For the Sixteenth Series, the 1938 Packard Twelve had just enough appearance changes to keep up with general styling trends that year: a new vee'd windshield and redesigned instrument panel, plus revised body hardware, which was stainless steel on the exterior. The long wheelbase was dropped, and the previous short wheelbase increased slightly.
The lack of the really big models this year did have one benefit: there wasn't a Twelve in the line now that couldn't hold its own with handling and performance that was at the top of its class. Most of its early multi-cylinder rivals had dropped off, including Cadillac's Twelve. If anything, this was the time to reemphasize the Twelve's place in the Packard line, but that was not to be.
The 1939 Seventeenth Series Twelve was the last of the line. Aside from a minor styling and trim shuffle, its only new features were an optional column gearshift and a pushbutton radio. The chassis was unchanged, and production fell short of 500 for the first and only time. The last Twelve came down the line on August 8,1939, with the outbreak of World War II just three weeks away. It was in that way, too, the end of an era.
Granted, it would have taken almost saintly prescience for someone at Packard in 1939 to conceive of the revolutionary market forces that would shape the auto industry in the next 10 years. At that time, President Roosevelt was assuring the nation that it would never go to war again, and business, though still shaky, was picking up.
After the Depression they'd just gone through, after the salvation delivered in 1935 by the middle-priced One Twenty, after the prosperity of 1937 with the lower-middle-priced Six -- after all that, to imagine Packard's management turning course and keeping the Twelve in production would have been asking a lot. But a lot was exactly what was required.
The only leader of an independent automaker who could see farther ahead than his nose, Nash's George Mason, saved his company with compact cars introduced at just the right time, and with canny model rationalization after he took over Hudson. Packard should have had -- indeed needed -- a manager like Mason.
Had Packard in 1939 still been the company that it had been 10 years earlier, it would have been easier to look at past experience in the luxury trade and remember how the old Twin Six had eclipsed the Cadillac V-8 in 1916. The problem was that Packard had changed, and had no intention of going back.
It is interesting to contemplate Packard history if the impossible could have occurred and the 1939 Packard Twelve hadn't been the last of the line.
Imagine a V-12 Clipper Parade phaeton, line leader for a series of 133-inch-wheelbase Clipper seniors, and a longer-wheelbase chassis for the hearse and flower car trade. The dimensions of the 1939 Twelve probably would have lent themselves to the Clipper's narrower engine compartment.
Imagine if all those war profits had not been spent on developing a range of Dodge-Oldsmobile competitors, but on hardtops and two-and four-door convertibles powered by an evolved Twelve and the 356-cid Super Eight.
Packard would have been an also-ran in the great seller's market of 1946-1949, perhaps, but it would have held a substantial hunk of an expanding luxury car business when the boom market vanished after 1950. Then who knows what might have happened?
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