1956 Packard Caribbean: Last of the Line

1956 would end up being the last year of the “real” Packards – many regarded the Studebaker-based models of 1957-58 as a kind of strange hybrid (sometimes derisively referred to as “Packardbakers”). But even though things were dire indeed for Packard at the time, there was still a flashy, fast flagship – the Caribbean. 

The car was now in its fourth year and not quite as distinguished as the original ‘53, but considering what the company had to work with, that the Caribbean was still being built at all was a triumph. 

The final iteration of the Caribbean was the fastest of all traditional Packards – with a 310-hp V8, and it gave up nothing in luxury or features. It also got a hardtop coupe companion (the first three Caribbeans were all convertibles). By the time the ‘56 was on the market though, it was dragged down by the overall fortunes of the company. 

Just 276 Caribbean convertibles (and 263 hardtops) were built before production ended on June 25, 1956.

The Seeds of Doom

Packard’s troubles in the 1950s began with the company’s gradual downmarket move in the mid-1930s. As a strategy to weather the depression, it worked, but it also got Packard dealers addicted to volume selling slightly downmarket cars. That was okay in the 1930s, but in the postwar world Packard was a small fry, and couldn’t ever compete with the resources of the big three. 

By 1952, Packard had been in Buick territory for years, in part at the insistence of postwar boss George Christopher, and had misjudged the market when crafting its first postwar cars – the “bathtub” 1948 models. They were styled by Al France at Packard’s body supplier, Briggs. In attempt to save costs, they were basically the circa-1941 Clipper (a gorgeous car styled in part by both Howard “Dutch” Darrin and Packard’s own Howard Yeager) with more metal added to “fill in the envelope.” 

They were beautifully made like traditional Packards, but no manufacturer wants their car to be called “the pregnant elephant.”

Christopher was gradually sidelined and then shown the door in an angry board meeting at the end of 1949, after new bodies were approved for the 1951 cars. Some months later, the Packard began courting Jim Nance, a highly successful sales exec, from General Electric, as their new CEO. It took almost two years to iron out the details, but he came on board in early 1952.

Nance had ambitious plans to split the line between mainstream Clippers and senior Packards. To restore the brand’s image, it was almost necessary to split it into two makes – Clipper in the Buick/Olds world and Packard on even turf with Cadillac. That would mean considerable investment, but it could provide volume while getting the cars back to where they needed to be for the public to take them seriously as luxury machines.

His plan called for a totally new 1954 Packard, followed by a separately designed 1955 Clipper. Unfortunately for Nance, these ideas were repeatedly foiled by externalities, starting with Packard’s loss of profitable defense contracts that helped stem losses from carmaking. 

Former GM President Charlie Wilson was made Secretary of Defense in January, 1953 and immediately started funneling defense contracts to his former firm. The Korean war, in the meantime, had meant credit restrictions and material shortages. When credit restrictions were lifted, Ford and GM both raced to sell as many cars as possible in the looser credit environment, again weakening the positions of smaller players.

Then came the worst blow – the Briggs family sold its company to Chrysler, and Packard lost its body supplier. That necessitated a complicated leasing arrangement with Chrysler, who was not eager to sell Packard the Conner Avenue factory in which its bodies were built. A decision to move full production to Conner Avenue from the larger East Grand Boulevard facility promised long term cash savings, but came with a high up front cost.

If Packard did well in 1954 and 1955, it could pay off that cost and then be well suited to manufacture two different cars in each plant. But that didn’t happen, and this arrangement ultimately made economies of scale even worse.

Pan American to Caribbean

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In late 1951, Packard’s coachbuilding partner Henney decided to help polish up Packard’s image with a very special “Packard Sports car” – the Pan American. Styled by Richard Airbib, employed by Henney at the time, it was a chopped, channelled, smoothed out roadster based on the 1951 Packard shell. 

Meant as an American interpretation of the Jaguar XK120 idea, it was long, low, sleek, and flashy. The car’s overall look may have directly informed the design of the 1955 Thunderbird. It debuted in New York right around the time Nance was arriving at the company and crowds went crazy for it. It was the opposite of stodgy, but still a restrained high-end car. It was a sharp contrast to the Henney-built limousines at the top of the Packard line, which were conservative in the extreme.

A two seater, Henney ultimately built six of the cars, but neither they nor Packard could figure out how to market a full-size, two seat roadster at any kind of approachable price. But Packard was not going to let the opportunity to market something inspired by the Pan American go by. Instead, in the fall of 1952, the company decided to create a similar six-seat convertible – the Caribbean.

Directly inspired by the Pan Am, the Caribbean used some of its styling elements but was much cheaper to produce – no chop top, no channelling, but unique styling with some modifications, including full-wheel cut outs in the bulging rear fenders – reminiscent of Chrysler’s K-310 show car. 

The rework of Airbib’s design was done by a young Dick Teague, who shaped all of the Caribbeans. Later, he’d become famous as AMC’s chief designer. Packard’s previous chief designer, John Reinhart, had quit to go to Ford (where he shaped the Continental MkII), and Teague had replaced him. 

Reinhart’s longtime boss Ed Macauley was not well liked by Nance and was increasingly sidelined, eventually retiring in 1955. Macauley had been a partial force behind the Pan American, but had then mutilated the prototype in a seemingly endless quest to improve upon Airbib’s original. Possibly to avoid Macauley’s influence, some of Teague’s early design work was done outside the studio.

Because the Caribbean was to be a low-volume special, the bodies were built by Ionia Body, part of the Mitchell-Bentley company. Once it was in production, Teague was tasked with coming up with concepts based on it, including the Packard Balboa, a hardtop with a reverse-rake rear window (later the inspiration for many Ford products). 

Treading Water

The Caribbean was a luxuriant machine, trimmed in leather and costing $1,000 more than a Cadillac DeVille convertible. It was well timed too, because for 1953 GM unleashed a trio of special high-end, low-volume convertibles – Buick’s Skylark, Cadillac’s Eldorado, and Oldsmobile’s Fiesta. The Caribbean outsold the Caddy and the Olds, but at only 750 units, it was a tiny success.

The Caribbean did build prestige for Packard, but only for a moment. In the 1950s, cars changed every year and Nance’s plan for separate Clippers and Packards was rapidly coming unglued. A merger with another company was required for survival, particularly after the Briggs disaster, and Nance and the Packard board did not do their due diligence when merging with Studebaker – the merger only made things worse for Packard.

The Caribbean continued in 1954 with style updates that made it look a little like some Oldsmobile cues had been grafted on – to the tune of just 400 sales.

In the background of the Clipper/Packard plan was a design for a new V8. Packard was still using straight eights six years after Cadillac’s powerful OHV V8s had debuted. The design was nearly ready, and would be introduced in 1955. But the separate car design plan was impossible by late 1953, and indeed, Packard simply didn’t have the funds for an entirely new body at all, let alone two. Part of the reason was the expenditure on the V8.

Instead, the 1955 Packards would be comprehensively restyled by Teague and continue in two series, Clipper and Packard. Because they would re-use the circa-1951 shell, differentiation was mostly down to sizes and trims – from a distance Clippers and Packards wouldn’t look that different.

Though they were based on the earlier cars, Teague’s new styling made the ‘55s look genuinely new. 

Panthers and Packards

The look had once again been partially previewed by a low-slung concept car, the Packard Panther. A follow-up to the original Pan American was first proposed by Airbib, but it was Teague who actually designed the car. Originally to be called “Grey Wolf II,” in honor of an early 1900s Packard competition car, the name was soon changed to “Panther.” 

The Panther was actually a much more advanced car than the Pan American, in that it used a fiberglass shell for the entire car. A fiberglass body would make it cheaper and lighter if it ever went into production. The prototypes were built by Ionia again, this time with help from “Creative Industries,” a mysterious and secretive Detroit company often charged with building dream cars (they also worked on the Balboa) – they also built the Ford Mystere and many other concept cars.

1956 Packard Caribbean Hardtop
A 1956 Packard Caribbean Hardtop – the first year a specific closed Caribbean was offered.

Fitted with Packard’s most potent straight eight (the V8 wasn’t ready yet), the Panther prototype hit 131 mph in a Daytona Beach press event. 

That generated interest (and got the cars renamed “Panther Daytona”) but the company’s financial problems meant the Panthers – four were ultimately built – remained prototypes. Though a blind alley just like the Pan American, some of its styling was adapted for production on the 1955-56 Packards, just as had happened with the Pan Am.

Teague was not a fan of the Panther, which he designed in a hurry, but the production Packards of 1955 were better in his eyes.

On the technology side, they also featured an advanced optional (standard on senior cars) “Torsion Level” suspension that connected the front and rear suspensions for an excellent ride and good stability. For a brief time it looked like Packard might have a bit of a revival. But by then the company’s problems were well publicized enough that dealers were peeling away, and some loyal dealers had trouble getting floorplan financing (which allows them to buy their inventory from the manufacturer).

The Final Caribbean

The Caribbean looked more like the other Packards now, but it was still a gilded lily and the new V8 made it a powerful car. The 1955 cars used a 352-cid version of the engine, which would be upgraded to 374-cid in 1956. To help amortize the costs, Packard was also selling these engines to AMC, though Kenosha had plans for its own V8 in the offing.

Unfortunately there were plenty of leftover ‘55 Packards in the fall of that year. Conner Avenue, where assembly had been consolidated, was too small and led to production delays, which hampered the cars in the marketplace. Packard needed to sell 80,000 cars to break even, and only moved 55,000 on the year. Studebaker’s situation was even worse.

Nance and the board casted around in vain for a lifeline, first from their lenders, then from the Government (with the backing of President Eisenhower) and a consortium of other manufacturers, but nothing stuck. Salvation came in the form of Aviation manufacturer Curtiss-Wright, but at the expense of Packard’s original business

By May of 1956, there just wasn’t enough capital to keep the Conner Avenue operation going and negotiations were still going on with Curtiss-Wright. By the end of the year the Utica, New York, plant that built the V8 was also gone – repurposed for the new partner. Everything was consolidated to South Bend, and the big Packards were gone.

The final Caribbean was lightly reworked for the model year change and featured the innovative Dana-sourced “Twin Traction” limited slip differential, a handy item in a dual-4-barrel 310-hp car, though the axles had to be replaced under warranty due to a manufacturing defect. There was also an improved Packard Ultramatic transmission, though it too had some teething troubles. 

The car was a genuine Detroit dreamboat, however, offered with every option you could think of and three-tone paints.

The ‘56 Caribbean was the fastest “old” Packard but the Studebaker-based Packard Hawk soon proved even faster (being a lighter, smaller car), though a controversial car in ways the Caribbean definitely wasn’t.

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