1956 Packard Executive

The sportiest Executive was the two-door hardtop. Prices began at $3,560. See more classic car pictures.

The 1956 Packard Executive was something of an anomaly for this automaker. Packard President James Nance had no great love for medium-priced cars parading around wearing the name of the great luxury marquee. But that's exactly the kind of car his company released in 1956 for what turned out to be the last completely new model in the firm's history.

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Anyone who followed the automobile business could tell by the March 1956 announcement of the Packard Executive that the old company, which had merged with Studebaker two years before, was in trouble. For four years Packard's top management had been insisting that the Packard name be used only on luxury cars -- now here they were again, applying it to cars that sold for the price of a Buick.

Whether management's rationale was right or not, the Executive arrived too late to change anything, and only 2815 were built. Given the state of Studebaker-Packard fortunes, it really didn't matter how many were sold. The Executive went down in history only as the last "true" Packard ever introduced, if we don't count the Studebaker-based ersatz-Packards of 1957-1958.

The grid-like grille and deeply hooded headlights came from senior Packards.

Automotive insiders in 1956 recognized the Executive as a desperation tactic because it contradicted the marketing plan adopted by James J. Nance when he became Packard president in 1952. ("The new Packard is more a product of production line sleight-of-hand than of the engineering laboratory or styling studio," said Car Life of the Executive in its August 1956 issue.) Nance's approach had been logical and correct. Packard, he knew, had been a watchword for luxury and class for nearly half a century, at least since the mighty Six, the "boss of the road," was introduced for 1912.

In 1935, to save itself, Packard moved seriously down-market with the One Twenty although that car was brilliantly engineered, and by no means cheap. In 1937, greedy for the mass market the One Twenty had uncovered, Packard added a new, much less mighty Six, which was cheap, though equally well built. You could buy a 1937 Six for the price of a Pontiac.

Packard knew it needed to make a change in order to save the brand. On the next page, learn how the concept for the 1956 Packard Executive was developed.

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Development of the 1956 Packard Executive

Eager-to-please Packard would fill special orders, like this 374-cube Caribbean engine.
Eager-to-please Packard would fill special orders, like this 374-cube Caribbean engine.

As Packard moved toward the 1956 Packard Executive, the manufacturer began to leave behind some of their older and more inexpensive models. Luxury products were relegated to what amounted to a sideline. In 1946, the first model year after the war, Packard's best seller was a Clipper Six that started at $1,680, while Cadillac's most popular model was an eight-cylinder Series 62 that racked up similar sales with starting prices between $2,300 and $2,600.

In 1948, Packard face-lifted and added a station wagon, while Cadillac restyled and -- for 1949 -- added an overhead valve V-8. By 1950, Cadillac was building almost 100,000 cars a year priced over $3,000, while Packard was building about 2,500 (and that's an optimistic guess). Said James Nance of the previous Packard managers, "They just turned the luxury car business over to Cadillac on a platter."

It took a marketing man like Nance to understand this serious departure from the one field where Packard had always excelled, and to his credit, he tried to correct the error. From the beginning of his tenure, he fought to separate the name "Packard" from the lower-priced models, which he wanted to call "Clippers." The only excuse for building Clippers, he said, "is to get volume to support the factory and our dealer organization."

What Nance wanted was more emphasis on Packards to fling robustly against their traditional luxury competitors. He was resisted by dealers used to selling cheaper cars, and by older managers brought in during the One Twenty years, when cheaper cars were the only things the company could sell.

Executives had a stick shift with a blank shift quadrant.

By introduction time for the 1956 models, Nance seemed to have worn down his opposition. "Ward's are now reporting Packards and Clippers as two separate lines of cars," he wrote his dubious sales manager, Dan O'Madigan, with evident satisfaction; "the franchises are physically split, although nothing much is being done about it in field application; but most importantly, we have involved ourselves in a tooling program for the company on two separate lines...expenditure for face-lifting the 1956 cars is twice what it was [in past similar years] because we are face-lifting two, not one, lines."

A number of strategies were cooked up by Packard to market the Executive. To learn how the 1956 Packard Executive was presented to the public, see the next page.

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Marketing of the 1956 Packard Executive

Packard made it possible to go with a more sedate single-color look.
Packard made it possible to go with a more sedate single-color look.

Packard tried many tactics to boost sales of the 1956 Packard Executive. Officially registering Clipper as a separate make from the 1956 Packard Executive, James Nance changed its producer's name to "Packard-Clipper Division," offered dealers separate "Packard" and "Clipper" signs, and removed the Packard name altogether from the new 1956 Clippers. But his victory was short-lived.

On January 6, 1956, following remonstrances from product planner Roger Bremer, Packard script was reapplied to the Clipper deck. Later it was even made available as a retrofit item for previous Clippers. This was one of the rare occasions when Nance's will was thwarted by his underlings, leaving him grumbling that "drifting without a policy is deadly, as evidenced by Packard's fatal mistake of doing so since 1938."

The appearance of the Executive, a Clipper with a Packard front end and Packard name, was just another step away from Nance's announced policy. "This was obviously a return to the practice of 'selling the Packard name' on a cheaper car," wrote George Hamlin and Dwight Heinmuller in Packard: A History of the Motorcar and the Company, "an idea that had worked in 1935 but which Nance himself had said was 'bleeding the Packard name white' in 1952. The Executive further demoralized the field force...its invitation 'to enter the luxury car class now -- at a modest investment' was a clear signal to anyone with eyes that something was very wrong at East Grand Boulevard."

A high grade of materials was used on interiors, which generally came in two-tone motifs.

The Executive's impact on the morale of the field force is debatable; it's possible that the field force never noticed. Hamlin and Heinmuller say the new model "sold as fast as it was produced." If so, production was geared to the snail's pace of sales. By the time the Executive was introduced in early 1956, dealers were deserting at the rate of 20 a month, and rumors were rife that the 1956 Packards would be the last ever. This added irony to insult, because the 1956s were generally improved from the 1955s, with many unique features, like pushbutton Twin Ultramatic transmission, self-leveling torsion-bar suspension, and one of the most powerful V-8s in the industry.

Decidedly pointed at both ends, the Executive appeared to have genuine luxury car proportions.

Of course all this is hindsight, which is far too easily indulged, and you are here to read about the Packard Executive, which was a good buy for the money. Introduced as a car for "the young man on the way up," it was in fact a modified 1956 Clipper Custom, which had been dropped to make room for it. Like the Custom, it consisted of two body styles, a four-door sedan and two-door hardtop; but it violated Nance's strict Packard/Clipper separation doctrine in both power and size. Its engine, unlike all the other 1956 Packards, was the Clipper Custom's 352-cid, 275-bhp V-8, and it rode the 122-inch Clipper chassis.

Thus it was down 15 to 35 horsepower from the 374-cid Packard V-8, and five inches in wheelbase: a "junior" car in traditional Packard parlance. "Actually the car is more in the nature of an upper-crust Clipper Custom than a poor man's Packard Patrician, having more in common with the Clipper," wrote Motor Life's Ken Fermoyle.

The 1956 Packard Executive could be ordered with a number of options. Learn about how pricing worked for the 1956 Packard Executive on the following page.

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Pricing for the 1956 Packard Executive

The Executive hardtop accounted for just barely more than 1,000 of the approximately 2,800 built.
The Executive hardtop accounted for just barely more than 1,000 of the approximately 2,800 built.

Since it replaced the Clipper Custom, the 1956 Packard Executive was not so much a market-filler as a market substitute. You paid about $400 more for than you did for a Custom (and about $700 less than the cheapest senior Packard); in exchange you received the Packard name and an ornate Packard front end, which added more weight to an already nose-heavy package. Performance was decent (0 to 60 in 11.7 seconds -- with three people aboard no less -- by Motor Life's count), but not earthshaking with all that weight.

This was the heaviest 1956 powered by the 352 engine; at 4,185 pounds it was a good 300 pounds heavier than a Clipper Custom. (With its standard four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, the Executive did enjoy a 35-bhp advantage over the remaining Clippers. The hotter of two available axle ratios was standard and a Twin-Traction anti-slip differential was an option.)

On the plus side, anyone who has ridden in a torsion-bar Packard will say there was nothing to compare with it on the contemporary market, and the cars were prettily kitted out with flashy upholstery and paint jobs: Most of them bore the big broad side stripes of two-tone color worn by the Clipper Customs. Power assists could be ordered for windows, seats, brakes, and steering. "Readability and handling are better than average, and power steering gives fairly quick control," said the Car Life review. "Unassisted manual steering is not recommended on a car as heavy as 4,200-plus Ibs."

The statement that Executives were good buys for the money requires qualification. If resale value was important, buyers were well advised to consider something else (judging by sales figures, most of them did). Five years after the last Executive was sold, it had an average retail value of about $500, against about $800 for a Buick Roadmaster, which had sold for about the same money new and notched up more than 50,000 sales. (This relative value judgment has more or less continued into the collector era. A leading price guide assigns a top condition Roadmaster hardtop a value of $27,000 against $17,000 for the Executive, although the four-door sedans are rated about even.)

A Packard ornament graced the hood on the Executive.

The figures above also suggest a certain psychological problem created by disobeying Nance's dictum and producing Buick-level Packards. A car with a Packard badge on it was supposed to sell for Cadillac prices. Had the Executive sold in real volume, the way the early postwar Packard Sixes and Eights had, it would have further eroded the luxury image of Packard in the public mind. But this is a speculative and academic observation; by 1956 the public mind was made up.

Nance knew right away that sales were going to be thin for the Executive. Read about the measures he took to keep Packard from falling apart on the next page.

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Sales for the 1956 Packard Executive

The Executive attempted to transfer Packard prestige onto the smaller, lighter Clipper chassis.
The Executive attempted to transfer Packard prestige onto the smaller, lighter Clipper chassis.

James Nance knew his company was in trouble well before it introduced the 1956 Packard Executive. As early as October 1955, he had lamented the month's sales statistics, telling Roger Bremer, "everything possible is going to have to be done to get this thing turned around -- and fast...get the business operating in the black [and] get the operations in line to come closer to the targets that we gave to the financial institutions of a break-even point of 65,000 units and a $10 million profit at 80,000 units."

In February 1956, he advised Bob Laughna of Purchasing and Production Control to "retrieve all copies of [our sales] figures and take them out of circulation, for obvious reasons. Please send me instead a program predicated on moving a wholesale domestic minimum of 60,000 units for the calendar year of 1956...[Fifty thousand] is our required minimum to keep from incurring horrendous losses."

Packard-Clipper combined production hit nearly 70,000 for calendar 1955, mostly on the strength of the heavily facelifted line of cars and new V-8 engines; but for all of 1956, the figure would plummet to 13,432.

Packard-Clipper Division had planned an all-new body for 1957, with the Executive sharing fully the bodywork of the senior Packard Patrician, Four Hundred, and Caribbean. Clippers were slated to share a smaller body with Studebakers. But the new body program was going to cost $30 million, the greater part of a $50 million line of credit S-P needed. By spring 1956, inevitably influenced by the sales figures Nance couldn't hide, the insurance companies that backed the corporation refused to lend more.

Various doomsday plans were then considered, including moving the whole operation to Studebaker's South Bend plant, discontinuing Packard, discontinuing Clipper, discontinuing them both, or discontinuing the entire company by filing for bankruptcy. Nance desperately tried to develop bailouts: body sharing with Lincoln, a buyer to take Packard-Clipper off his hands -- but none of these worked out.

By late May 1956, S-P was faced with the only offer short of bankruptcy, a management agreement with Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft manufacturer. In exchange for needed operating funds, Studebaker-Packard -- "gasping like a wounded bass," in the words of auto writer Tom McCahill -- accepted Curtiss-Wright management, distribution of Daimler-Benz vehicles in the United States, and, by July, consolidation of all automotive operations at South Bend.

The last day of production at Packard's plant on Conner Avenue in Detroit, where assembly had shifted for 1955, was June 25, 1956. That day 24 Clippers and 18 Packards were driven off the line. Production for the model year was 18,482 Clippers and 10,353 Packards, including the 2,815 Packard Executives.

The final days of the Executive were also the final days for Nance at Packard. Read about the last days of the Packard Executive on the next page.

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The Last Days of the 1956 Packard Executive

The Executive's 352-cid engine made 275 bhp.
The Executive's 352-cid engine made 275 bhp.

After the 1956 Packard Executive James Nance knew there was no place for him in the new Packard scheme, but stayed on through August helping to place some of his remaining loyalists. "I spent several months at the plant even after I was off the payroll," he told this writer and George Hamlin in 1975, "on my own time and my own expense in helping my key boys get located. I think as a result of that I have a very loyal alumni. We went through that situation together." Poor Nance was destined to go through a similar situation again. After leaving Studebaker-Packard, he became division general manager of Edsel.

Why build the Executive at all? Well, this was a company that tried everything. You have to give them credit for that. As Messrs. Hamlin and Heinmuller wrote, Studebaker-Packard employed "every conventional money-saving, sales-creating, publicity-massaging method" that there was (and some methods they tried several times). It didn't take a rocket scientist to produce the Executive.

Faced with similar sales problems in 1951, Kaiser had grafted Frazer clips and fenders onto leftover Kaisers; Canadian builders had done likewise with Dodge clips on Plymouth bodies, and so on. It didn't appeal to "the young man on the way up," but it was a game effort for an old company on the way down.

Indeed, the evidence is that Packard would do more than most to make buyers happy, although this was not novel for a company that had long claimed to offer anything a customer wanted. If you asked hard enough in 1955-1956, they'd build you a car that theoretically wasn't available. Thus appeared (or at least were retrofitted) Packards with three-speed stickshifts instead of Ultramatics, including several Caribbeans and at least one Executive; and Executives with non-standard specifications, even including the Caribbean V-8.

A new color, "flamingo," was introduced for spring 1956, and found itself onto quite a few Executives, usually two-toned with white. The dealers, who had never bought Nance's idea to restrict the Packard name, would have happily taken more Executives, but the model was hardly announced before production began to wind down.

When interviewed 20 years after the events here described, James Nance had been many years a banker, and had mellowed considerably. "The big lesson I learned out of it was the reason I welcomed the opportunity to run a bank," he said. "You can't do anything without money! I just concluded that sooner or later everybody ends up at the bank. After Packard, I knew that if I understood more about financing, banking, and the money markets, it would enable me as a business executive to run any business more effectively. I only wish I'd had the banking experience earlier in my career." And in an unguarded moment, he confided the words he thought he might like on his tombstone, based on a crack by Harry Truman: "Here lies Jim Nance. He done his damndest."

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