1955-1956 Packard

Packard's increasing inability in the 1950s to compete in the auto business was really a shame, since the '55s -- the first designs President James Nance and his managers had wholly controlled -- were the finest crop of cars Packard had produced since the war. But the 1955-1956 Packards would be the last built in Detroit.

1955 Packard Clipper
With no redesign coming for the 1955 Packard
Clipper, the company restyled what it had.

A new body was not in the cards; that awaited a complete restyle and integration with Studebaker, planned for 1957. But Packard stylists did a splendid job with what they had, adopting a fashionable wraparound windshield, attractive new grillework, chic hooded headlights, new side and tail treatments, and a plethora of new colors and upholstery.

Series were shuffled again, with the DeLuxe four-door sedan now the base model topped by hardtops and sedans in the Super and new high-end Custom series.

Even more impressive was 1955 engineering. Leading the list of features was Torsion-Level suspension, an interlinked torsion-bar arrangement Nance acquired from a clever inventor, Bill Allison.

Operating on all four wheels, Torsion-Level was so impressive that Chrysler, which had planned to introduce torsion front suspension, put it off a year lest Packard claim its version was twice as good! A complicated electrical system allowed the suspension to correct for load and weight, and the interlinking of all four wheels provided truly extraordinary ride and handling, especially over very rough surfaces.

Combined with the new ride was potent new power that put Packard back into the horsepower race: oversquare, powerful V-8s, displacing 320 cubic inches in the Clipper DeLuxe and Super, and 352 on the Clipper Custom.

Handling the power was Packard's latest improvement on Ultramatic transmission, designed by engineer Forest McFarland and a young associate named John Z. DeLorean. Called Twin Ultra­matic, it featured two ranges. For quick getaway, drivers would select an alternative Drive range that started out in Low, shifted to 1:1 ratio, and then locked into direct drive.

Clippers now did the all-important 0-60 leap in 11 to 12 seconds, keeping pace with the competition. Twin Ultramatic and the new engines were manufactured at an efficient, modernized plant in Utica, Michigan.

But this, like the lease of the Conner Avenue plant, presented another untimely expense. Historians have long questioned why Packard went to all the trouble. The Boulevard plant could have done the work of both.

Clippers were available with three-speed manual and overdrive transmissions, but Twin Ultramatic was vastly pre­­ferred, as was Torsion-Level.

Initially, the new suspension was not intended for Clippers, but at the last minute it went in as a $150 option on the top-end Custom. It proved so popular that dealers were soon ordering it on 75 percent of Clip­pers, so availability was extended to the Super.

"What a fantastic ride," wrote Pete Molson in Motor Trend's Clipper Custom road test. "Everything else dims by comparison." Floyd Clymer reported, "You can drive into a corner at high speed with this car and the body remains almost level. ... It was the most comfortable ride I've ever had." Car Life said, "[C]onventional and coil leaf springs leave much to be desired. ... Not only is the 1955 Packard safer than many of its contemporaries, but it is much more comfortable."

Great styling, potent V-8 power, a fabulous ride, two handsome hardtops with the Super Panama and Custom Constel­lation: On paper, the Clipper had everything it needed to compete handily.

Its sales were therefore all the more disappointing. Word got out fast about quality problems, from poor fit and finish to transmission and suspension shortcomings. Then dealers couldn't get the trim and color combinations they wanted.

AMC's refusal to consider a further merger combined with Studebaker's horrendous overhead and high break-even point to start rumors that Studebaker-Packard might soon be out of business. Customers and dealers deserted.

On top of all that was a blitz of new models from the competition, led by a revived Chrysler Corporation's most attractive cars in a generation. Clipper production fell short of 39,000 -- better indeed than 1954, but 1954 had been disastrous.

For the 1956 model year, Nance finally achieved his objective, announcing Clip­per as a separate make and confining the Packard nameplate to luxury cars only. (Even the name of the division was changed to reflect the split.)

To his shock, the hard-pressed dealers revolted. "Pack­ard," they said, was a needed sales tool on Clippers. Grum­bling that they failed to grasp the big picture, Nance relented and granted the use of a small Packard script on Clipper trunk­lids. The dealers clamored to such a point that kits were offered to retrofit the script on early run Clippers lacking it.

The same line of sedans and hardtops was offered as in 1955, though the Custom series was discontinued in early '56 to make way for the Executive, which was marketed as a "true" Packard even though it used the Clipper bodies and engine. There were no wagons and no convertibles because the old body was in its last year.

Come what may, 1957 would see all-new cars. Nance's plan was a GM-like body-sharing program in which the Clipper would share the inner shell with the senior Studebakers.

The '56 Clippers featured Torsion-Level as standard on both Super and Custom. Before the model year was out, DeLuxes added it, too. A three-speed manual transmission was available but rarely ordered; Twin-Ultramatic dominated.

Clipper's sole engine was the 352-cubic-inch V-8, with 240 horsepower for DeLuxe and Super, 275 for the Custom. New options were electronic pushbutton controls for Twin Ultramatic; and Twin Traction, a limited-slip differential.

The cars were mildly facelifted, with a broad band for two-tone color running along the body sides, wrapped parking lights, a new grille, and fender skirts for the Constellation hardtop. To set off the rear, Dick Teague came up with a taillight he christened the "slipper" or "fish mouth," later popular among customizers.

Once again it was a fine package, but sales were worse than ever, and quality-control problems continued. Nance, meanwhile, was failing to find financing for the modernization and body-sharing programs needed to save the company.

Fighting to survive, he can perhaps be forgiven for giving up on a separate Clipper make. To engineering vice president Herb Misch, Nance minuted: "[W]e can build quality cars on the same line as the Clipper ... this, of course, will be cheaper than to set up two lines until our volume is substantially increased."

"The irony here," wrote Dwight Heinmuller and George Hamlin in the Automobile Quarterly Packard history, "was that Nance had had a two-line setup at [East Grand] Boulevard, and had walked away from it."

The late history of Packard is well known. After failing to finance his mission, Nance gave up and executed a management agreement in which Stude­baker-Packard Corporation would be run by Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft engineering firm; he hung around long enough to help find new jobs for those of his colleagues who hadn't already left.

The new management abandoned Detroit, consolidating production at Studebaker in South Bend. A "Packard Clipper" came out in 1957, but it was really a Studebaker President with Pack­ard features and '56 Clipper taillights. It was the last appearance of the Clipper name, and Packard itself died a year later.

The Clipper has always been underrated, except by Packard enthusiasts who know what they have. In its first incarnation, in 1941, it marked a brilliant transition of Packard styling hallmarks from the classic era to the envelope-body age, featured on some of the most luxurious Packards ever produced.

In its second life, the Clipper was a better car every year from 1953, and by 1956, it was one of the best in its field. Like the One Twenty of old, it stood on its own as one of the most refined and innovative cars of its day. Small wonder the survivors are desirable.

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