smoothest ride in America.
Although Packard had finally produced a car to take down Cadillac's El Dorado, problems began to crop up, which ultimately derived from scanty development time. The V8's hydraulic lifters were noisy, the Twin Ultramatic gained a reputation for blowing seals, and the finicky electrical system that powered the complex torsion bar suspension often resulted in a nose-down driving stance. Good will among brand loyalists slipped, as did sales for 1956, despite the fact that most issues were resolved for the Caribbean's final model year. When the purchase of Studebaker turned out to be more of a bust than a boon, Packard's days were numbered. The last car engineered by Packard rolled off the line on June 25, 1945, and Nance left the company shortly thereafter.