(a.k.a. Red Car Day at Chez la Vache!)
1956 Packard Caribbean hardtop, one of only 263 built.
Today we conclude our series on the evolution of the fabulous Packard Caribbeans with the 1956 models, the last year the Caribbeans were built, and the last year for real Packards. There were cars produced in 1957 and 1958 that wore the Packard name, but they were nothing more than "badge engineered" Studebaker Presidents, built in the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana after the Packard plant in Detroit was closed on this very day - 26 June - in 1956.
The closure of Packard was a sad end to one of the most illustrious names in the automobile industry. In previous posts, we've seen the two threads that entwined to bring about the end of Packard. One thread of the demise of Packard was spun in the Great Depression when Packard brought George Christopher on to introduce the 120 series, a lower priced Packard that saved the company in those dark years. Christopher, who had come to Packard from GM's Buick Division, was a production genius and did a stellar job with the 120 and its variants. By the 1940s, Christopher had become president of the company. He was determined to take Packard down market and become a volume-oriented middle price car maker. In doing so, he handed Cadillac the luxury car business on a silver platter and in doing so set the stage for Packard's demise.
The other thread that entwined with the first one to bring about the end of Packard is the failure of Packard - and Studebaker - through no fault of their own to become part of American Motors as planned. At the end of World War II, Nash president George Mason correctly saw that there would be a huge pent-up demand for cars once civilian production resumed, then there would be a shake-out and many of the independent automakers would close. Mason determined to be a survivor. He proposed to form the fourth full-line automaker after GM, Chrysler and Ford. He would follow the Alfred Sloan model for GM by offering a low-price line, a lower middle-price line, an upper middle-price line and a luxury line. Thus Studebaker, Nash, Hudson and Packard would merge to form the new American Motors.
It almost happened. Mason bought Hudson and influenced Packard's decision to bring James Nance on a president after a palace coup forced Christopher out and placed Hugh Ferry as Packard's interim president. Nance signed on to the merger plan and bought Studebaker. Nance and Mason worked out a component sharing plan. Nance built a new plant in Utica, Michigan to produce V8 engines and automatic transmissions for Packard and also for Nash and Hudson. Before the merger could be completed, Mason - who chain smoked cigars - caught pneumonia and died. Mason's successor, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney, did not like Nance and refused to complete the merger and cancelled the component sharing plan.
Things really fell apart fast for Packard after that. The purchase of Studebaker was not properly vetted. Studebaker's costs - due in large part to the most generous wages in the industry - were out of control, especially as Studebaker's volume was plunging. One of the rationales for building the new Packard engine and transmission plant in Utica was a defense contract to build jet engines for the Air Force. U.S. President Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, Charles "Engine Charlie" Wilson, who had come from GM, re-wrote Pentagon procurement rules to favor - guess who - GM, and both Packard and Studebaker lost their defense contracts. Nance was counting on the cash flow from those defense contracts to fund the tooling for the planned all-new 1957 Packard and Studebaker lines. After losing the defense contracts, Nance couldn't get the banks and insurance companies to fund the tooling for the planned '57s. A poorly-executed business analysis by the Ernst & Ernst business consulting firm combined with an offer from aircraft maker Curtiss-Wright led to the closure of Packard in Detroit and hastily re-badged Studebaker Presidents being marketed as "Packards" for 1957 and 1958. In truth, it was South Bend (along with Studebaker's under-utilized plant in Los Angeles) that should have been shut down, with production consolidated at the Packard plant in Detroit. The Packard assembly line on East Grand could have been re-opened, the assembly of Packards at Conner Avenue ended and the Studebakers could have been built at Packard's former 120 plant. Monday morning quarterbacking, as always, is futile...
Against this backdrop, the greatest of the Packard Caribbeans were produced. One of the hallmarks of Nance's time as president of Packard was to re-establish Packard as the leading luxury car manufacturer and to restore Packard's image of top-flight engineering. Thus the '56s continued with the unique "Torsion-Level" suspension system introduced in 1955. The displacement of the V8 engine was increased for the Packards from 352 cubic inches to 374 cubic inches, the largest and most powerful in the industry. With the "batwing" dual four barrel carburetor set up on the Caribbean engines, the horsepower output was 310.
The "batwing" dual four barrel carburetors on a 1956 Caribbean.
For 1956, Packard offered the industry's first power door locks and the first limited slip differential, "Twin-Traction". "Twin-Traction" transferred the power from one driving wheel to the opposite if one began to slip in snow or ice.
The "Twin-Traction" differential transfered power from a wheel that was spinning to the wheel that still had traction, and industry first and now standard on virtually all cars.
Nance, who had come to Packard from appliance maker Hotpoint, looked for things that would distinguish Packard from the competition; he was always "looking for a difference to sell". At Hotpoint, Nance had introduced the "pushbutton kitchen", so he loved it when Packard engineers came up with the pushbutton controls for the Twin-Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission.
"Tele-Touch Twin Ultramatic Drive"
For the Caribbeans, the tri-tone paint schemes from 1955 were continued, though the choices were revised. The names of the colors were changed across the line: the "Jewel Tones" of 1955 became names of places for 1956. For example "White Jade" from 1955 became "Dover White" in 1956. The white/light blue/dark metallic blue combination of 1955 was replaced with a white/blue/copper combination.
1956 Caribbean hardtop in "Dover White", "Danube Blue" and "Roman Copper".
Another new feature on the Caribbeans was reversible upholstery - all leather on one side and a cloth/leather combination on the other. Thus, according to the weather, the heat and cold prone leather could be flipped to a more comfortable cloth seating surface and on days when the temperature was more moderate, the upholstery could be flipped back to the luxurious leather.
Reversible upholstery on the 1956 Caribbean - here the passenger's seat cushion has been flipped to the cloth/leather side while the passenger's seat back is on the all-leather side as is the entire driver's seat.
An ad for the 1956 Caribbeans showing the reversible upholstery and the push button automatic transmission. Rare enough as they were, even more rare is a Caribbean in a two-tone rather than tri-tone paint scheme, this one being in Corsican Black and Naples Orange.
For 1956, most of the scarce money for restyling went to Studebaker as Nance struggled to get volume up there - South Bend was bleeding him white. With the all new '57s on the drawing boards and Nance desperately seeking funding for the tooling for the '57s, chief stylist Richard Teague couldn't do much with the '56 Packards. From a styling standpoint, the least changed of the '56s were the Caribbeans - though as the most prestigious of Packards, the Caribbeans benefitted from all the other features and improvements introduced on the 1956s. Teague squared up the deck lid and shuffled the trim a bit and added deeper "eyebrows" to the front headlights.
Deeper "eyebrows" over the headlights are one readily noticeable styling change on the '56 Caribbeans.
Because of the few styling changes, from 20 feet away, especially from the side, one must look closely to spot the difference between a '55 and a '56 Caribbean. In 1955, the Caribbean was only offered as a convertible. For 1956, it was offered both as a convertible, of which only 276 were built, and as a hardtop, with 263 built. Had the planned '57s been built, a four door hardtop would have joined the convertible and the two door hardtop.
Full size mock up of the planned '57 Packard Caribbean convertible. Two and four door hardtop versions were also planned. The four door version would have looked much like the Four Hundred four door pictured below.
The 1956 Packards, particularly the Caribbeans, were the most technically advanced cars of their time, despite being built on a body shell that dated back to the 1951 models. The engineering principles behind the Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission, especially the lock-up torque converter, became the basis for modern automatic transmissions. Packard led the industry with its 374 cubic inch V8 and scored two more industry firsts with their power door locks and limited-slip differential. In terms of colors and trim, like all the cars of the mid-'50s, the Packards - and especially the flamboyant Caribbeans - were rolling jukeboxes, though luxurious jukeboxes, if there could be such a thing. Had the '57s been produced as planned, Packard would have recaptured its former glory for superior engineering with the industry firsts those cars would have introduced. The '56s were a segue into that, even though the real '57s were never built. Nance and Packard went down fighting.
Next up: It won't be "Ruby" but next Tuesday, we'll look at the Packard "Predictor".
See more Ruby Tuesday entries HERE.