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.
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.