1953-1956 Packard Caribbean


Built in low numbers, the Packard Caribbean still delights enthusiasts today. See more classic car pictures.

Back in the days when American cars were about the only ones real Americans could buy, including the era of the 1953-1956 Packard Caribbean, your average Detroit automaker wasn't satisfied it had arrived until it offered a "limited edition." That term is fairly vague, and they didn't use it much then, though production of such cars was undeniably limited.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

Yet in the booming seller's market of the late Forties, the American industry could hardly meet demand for its standard models. So except for a few low-volume traffic-builders like the Chrysler Town & Country, Detroit simply spewed forth a "turgid river of jelly-bodied clunkers," to use Ken Purdy's phrase -- and the public happily bought every one.

Inevitably, though, the market became satiated and real competition returned by about 1950. Three years later, Ford launched a sales "blitz" against Chevy, shipping huge numbers of cars to dealers regardless of orders, and the competition became murderous. One result of this cutthroat marketing was the "sports car," which usually meant anything with a convertible top, lots of performance, a few unique styling touches, and top-of-the-line price tag.

Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year. Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year.
Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year.

Of course, some of these were true sports cars, like the Nash-Healey and Chevrolet's Corvette. Most, however, were just modified standard ragtops with higher-grade trim and, sometimes, a hotter engine. But whether genuine or fake, they had the same purpose as their late-Forties forebears: to attract the proletariat into the local emporiums, where it might eyeball the latest-and-greatest, then depart in one of the more plebian models.

In the upper reaches of 1953's regimented market, Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Packard fielded two-ton "sports cars" with wheelbases of 120-plus inches and no less than 165 horsepower: respectively, the Skylark, Eldorado, Fiesta, and Caribbean.

The last was no hasty reply to General Motors. Packard conceived the Caribbean around the time Cadillac first thought of Eldorado (1951), and for much the same reasons: a more youthful image and extra publicity. (Chrysler was similarly moved to release the C-300 in 1955, though it was far more sporting than any of these.) But whereas the GM cars were in-house designs issued mainly to gauge public response to forthcoming features like the wraparound windshield, the 1953 Caribbean had little that was really new.

That, perhaps, stems from its origins at the Henney Company of Freeport, Illinois, long-time supplier of Packard's professional-car bodies. Henney president C. Russell Feldmann hoped to expand his Packard business by tailoring a low-volume, high-buck "sports" model, and had designer Richard Arbib working on a proposal by the fall of 1951. The result, named Pan American, duly appeared at the various 1952 auto shows.

Find more information about the Pan American concept on the next page.

For more information about cars, see:

Pan American concept

The initial Caribbean, built off the Pan American concept, featured heavily chromed wheel openings.
The initial Caribbean, built off the Pan American concept, featured heavily chromed wheel openings.

Packard had already been thinking "sports car" for some time when the Pan American concept appeared in 1952 as a precursor to the 1953-1956 Packard Caribbean. Packard's body shop, Henney Company, was commissioned to conjure up a hardtop on the firm's 1949 chassis and again on the 1952, both called Monte Carlo.

Packard also studied an Italian-made Abarth as a possible entry in the sporty segment, and conceived an odd rig named Panther, later to become the prototypical Panther Daytona. But the Pan American was the most successful of these efforts because it actually led to a production model, the Caribbean.

The original Pan American began as a stock 1951 Series 250 convertible. Packard president Hugh Ferry gave Henney president Russell Feldmann only six weeks to deliver it, in time for the opening of the New York International Motor Sports Show on March 29, 1952. With designer Richard Arbib working evenings and weekends, Feldmann met the deadline.

Arbib's concepts were akin to those of contemporary customizers in that the Pan Am was dramatically lower than stock. It also resembled the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado in having channeled bodysides -- again for a lower look -- plus chrome wire wheels, and a metal tonneau covering the soft top and its yet-to-be-developed folding mechanism. But unlike the Eldo, the Pan Am had only a single bench seat (Henney had closed up most of the space behind) as well as "continental" exterior-mount spare tire and a functional hood scoop.

Henney general manager Preston Boyd told Feldmann that their firm had spent close to $10,000 on the first Pan Am and would have to charge over $18,000 apiece for copies, including overhead and Arbib's salary. But his estimate apparently pertained to that one car, not a production version.

Though Feldmann kept trying to sell Packard on the idea of at least a small run ("Don't you think it remarkable that interest in this car is still so keen?" he asked in July), no more than six Pan Americans were built. Evidently, cost dissuaded Packard from thoughts of even limited production.

To learn about the first production vehicle built off of the Pan American, continue reading on the next page.

For more information about cars, see:

1953 Packard Caribbean

The hood scoop on the 1953 Caribbean was a carryover from the Pan American concept.
The hood scoop on the 1953 Caribbean was a carryover from the Pan American concept.

In October 1952, Packard decided to offer a limited run of "sports cars" that, in due course, emerged as the 1953 Packard Caribbean, which was the first production Caribbean. (The Pan American sports car, which led directly to the Caribbean, inspired a series of monikers with a Latin American flavor: "Balboa" in 1953, for a one-off showcar; "Pacific" and "Panama" in 1954, for Packard and Clipper hardtops.) To keep a lid on price, the firm shunned sectioning and lowering; with an eye to sales, management insisted on six-passenger capacity.

The Caribbean (accent on the third syllable, please) thus arrived as a full-size convertible sharing most sheet-metal with the stock ragtop. Trouble was, Packard's standard convertible was an afterthought, riding the firm's shorter, 122-inch wheelbase and competing more with Buick than Cadillac. To get around this image problem, Packard simply priced the Caribbean at $5,210, more than $1,000 above Cadillac's Series 62 convertible.

Responsibility for Caribbean design fell to Dick Teague, a young stylist of exceptional talent, Packard's "wizard of facelifts." His modifications to what was essentially the Series 250 convertible shell were mild but effective: radiused rear wheel openings, molded-in "bugeye" taillamps from the senior Packards, bright metal on beltline and wheel openings, a "continental" (outboard) spare, wire-spoke wheels, and a Pan-Am-style air-scoop hood.

The interior was luxuriously trimmed in leather. Power was supplied by Packard's 327-cubic-inch, five-main-bearing straight eight with 180 horsepower as used in the 250s (now known as the Packard convertible and Mayfair hardtop) and available with optional Ultramatic self-shift transmission.

The result was dramatically clean for 1953, lacking even a "Caribbean" nameplate. And it sold quite well for what was basically a cobbled-up job. Packard built 750 Caribbeans for the model year to best both Eldorado (532) and the Olds Fiesta (458), though Buick built more Skylarks (1,690).

That Packard Motor Car Company would offer such a car at all was decided by its flashy new president, James J. Nance, recruited by outgoing president Hugh Ferry to light a fire under an old-line automaker that seemed to have dozed through the early postwar years. (Road tester Tom McCahill said the 1948-50 line of "pregnant elephant" Packards looked as if they'd been designed "for an old dowager in a Queen Mary hat.")

The basic body stayed the same for 1954. Find out what changed on the next page.

For more information about cars, see:

1954 Packard Caribbean

The 1954 Packard Caribbean picked up the body from the 1953, including the short 122-inch wheelbase.
The 1954 Packard Caribbean picked up the body from the 1953, including the short 122-inch wheelbase.

One of Packard President James J. Nance's objectives in the early 1950s was to resurrect Packard's prewar image of total luxury. The way to do this, he said, was to establish the cheaper Clipper as a separate make and load Packard with loaded Packards, such as the 1954 Packard Caribbean.

He did, and the evidence is that it worked. As a former Packard dealer said: "I don't remember anything that was a better showroom traffic-builder after the war than the Caribbean. That car was a classic."

Things began to go bad for Nance in 1954 as Packard, wounded in the crossfire of the Ford/GM sales battle, failed to meet his deadline for a new V-8 engine and a heavy facelift. Both were postponed to 1955 and the 1953s warmed over to fill the gap, but sales ran at just a third the previous year's pace. All this naturally affected the Caribbean, and 1954 production dipped to only 400 units, the lowest of the model's four years.

One drawback of being stuck with the same bodies for 1954 was that Packard's line leader was stuck with the same short wheelbase. In that dimension, the Caribbean was an exact match for this year's much-less-special Buick Skylark. Olds forgot the Fiesta, but Cadillac's Eldorado blossomed to 129 inches. It, too, was now much less unique, but it also cost $2,000 less than the 1953.

Two-tone paint and lowered rear-wheel cutouts spruced up the 1954 model. Two-tone paint and lowered rear-wheel cutouts spruced up the 1954 model.
Two-tone paint and lowered rear-wheel cutouts spruced up the 1954 model.

Nance and company did what they could by giving the 1954 Caribbean everything they had: a new 359-cubic-inch engine (at 212 horsepower, the industry's most powerful postwar straight eight), two-tone paint, lowered rear-wheel cutouts (to emphasize what length there was), and a flashy new dash (shared with the rest of the line). To top it off, radio, heater, and power windows and seats were all standard. "There is no more glamorous car than the new Packard Caribbean," trumpeted the 1954 brochure. "The swank continental look will turn all eyes." Well, it caught 400 pairs of eyes, anyway.

Learn about the big performance boost and other changes for the 1955 Caribbean on the next page.

For more information about cars, see:

1955 Packard Caribbean

All Packards were redesigned for 1955, but the dual hood scoop was unique to the Caribbean.
All Packards were redesigned for 1955, but the dual hood scoop was unique to the Caribbean.

The year 1955 promised to be a turning point in Packard history, at least on paper, with a bold new 1955 Packard Caribbean among its models. Though still saddled with a body design that dated from 1948-49 for most of the lineup, designer Dick Teague managed a remarkable facelift with all the popular contemporary touches: wrapped windshield, eggcrate grille, giant "V" symbols in strategic places, twin radio antennas, "cathedral" taillights, miscellaneous scoops and scallops, even a set of "running lights" in the leading edges of the rear fenders.

Meanwhile, chief engineer Bill Graves answered president James J. Nance's call for "a difference to sell" with Bill Allison's novel Torsion-Level suspension, plus Packard's first-ever V-8, a potent 352-cubic-inch overhead-valve powerplant belting out a claimed 275 horsepower (closer to 200 horsepower in today's SAE net measure and allowing for exaggeration). Ultramatic automatic transmission was reengineered to suit, becoming Twin-Ultramatic.

With all this, Packard had a new difference to sell: high performance. A 1954 Caribbean would amble up to 60 mph in 15 seconds and break loose like any other car on washboard roads. The 1955 hit 60 mph from rest in 11.5 seconds and almost floated over the worst possible surfaces, including railroad tracks. (Packard delighted in displaying the difference between its Patrician sedan and a Cadillac, filmed tackling a notorious rail crossing in downtown Detroit.) At last, Nance had a styling/engineering package that fit his idea of what a Packard should be.

It certainly suited the Caribbean, which now rode a more competitive 127-inch wheelbase, made possible by a modern miracle called plastic tooling. This not only took half the time and cost out of the tooling process but permitted, as product planner Roger Bremer said, "the production of a complete line of cars that would not have been possible by conventional methods."

Instead of short and chunky Buick rivals, Packard now had long and glitzy Cadillac competitors. For the first time, a Caribbean could look an Eldo in the eye and beat it in a drag race.

The 1955 Caribbean featured modified side trim, a three-tone paint job, and a sumptuous interior. The 1955 Caribbean featured modified side trim, a three-tone paint job, and a sumptuous interior.
The 1955 Caribbean featured modified side trim, a three-tone paint job, and a sumptuous interior.

Special features identified the 1955 Caribbean: double dummy air scoops on the hood instead of a mascot, and a slim, bodyside contrast-color panel formed by two full-length chrome moldings, the top ones swept up at the rear to fender-mount antennas. And, not to be outdone by lesser lights like Dodge and DeSoto, most Caribbeans came with bright, three-tone paint jobs.

Packard did well in 1955, but not well enough. At 55,000 units for the whole company, model year production was almost twice that of 1954, but little more than half the 1953 total.

One reason: early mechanical problems and workmanship lapses, perhaps because the cars were rushed into production before all the bugs were out. Then too, the year-old Studebaker-Packard Corporation was in deep trouble, running out of money and suffering dealer raids from Big Three rivals, both of which only further undermined buyer confidence.

To learn about the even more lavish 1956 model, keep reading on the next page.

For more information about cars, see:

1956 Packard Caribbean

An altered grille was among the few styling changes on the 1956 Packard Caribbean.
An altered grille was among the few styling changes on the 1956 Packard Caribbean.

Packard sales barely topped 10,000 units for 1956, the year that brought what would prove to be the last "real" Packards (designed and built in Detroit). It also brought the 1956 Packard Caribbean, the last one and ironically the most lavish and perfect of all.

By now, Cadillac had decided that the Eldorado could actually make money and, shifting its focus from image to volume, offered it as a hardtop as well as a ragtop. Packard did likewise, but two Caribbeans weren't much better than one: just 276 convertibles and only 263 hardtops -- 539 in all, versus 500 1955 convertibles.

Hypalon vinyl covered the newcomer's fixed roof, while both Caribbeans featured a novel touch: removeable front and rear seat cushions with reversible covers -- pleated leather on one side, bouclé cloth on the other. Like the 1955s, the 1956s were loaded. The only options were wire wheels ($325), air conditioning ($567), and Twin-Traction limited-slip differential ($44).

Packard's V-8 was blown out to 374 cubic inches and delivered 310 horsepower. Twin-Ultramatic, newly strengthened to turn in better service with the V-8, now offered pushbutton controls, set to the right in a pod on an arm-like extension of the steering column. Contrary to popular belief, the pushbuttons weren't standard ($52 extra); they weren't too reliable, either. But it hardly mattered: Studebaker-Packard was facing oblivion.

Some Caribbeans deviated from normal specifications. Packard had always taken pride in custom-tailoring its cars, and here, at least, it still did. Dealers or the factory turned a few 1955 Four Hundred hardtops into Caribbeans and installed manual transmissions in place of Twin-Ultramatics.

White over blue over metallic copper was a popular color scheme for the 1956 Caribbean. White over blue over metallic copper was a popular color scheme for the 1956 Caribbean.
White over blue over metallic copper was a popular color scheme for the 1956 Caribbean.

A handful were painted special colors, including solids like black or agate, though tri-tones still predominated. The classic 1956 combination was white over light blue over metallic copper.

Bristling with fire and features, arrogantly priced at $5,500-$6,000 and up, the 1956 Caribbean was as impressive a luxury Packard as ever wafted down Fifth Avenue or the boulevards of Newport and Palm Springs in the golden age of the motorcar -- and of Packard -- back before World War II.

James J. Nance left his post as Studebaker-Packard president in August 1956 and Curtiss-Wright began managing affairs, with longtime South Bender Harold Churchill making the product decisions. That assured the end of Packard's Detroit operations and, two years later, the marque itself.

Not counting dealer conversions, only 2,189 Caribbeans were built over four years. That's not nearly enough for the collectors who still remember them today, but that's as it should be. Had Packard sold more, this story might have a very different ending.

For more information about cars, see:

Packard Caribbean Origins

Built in low numbers, the Packard Caribbean still delights enthusiasts today.
Built in low numbers, the Packard Caribbean still delights enthusiasts today.

Back in the days when American cars were about the only ones real Americans could buy, including the era of the 1953-1956 Packard Caribbean, your average Detroit automaker wasn't satisfied it had arrived until it offered a "limited edition." That term is fairly vague, and they didn't use it much then, though production of such cars was undeniably limited.

Yet in the booming seller's market of the late Forties, the American industry could hardly meet demand for its standard models. So except for a few low-volume traffic-builders like the Chrysler Town & Country, Detroit simply spewed forth a "turgid river of jelly-bodied clunkers," to use Ken Purdy's phrase -- and the public happily bought every one.

Inevitably, though, the market became satiated and real competition returned by about 1950. Three years later, Ford launched a sales "blitz" against Chevy, shipping huge numbers of cars to dealers regardless of orders, and the competition became murderous. One result of this cutthroat marketing was the "sports car," which usually meant anything with a convertible top, lots of performance, a few unique styling touches, and top-of-the-line price tag.

Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year. Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year.
Caribbean's finest hour came in 1956, but that was destined to be the car's last year.

Of course, some of these were true sports cars, like the Nash-Healey and Chevrolet's Corvette. Most, however, were just modified standard ragtops with higher-grade trim and, sometimes, a hotter engine. But whether genuine or fake, they had the same purpose as their late-Forties forebears: to attract the proletariat into the local emporiums, where it might eyeball the latest-and-greatest, then depart in one of the more plebian models.

In the upper reaches of 1953's regimented market, Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Packard fielded two-ton "sports cars" with wheelbases of 120-plus inches and no less than 165 horsepower: respectively, the Skylark, Eldorado, Fiesta, and Caribbean.

The last was no hasty reply to General Motors. Packard conceived the Caribbean around the time Cadillac first thought of Eldorado (1951), and for much the same reasons: a more youthful image and extra publicity. (Chrysler was similarly moved to release the C-300 in 1955, though it was far more sporting than any of these.) But whereas the GM cars were in-house designs issued mainly to gauge public response to forthcoming features like the wraparound windshield, the 1953 Caribbean had little that was really new.

That, perhaps, stems from its origins at the Henney Company of Freeport, Illinois, long-time supplier of Packard's professional-car bodies. Henney president C. Russell Feldmann hoped to expand his Packard business by tailoring a low-volume, high-buck "sports" model, and had designer Richard Arbib working on a proposal by the fall of 1951. The result, named Pan American, duly appeared at the various 1952 auto shows.

Find more information about the Pan American concept on the next page.

For more information about cars, see: