The six-cylinder 1937 Packard Six conceived in the Depression-wracked Thirties was an eminently worthy medium-priced car, possessed of many of the esteemed marque's best qualities. It was a clear-cut sales success, too. But should it have been a Packard?
The 1937 Packard Six was just what the Depression-wracked
car market was looking for. See more pictures of 1930's classic cars.
A lot of partisans may not like to read this, but the 1937 Packard Six and its successors -- if the blame can be levied on any one model -- were the cars that reduced the grandest builder of American luxury automobiles to just another marginal independent. That is not to say they were in any way bad cars, but they helped cause the loss of a reputation the American auto industry couldn't afford to lose.
By 1937, Packard had ruled for nearly 30 years as the unchallenged standard of American motoring. It entered the luxury field in 1908 with the big four-cylinder Thirty, then followed with the 1912 Big Six, the "Soft-Spoken Boss of the Road," with a 525-cid engine -- bigger than today's Dodge Viper V-10. Cadillac replied in 1915 with a new, modern V-8; but Jesse Vincent, the ingenious, long-serving Packard chief engineer, trumped it a year later by doubling the cylinder count.
Vincent's Twin Six was the epitome of luxury through 1923. Packard then focused on large, powerful sixes and (mostly) eights until 1932, when it introduced a new Twin Six. Packard supplied many of its chassis to custom body builders, who snapped them up with enthusiasm.
To be sure, there were cars equal or superior to Packard, and several that cost more. But no other make in its day captured as many sales in the luxury market; none was more associated with hoi polloi; no other chassis carried as many custom bodies.
"There was something noble about them," Don Vorderman wrote in The Packard Cormorant magazine. "Something fine and proud. What was it about them that made coachbuilders perform their best work on these cars? Who knows? The fact is that Packards have to comprise at least half of anybody's list of the finest luxury cars ever built in America. Nobody else even comes close."
That kind of attitude among the American public 80 or 90 years ago sustained a relatively small, conservative company founded at the end of the nineteenth century by two tinkerer brothers in Ohio. The cars of Ward and Will Packard caught the eye of investor enthusiasts led by Henry Bourne Joy, who bought the firm and moved it to Detroit in 1903. In a new Albert Kahn-designed factory on aptly named East Grand Boulevard, the company turned out, oh, maybe one-half of one percent of American car production.
Packard wasn't interested in volume, just quality. Its aristocratic managers -- it was rumored that you didn't become one unless you were a WASP and a Mason to boot -- demanded the best cars available, year after year, dedicating themselves to Ward Packard's timeless challenge, "Ask the Man Who Owns One." Then came 1929 and the Great Depression. Suddenly, the top-class market Packard served, some 10 percent of the U.S. industry, withered to one-half of one percent.
The 1937 Packard Six was "a Packard through and
through," carrying on the company's traditions.
What to do? Packard president and Bloomfield Hills grandee Alvan Macauley, who had run the company since Joy left in World War I, was heard to crack that they'd been building for Presbyterians, but must now learn to build for Methodists. The first move downmarket was the 1930-32 Light Eight, but this was still in luxury territory and not a car many of Macauley's Methodists could afford.
Convinced that nothing less than a new, high-volume seller would save the day, Macauley began hiring people his predecessors would have never imagined in the suite of factory offices known as "Mahogany Row," volume-attuned managers from much larger corporations: Max Gilman (who would succeed Macauley as president in 1938 when Alvan moved up to chairman), manufacturing wizard George Christopher (who became president after Gilman), and distribution expert Bill Packer.
A top-to- bottom line and plant reorganization brought forth the 1935 One Twenty -- still not cheap, but a genuine Packard selling for Buick/Chrysler money instead of at Cadillac/Lincoln prices.
The result was an utter turnaround in Packard's fortunes. Production soared to record levels in 1935 and 1936 as One Twentys immediately accounted for more than 90 percent of East Grand Boulevard's output. For the first time in its history, Packard was in best-seller territory. And that, it can be argued, is where the downmarket push should have stopped.
But of course, elated Packard managers wanted more. As George Hamlin wrote in an issue of the Cormorant: "Few realized that the paint was still wet on the first of the One Twentys when President Macauley decided to mine the shaft a little deeper. For he was not content to sit on just one line of lower-priced cars -- there was going to be another one, even lower."
It is difficult to find any documentation that confirms Macauley's opinion. Yet we can imagine how difficult it would have been to tell his board, basking in the One Twenty's stunning success, that an even cheaper car -- still called a Packard, mind you -- was the wrong decision.
And, in fact, early results suggested the opposite. Six production in the first model year, 1937, was 65,400, more than half of Packard's total of about 110,000 (a figure never surpassed). As Hamlin records: "Neckties were loosened in executive suites all over the company as the danger passed. Production was up, profits were up, the company was saved, jobs were secure. (At the end of 1936 there were over 13,000 Packard jobs.)"
The car that accomplished all this, "turning its price class upside down," was a state-of-the-art product engineered with the skill and assurance for which Packard was celebrated. Designated 115-C (115 for wheelbase length, C to align with the 1937 One Twenty designation 120-C), it had a modern, all-steel body, independent "Safe-T-fleX" front suspension, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and an efficient 100-bhp, 237-cid engine derived from the One Twenty straight eight. The transmission and driveline, also One Twenty based, were equally renowned for smoothness.
But while One Twentys started at $990, Sixes cost as little as $795 -- only $170 more than a Ford. Aside from the smaller engine and chassis, getting down to that price level meant certain omissions and substitutions. So, no fine broadcloth upholstery, no trip odometer, less chrome on the dashboard, no chrome at all on the hood louvers, smaller tires, and no optional sidemount spares (which look clumsy on the shorter Packards anyway).
Company stylists under Werner Gubitz did their best to make the Six look like the Packard it was. "The Most Famous Radiator Contour in the World," as ads noted, was unmistakable. Compared in profile to a GM rival, "doesn't the Packard appear the better poised, the more majestic?"
Well, yes. But a 115-inch wheelbase gives you only so much room to work with. Hold your fingers over the front end of any car on these pages and you can see the conventional mid-Thirties Detroit potato, little-different from contemporary Oldsmobiles, Dodges, or Nashes.
What sold the Six was that it was "every inch a Packard ... a Packard through and through" -- and, most important, "a Packard for $795" and thus within reach of most anyone who'd dreamed of owning a Packard since the days of the Thirty. Even the sporty convertible started at a reasonable $910. (Packard lost money on every one.) A woody wagon was the most expensive Six at $1,295, with bodies by wagon builders like Hercules and Cantrell.
With Packard "offering their caviar at less than $1,000 a throw," as Fortune put it, the company was pleased to announce that more than half of Six buyers were former owners of the unspecified "low-priced five." A rival executive snapped back: "The new virgin is always the busiest girl in the harem. ... Sooner or later, she will have to take her chances with the rest of us."
Later it was. Given the "redepression" of late 1937, which saw volume tail off for much of Detroit, the scoffers were rebuffed. Packard made $3 million for the year, despite running a loss in the last six months, and managed to pay a small dividend to stockholders.
To find out more about cars, see:
- Classic Cars
- Muscle Cars
- Sports Cars
- Consumer Guide Reports on New Cars
- Consumer Guide Reports on Used Cars