1953-1956 Packard Clipper


Beginning in the mid Thirties, Packard had gotten comfortable with the idea of selling an array of cars priced well below its esteemed full-luxury models. This practice in Packard's background came into question after World War II. One of those doing the questioning was new company president James Nance, who wanted to follow a different path.

1956 Clipper
By the time Packard split off Clipper as its own make in 1956,
its future had been sealed. See more pictures of classic cars.

"If I were to write an open letter to Packard, I would be tempted to recommend a divorcing of the lower-priced Clipper line from the Cavalier and Patrician, even to the extent of leaving off the Packard nameplate," wrote Motor Trend editor Walt Woron in June 1954. "Let the Clippers stand on their own merits; they have enough of them to make them highly interesting to many people."

Packard was already anticipating just that, as Woron admitted: "The Packard crest on the grille and 'Packard' in script on the trunk are the only written indications of the ['54] Clipper being a Packard; the Clippers have new rear fenders that are unlike those of the other models; there are other indications that this may be [the Packard Clipper's] last year."

He was off by 12 months. The '55 Clipper was still officially a Packard -- though considerably different from senior models. For 1956, Studebaker-Packard registered Clipper as a separate make, and Packard became an undiluted luxury marque for the first time since 1934. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. But not because of the product.

Packard has been accused of willful homicide of its own reputation at least since 1935, when it introduced the One Twenty to stave off the Great Depression. The eight-cylinder One Twenty was anything but a cheap car, but it was a relatively cheap Packard.

Then, in 1937, Packard introduced the even cheaper Packard Six, priced at the cost of a Pontiac. There was not enough space in Detroit to build Packard Sixes, and the company rode back to prosperity with its volume lines, which in 1937 accounted for 94 percent of a record sales total.

The volume option was right for the time. Though many thought it foolish at the outset to put a Packard nameplate on a mass-production car, this was not easy to avoid. With mighty General Motors behind it, Cadillac could afford to offer the cheapened post-1933 LaSalle, while barely selling luxury Cadillacs.

But the LaSalle was dropped when hard times ended, while Packard continued to field volumes of inexpensive Packards. After the war, when automakers could sell anything and factories could be realigned to produce it, this proved a cardinal error. Once competition returned at the end of the Forties, Packard found itself relying on models in the most competitive market sector.

The Fifties Clipper evolved from the 200 series of the 1951-52 range and the Packard Eight of the Forties. Like its conceptual forebear, the One Twenty, the 200 was a cheaper Packard but not a cheap car, aimed at the middle-priced field alongside DeSoto, Oldsmobile, and the junior Buicks.

But they had two problems not suffered by the old One Twenty: performance and styling. One wonders what other problems it might have needed.

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1951-1952 Packard

The 1951-52 Packard 200 was not ugly, but it was hardly beautiful by standards of the day. John Reinhart's high-beltline "contour styling," the basis of Packard's first complete restyle, worked arguably better on the longer-wheelbase senior models.

The 200 had no station wagon, hardtop, or convertible; the latter two could be had as 250s, but they were much more expensive. Homespun 200 sedans and coupes (there was even a business coupe in '51) were as plain as Tom McCahill's Aunt Matilda.

DeSoto's styling was no great shakes either, but Buick's and Oldsmobile's were -- and in '52 you could buy an Olds Super 88 hardtop for only $32 more than a Packard 200 Deluxe two-door club sedan. That's where the competition was.

In performance, the entire Packard line was fast being eclipsed by that darling of the Fifties, the V-8 engine. Against Packard's solid, reliable, but unexciting straight eight, Oldsmobile's Rocket V-8 was cleaning up in salesrooms as well as racetracks, and in 1953, Buick and DeSoto had V-8s too.

By then the picture had grown acute, as James J. Nance, the 51-year-old appliance executive hired as Packard president in May 1952, quickly realized. Fresh from success at General Electric, Nance was concerned.

"Packard had handed over its luxury-car reputation to Cadillac on a platter," he said. "One of my main objectives from the outset was to divorce the lower-priced models, to sell them under a separate nameplate, and to reestablish Packard as a luxury make."

New model lead times being what they are, Nance could make little change in his '53 offerings, but what he accomplished was significant. For the first time since 1947, the Clipper name appeared, replacing 200 at the bottom of the line.

Advertising for these cars emphasized "Clipper" instead of "Packard." Then, in 1954, Nance was able to separate the Clipper visually with unique rear fenders, tipped by what stylist Dick Teague called the "sore thumb" taillight. (It looked much better than its name suggests.)

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1953 Packard

The 1953 Clipper was a distinct im­prove­ment on its 200 predecessor. It had a new grille, larger backlight, and cleaner side trim. Colors and interiors were brighter, fresher. But the 1953 Packard still had no V-8, so the Clipper made do with a 288-cubic-inch straight eight in use since 1948, though newly uprated to 150 horsepower.

1953 Packard Clipper
The 1953 Packard Clipper was brighter outside
and more powerful under the hood.

The Clipper DeLuxe used a 327-cubic-inch, 160-horsepower engine. The business coupe had been dropped after 1951, but now there was an upmarket Clipper Sportster two-door sedan. While not a hardtop, it was painted in bright colors and came with fancier trim.

In 1954, aside from a reworking of the rear end, the base series became the Clipper Special, and the Sportster was moved to the Clipper DeLuxe line. A top-end Clipper Super range was added, including the first Clipper hardtop, dubbed Panama, another in a series of Western Hemisphere place names like "Caribbean," "Balboa," "Pan American," and "Pacific."

Only the Special had the 288 engine; the rest used the 327, which gained five horsepower for '54. Among all U.S. makes, only Packard and Pontiac still used straight eights.

The Clipper was a big, comfortable road car, with chair-height seats and smooth if not scintillating performance. It got around corners rather better than the ordinary Detroit balloon, and braking was notably fade free.

But 0-to-60 mph in 15 seconds was dull stuff compared to the scat of V-8 competition. Motor Trend suggested holding Ultra­matic-equipped Clippers in Low to 50 mph, dropping into High, and skipping the torque converter part of the range. (A special governor kit adopted in 1954 allowed the high-range clutches to engage quickly.)

Packard's service department worried about what that kind of hot rodding would do to transmission life, and few drivers cared to hand shift automatic-equipped cars anyway.

The solution, in late 1954, was Gear-Start Ultramatic. This had two "Drive" ranges, one for torque-converter starts, the other for low-gear starts shifting automatically to high. The latter helped a little.

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1954 Packard

The new Clipper unveiled for 1953 helped Packard to a 43 percent jump in '53 production to 90,000 units. But the following model year it went the other way, dropping to fewer than 32,000 despite nicely face-lifted and more powerful Clippers. The reason was twofold. For one thing, by the time the 1954 Packard hit the market, the horsepower race had picked up considerably, and the lack of a V-8 was now a serious disadvantage.

1954 Packard Clipper
With no V-8 engine to put under the hood, the
1954 Packard Clipper lost ground to the competition.

Meanwhile, Ford and GM were locked in a sales war. Discounting wildly and shipping cars to dealers whether they were ordered or not, the two giants made competition difficult for the independents and even Chrysler.

For the '54 model year, the highest-ranking independent was 11th-place Nash, which -- with Packard, Hudson, Kaiser, and Willys -- scored a postwar production low. (Only an artificially small run of its '46s kept Stude­baker from joining this club, too.)

Added to the general peril of independents, Packard now had several problems unique unto itself. In 1953, Briggs Body Manufacturing Company, to which Pack­ard had given all its body business in 1940, sold out to Chrysler, which was unwilling to continue Packard body production after '54.

Attempting to turn disappointment into opportunity, Packard President James Nance moved production (and the newly added duty of body production) out of the traditional Packard plant on Detroit's East Grand Boulevard and installed a line at a Conner Avenue plant one-fourth its size.

Whatever gains in efficiency the one-story layout of the Conner plant provided were more than wiped out by its cramped, clumsy production line, which, combined with ordinary transition nits, caused severe delivery shortages and quality problems among the 1955 models.

Then there was Studebaker, which Nance had purchased in 1954, expecting later to fold into American Motors, forming a broad-line company rivaling the "Big Three."

Studebaker was in far worse shape than it had represented itself, and American Motors, under new president George Romney, proved unwilling to pursue the dreamed-of merger.

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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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1953-1956 Packard Clipper Specifications

The Packard Clipper of the 1950s was a worthy automobile. However, it was not enough to reverse the impending doom at Packard. Here are the 1953-1956 Packard Clipper specifications, covering the last years that the car was built in Detroit before Packard merged into Studebaker.

1955 Packard Clipper
The 1955 Packard Clipper featured a V-8 engine,
though it came a bit late in the game.

1953 Packard Clipper (wheelbase 122 inches)

Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
4-door sedan
3,730
$2,598
23,126
2-door sedan
3,700
$2,544
6,370
Sportster 2-door sedan
3,720
$2,805
3,672
chassis
not applicable
not applicable
1
Total Clipper


33,169
DeLuxe 4-door sedan
3,760
$2,745
26,037
DeLuxe 2-door sedan
3,720
$2,691
4,678
Total Clipper DeLuxe


30,715
Total Packard Clipper


63,884

1954 Packard Clipper (wheelbase 122 inches)

Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
Special 4-door sedan
3,650
$2,594
970
Special 2-door sedan
3,585
$2,544
912
Total Clipper Special


1,882
DeLuxe 4-door sedan
3,660
$2,695
7,610
DeLuxe 2-door sedan
3,650
$2,645
1,470
Sportster 2-door sedan
3,595
$2,830
1,336
Total Clipper DeLuxe


10,416
Super 4-door sedan
3,695
$2,815
6,270
Super 2-door sedan
3,610
$2,765
887
Panama hardtop coupe
3,765
$3,125
3,618
Total Clipper Super


10,775
Total Packard Clipper


23,073

1955 Packard Clipper (wheelbase 122 inches)


Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
DeLuxe 4-door sedan
3,680
$2,586
8,309
Super 4-door sedan
3,670
$2,686
7,979
Panama hardtop coupe
3,700
$2,776
7,016
Total Clipper Super


14,995
Custom 4-door sedan
3,885
$2,926
8,708
Constellation hardtop coupe
3,865
$3,076
6,672
Total Clipper Custom


15,380
Total Packard Clipper


38,684

1956 Clipper* (wheelbase 122 inches)


Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
DeLuxe 4-door sedan
3,745
$2,733
5,715
Super 4-door sedan
3,800
$2,866
5,173
Panama hardtop coupe
3,825
$2,916
3,999
Total Super


9,172
Custom 4-door sedan
3,860
$3,069
2,129
Constellation hardtop coupe
3,860
$3,164
1,466
Total Custom


3,595
Total Clipper


18,482

* Clipper marketed as an independent make and not a series of Packard.

1955 Packard Clipper Super and Patrician


Clipper Super 4-door sedan
Patrician 4-door sedan
Wheelbase, inches
122.0
127.0
Overall length, inches
214.8
218.5
Curb weight, pounds
3,6704,275
Engine, cubic inches/horsepower
320 V-8/225
352 V-8/260
Standard transmission
3-speed manual
automatic
Standard front suspension
coil
coil
Standard rear suspension
leaf springs torsion bar*
leaf springs torsion bar*
Base price
$2,686
$3,890
­*Technically a "mandatory option."

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