1955-1956 Packard Patrician/Four Hundred/Executive

The 1955 Packard, shown as a Four Hundred, got a new engine and problematic transmission. See more classic car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though far from completely new, the 1955-1956 Packard Patrician/Four Hundred/Executive received probably the most revolutionary face-lift of the 1950s. It represented a significant departure from previous practices, not only in styling, but in engineering as well.

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Those who condemn James Nance as a wrecker of the company are obliged to tell us what the old management he replaced would have delivered by 1955: As one Packard writer put it, there would probably have been nothing left but a $2,300 Clipper sedan, powered by the only straight-eight engine left in the world.

The new cars were committee-engineered -- but what a committee: Bill Graves, chief engineer, headed the V-8 project, staffed by J.R. Ferguson, Bill Schwieder, and E.A. Weiss; Forest MacFarland and Herb Misch developed the new Twin Ultramatic transmission; and Bill Allison created the "Torsion Level" suspension.

It was on this last feature that Packard hung its 1955 advertising slogan, "Let the Ride Decide." Torsion bars had been tried before, but never had they been mounted longitudinally, without anchor points, working on all four wheels. They provided a remarkable combination of ride and handling, scaling even car-breaking railroad crossings with aplomb.

And as one Packard enthusiast likes to point out, "most of them are still leveling away more than 50 years later."

The 1955 Packard looked all-new; in fact, it used a heavily restyled 1951-1954 bodyshell.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The new V-8, a solid design, boasted the highest horsepower in the industry save for the Chrysler 300. Enlarged to 374 cubic inches in 1956, the big Packard V-8 saw use in the Studebaker Golden Hawk, several drag racers, and even marine applications. More controversial was Twin-Ultramatic transmission, named for its combination of gear-start and torque converter, designed to handle the V-8's formidable power.

With Twin-Ultramatic the car started in low, then shifted to high via a band release and clutches; at cruising speed the converter locked up (as became common in the 1980s). Its weakness centered on the complicated linkage used for the low-to-high shift.

Unless properly set up -- tricky for most independent garages, and for owners once Packard dealers began disappearing -- the high clutches would burn up. Also, Twin-Ultramatic kicked down too slowly at mid-range rpm, which caused lugging and resultant engine problems.

Though serious Packard collectors would have nothing else, most defenses of Twin-Ultramatic seem to contend that it would have worked fine if it had the kind of factory service and support enjoyed by TorqueFlite or Hydra-Matic. Most judicious is this comment by a respected Packard writer: "Properly set up, properly driven, and properly maintained, it was among the best available. But it was unforgiving of a lapse in any one of these requirements."

Go to the next page to learn about styling on the 1955-1956 Packard senior models.

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Continued

Packard gave the Patrician and other senior models new grillework and other changes for 1956.
Packard gave the Patrician and other senior models new grillework and other changes for 1956.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Styling of the 1955-1956 Packard Patrician/Four Hundred/Executive, which after all were still based on the aging shell dating back to 1951, reflected the wizardry of Bill Schmidt's design department, chiefly Dick Teague.

A 1955 update touched all the bases for buyers with a glitzy mid-1950s eggcrate grille, hooded headlamps, a ribbed chrome molding for the sides to break up the tall appearance, enormous "cathedral" taillights and dual exhausts at the rear, and a wraparound windshield.

Most importantly, the 1955 Patrician sedan was at last joined by a hardtop worthy of the first rank, named the Four Hundred -- a designation Packard had used before, but now spelled out.

The 1956 Four Hundred (shown) and Patrician had a 374-cubic-inch, 290-horsepower V-8.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Performance, good looks, a truly innovative suspension system, and luxury brought Packard modest success in 1955. Sales nearly doubled 1954 levels, and the company enthusiastically released a mild face-lift for 1956. In addition to the Patrician and Four Hundred -- and with Clipper now officially a separate make -- Packard added a lower-priced "Executive" sedan and hardtop on the Clipper wheelbase, priced about $700 below the flagships and distinguished by the Clipper's pointed "slipper" taillights.

Unfortunately, the 1955 recovery had not been sufficient, nor nearly what Packard needed. Output, after all, still remained far below most pre-1954 figures. A spate of service troubles involving rear axles, Torsion-Level motors, Twin Ultramatic, and assembly quality, did further damage in the marketplace. Sales, counting Clipper, fell again -- to lower than the 1954 level.

Financing for future models dried up, Nance left, and Studebaker-Packard signed a management agreement with the Curtiss-Wright aircraft company. Future Packards would be in fact merely deluxe Studebakers: the 1956 was destined to be the last of the big Packard luxury cars.

For 1955-1956 Packard Patrician, Four Hundred, and Executive specifications, continue to the next page.

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1955-1956 Packard Patrician/Four Hundred/Executive Specifications

The Executive, available in 1956, was a smaller, less-powerful version of the senior Packards.
The Executive, available in 1956, was a smaller, less-powerful version of the senior Packards.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1955-1956 Packard Patrician/Four Hundred/Executive were stylish cars for their time, but they ended up being Packard's last-ditch effort.

Specifications

1955 Engine: ohv V-8, 352.0 cid (4.00 × 3.50), 260 bhp

1956 Engine: ohv V-8, 374.0 cid (4.13 × 3.50), 290 bhp (Patrician and Four Hundred), 275 bhp (Executive)

Transmission: Twin-Ultramatic

Suspension front: independent, longitudinal torsion bars

Suspension rear: live axle, longitudinal torsion bars

Brakes: front/rear drums

Wheelbase (in.): 127.0 (1956 Executive 122.0)

Weight (lbs.): 4,045-4,275

Top speed (mph): 115

0-60 mph (sec): 10.5-11.5

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