1937-1947 Packard Six

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?

1930's Classic Cars Image Gallery

1937 Packard Six
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.

1937 Packard Six
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:



The 1938 Packard Six was altered and moved upmarket, when business was expected to pick up. But business stalled, and Packard reported its first loss since pre-One Twenty days as volume plunged to 56,000 cars, the Six accounting for 30,000.

1938 Packard Six
The 1938 Packard Six was larger and rounder than the
previous model.

The 1938 Packard Six, bowing alongside a One Twenty rechristened Packard Eight, was considerably more car: rounder and heavier on a 122-inch wheelbase. Prices started commensurately higher: $1,075 for the business coupe, the least-costly model.

New were pressure-lubricated mushroom tappets, an external oil filter, a hardened camshaft, and a larger bore taking displacement to 245 cubic inches for better low-end torque. An optional high-compression (7.05:1) aluminum head was offered, cooling was improved, and suspension changes combined with the longer wheelbase to give a more stable ride.

This basic formula continued for 1939 with the notable addition of optional overdrive, called "Econo-Drive," and column-mounted "Handi-Shift." The latter invention proved quite problematic. While it did free up some front-floor space, idler-arm grommets wore quickly, disrupting the lever's handiness at moving the internal sliding gears. Packard issued a replacement kit containing new steel shift-idler-lever bushings.

Also new for 1939 was a revised rear suspension with a "fifth" shock absorber to dampen side movement, making ride even better. Packard itself did rather better on the whole, producing more than 76,000 cars during the calendar year to earn a small, half-million-dollar profit.

To find out more about cars, see:



The 1940-1941 Packards (now absent Twelves) were the finest evolution of traditional marque style -- beautiful, classic designs with the famous grille narrowed, flanking subgrilles added and, on the 1941s, headlamps nestled in the fenders.

The Six became the One Ten series (the Eight reverted to One Twenty), with prices cut to as low as $867 for the 1940 business coupe. The Econo-Drive was an all-new Warner electrical unit, the "fifth" shock was eliminated, and the rear sway bar moved to the front end.

1940 Packard Six
The 1940 Packard One Ten had classic styling and
timeless good looks.

The One Ten outsold the One Twenty by some three to one, accounting for nearly two-thirds of Packard's 98,000-car production run for 1940. Accordingly, the six-cylinder line was expanded for 1941 with Deluxe versions of most models. Prices were raised a bit, the business coupe going to $927. One Twenty counterparts ran about $200 higher.

It was here, actually, that Packard should have dropped the Six. Indeed, it might have followed the 1941 lead of a hard-charging rival, which replaced its junior LaSalle line with similarly priced Cadillac Sixty-One models.

To find out more about cars, see:



The recovering economy meant buyers were able to afford better cars, proven at Packard when its new Clipper styling permeated almost the entire 1942 Packard Six line. In that model year, abbreviated by America's entry into World War II, One Twentys drew 1.7 times as many customers as re-renamed Sixes.

1942 Packard Six
The Packard Six claimed a majority of sales for one
last time in 1942.

Testimony is clear on Packard's attitude about naming its cheapest car something other than Packard. ("Macauley" was mooted, but President Alvan refused the honor.) Consider the firm's Promotional Pointers publication for salesmen. A 1937 edition dismissed the LaSalle as a "car of uncertain caste ... for reasons best known to the Cadillac Company," its design varying "erratically" from year to year. A 1939 edition added: "The LaSalle has no lasting identity of its own ... [L]ook at the 1938 LaSalle as compared with this year's model! About the only similarity is in the name."

Seeming to confirm Packard's critique, LaSalle never outsold the junior Packards. Morgan Yost, one of the authors of Automobile Quarterly's history, Packard: A History of the Motorcar and the Company, noted that most other "companion" makes of the time fared even worse, whether priced above or below their parents: Marmon's Roosevelt, Studebaker's Erskine, Buick's Marquette, Oldsmobile's Viking. The Wolverine became a Reo when that company determined the name just wasn't catching on.

No, calling it something else wasn't the problem. Building it in the first place was the problem. The little Six lowered Packard's reputation in the eyes of everyone, and they never got it back. Packard should never have built the 1937 Packard Six.

The One Twenty alone would have seen the company through. The Six sold mightily in 1937, as indeed it should have at $800-$1,000 a pop. And yes, it did account for more than half the company's output through 1939, two-thirds in 1940. But a healthy portion of those sales likely would have been absorbed by One Twentys -- expanded as they were with Deluxe models, convertible sedans, town cars, limousines, and wagons, all competitively priced through economies of scale -- until the handsome Clipper arrived in 1941.

From then on, the One Twentys, with Clipper styling and a convertible coupe added, should have been the lowest-priced Packards available. They would have done no more harm to their builder's reputation than the Sixty-One did to Cadillac's.

The swing back to Eights, evident among 1942 Packard buyers, only accelerated in the booming postwar seller's market, the Six claiming a majority of sales for one last time in model year 1946. The line was belatedly dropped after 1947, though the six-cylinder engine itself continued for taxicabs through 1950, plus a few export sedans and marine applications. It served another six years in various White trucks, but wasn't up to their weight.

Meanwhile, Packard was making fresh mistakes, notably the 1948 restyle of the still-young Clipper. The result looked particularly bad next to that year's sleek new Cadillac, and probably delayed all-new Packard styling for a critical year or more.

Whether even the base-trim Eight should have long continued postwar is a further good question. A few Detroiters who could see past their noses -- Kaiser-Frazer's Hickman Price and Nash's George Mason -- realized the seller's market wouldn't last.

Sure enough, real competition returned by 1950 and proved devastating to middle-priced independent marques. Mason talked of mergers and began building Ramblers. Price quit K-F in disgust. Packard just kept on building cheap Packards.

To find out more about cars, see:



Surely, in 1945, Packard had a choice: Continue with high-volume medium-priced cars or return to exalting what Max Gilman once called "that goddamn senior stuff." What would have happened had Packard come out with a new overhead-valve Twelve? Would it have trumped Cadillac's 1949 ohv V-8, just as the Twin Six had trumped Cadillac in 1916? What about air conditioning?

Packard introduced it in 1940-1941, but didn't resurrect it postwar until 1954. Grande luxe models? Packard had no postwar convertible until 1948, no hardtop until 1951. Its limousine output was pitiful. Cadillac covered all these niches, then dropped the "near-luxury" Sixty-One after 1951.

Packard was flush in 1945. What if the millions of government and company money available for peacetime conversion had been used to structure a leaner plant building freshly styled, all-out luxury cars? Most anything on wheels would have sold in 1946-1949 (and did). Then, when competition returned, Packard still would have been the "Soft-Spoken Boss of the Road."

Such a program would have called for almost divine clairvoyance, not to mention the stomach to resist inevitable howls from thousands of stockholders, employees at East Grand Boulevard, and salesmen at the dealerships. Henry Joy, or Alvan Macauley in his prime, might have been up to it.

And it probably would have worked, If nothing else, it could have made Packard a highly desirable property for a merged independent or one of the Big Three. (Ford and Chrysler were approached, but only after the rot was far advanced.)

Granted, this wasn't the Mercedes-Benz game plan (though generations were accustomed to Mercedes taxis, trucks, and buses). But it sure worked for Rolls-Royce.

To find out more about cars, see:



The Packard Six was the right car for its time when it debuted in 1937. Here are specifications for that successful model.

1937 Packard Six: Selected Specifications

Wheelbase (in.)
Overall length (in.)
Overall height (in.)
Overall width (in.)
Tread, front/rear (in.)
Fuel tank (gal)
front engine, rear drive
body on frame
Frame double-drop pressed steel with I-beam X-member
material composite steel and wood
Engine type
inline L-head six-cylinder
cast-iron block, aluminum head
Bore stroke (in.)
Displacement (cid)
Horsepower @ rpm
100 @ 3,600
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm
200 @ 2,000
Compression ratio
drop-forged steel
Main bearings 5
1-bbl Chandler-Groves downdraft
Valve lifters
Electrical system
single-breaker distributor
semicentrifugal, single dry plate
Diameter (in.)
mechanical, foot pedal
Transmission 3-speed manual, synchromesh on second and third gears, floor-mounted shifter
hypoid gears, semifloating axles
Final-drive ratio
independent coil spring
semielliptic leaf spring
worm and roller
Turning circle (ft)
4-wheel hydraulic, internal expanding
Drum diameter (in.)
Total swept area (sq in.)
Tires and Wheels
Tire size
4.5X16 steel disc***

*Standard; 7.0:1 optional. **Standard, 4.54:1 optional. ***Standard; steel artillery-type optional.

1937-1947 Packard Six Models, Prices, and Production

1937 Six (wb 115)
Weight Price Production
4-door wagon 3,380
4-door touring sedan 3,310
4-door sedan 3,265
2-door touring sedan 3,235
sport coupe, 2/4P 3,215
4-door club sedan 3,275
business coupe, 2P 3,140
convertible coupe 3,285
Total 1937 Packard Six

1938 Six (wb 122) Weight Price Production
4-door touring sedan 3,525
1,175 --
2-door touring sedan 3,475
club coupe, 2/4P 3,425
business coupe, 2P 3,450
convertible coupe 3,500
Total 1938 Packard Six

1939 Six (wb 122) Weight Price Production
4-door touring sedan 3,400
4-door wagon 3,652
2-door touring sedan 3,390
club coupe, 2/4P 3,365
business coupe, 2P 3,295
convertible coupe 3,385
Total 1939 Packard Six

1940 One Ten (wb 122) Weight Price Production
4-door sedan 3,200
4-door wagon 3,380
2-door sedan 3,190
club coupe 3,165
business coupe 3,120
convertible coupe 3,200
Total 1940 Packard One Ten

1941 One Ten (wb 122) Weight Price Production
4-door dedan
4-door wagon 3,460
2-door sedan 3,250
club coupe 3,230
business coupe 3,190
convertible coupe

1,195 --
Deluxe 4-door wagon 3,470
Deluxe 4-door sedan 3,280
Deluxe 2-door sedan 3,270
Deluxe club coupe 3,250
Deluxe convertible cpe 3,280
Total 1941 Packard One Ten

1942 Six (wb 120; convertible 122) Weight Price Production
Special Clipper 4-door sedan
Special Clipper 2-door club sedan
Special Clipper business coupe
Custom conv coupe 3,315 1,375
Custom Clipper 4-door sedan
Custom Clipper 2-door club sedan
Total 1942 Packard Six

1946 Clipper Six (wb 120) Weight Price Production
4-door sedan 3,495
2-door club sedan 3,450
Total 1946 Packard Clipper Six

1947 Clipper Six (wb 120) Weight Price Production
4-door sedan 3,520
2-door club sedan 3,475
Total 1947 Packard Clipper Six


*Packard advertised this model as the "touring coupe." **Calendar year. Total production of 1946-1947 Twenty-First Series Clipper Sixes came to 30,931. Source: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide®, Publications International, Ltd., 2002

To find out more about cars, see: