These past several weeks on Tuesdays, we've been following the evolution of the Packard Caribbean, most recently last Tuesday with the 1956 models. Along the way we've seen how James J. Nance, arrived at Packard in 1952, determined to restore Packard to its former glory as THE American prestige car. Nance brought with him excellent management and marketing skills. By all accounts, Nance was an inspirational leader. The plan, formulated by Nash president George Mason, was to fold Packard and Studebaker with Nash and Hudson to form American Motors.
Mason's sudden death put his second-in-command, George Romney, in charge. Romney was a good and visionary manager, but he did not like James Nance and refused to complete the merger and called off the component sharing plan Mason and Nance had worked out. With that, things began to crumble around Nance and Packard.
As «Louis» has previously written, Nance had built a new plant in Utica, Michigan to produce Packard's new V8 engine and its Ultramatic Drive automatic transmission. As part of the component sharing plan worked out with Mason, Nash and Hudson were using the Packard engine and transmission in their '55 models. Packard was also building jet engines for the Air Force at Utica. President Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, who had come from General Motors, cancelled Packard's defense contracts just as Romney cancelled the component sharing plan. What «Louis» hasn't previously written is that as all of this was happening, Nance had to scramble to find a way to build the bodies for his Packards just as the '55s were to come to market.
George Christopher, who came to Packard in the mid-1930s from Buick, was persuaded to contract the building of Packard's bodies to Briggs. Briggs also supplied Chrysler. Packard had been building its own bodies at its vast facility on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit since the opening of that plant in 1903. Briggs "low-balled" the cost of the bodies to hook Packard, then promptly raised the prices above what it had been costing Packard to produce its own bodies. For reasons lost in the fog of time, Christopher never cancelled the Briggs contract. In 1954 with Nance at the helm at Packard and just as it was time to introduce the 1955 models, Chrysler bought Briggs and refused to supply bodies to Packard. Nance was an excellent manager, but he made mistakes and what follows was one of his biggest.
As we have seen, Packard, before the arrival of Nance, had become lethargic. Nance shook things up and cleaned the "dead wood" out of Packard management. A number of wunderkind from Ford joined Packard as Nance sought to modernize the company. So far, so good.
The Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard was a multi-story facility. Assembly began on the top floor and as the cars came together, they were lowered progressively onto lower floors until reaching the final assembly line on the ground floor. With the sale of Briggs to Chrysler, Packard could have once again begun building bodies at East Grand. The Briggs facility was on Conner Avenue. "Bodies in white" were trucked over from Conner to East Grand for final assembly.
At the time, multi-story plants were becoming passé; single-story plants were all the rage. The body plant on Conner Avenue was a single story plant. The ex-Ford wunderkind at Packard persuaded Nance that the Briggs plant should be purchased and all production moved from East Grand to Conner. Nance was able to buy the plant from Chrysler and a very hasty move from East Grand to Conner ensued. And here is where the problem and one of Nance's biggest mistakes began. The Conner facility was never intended to be a full production facility. It was built only to produce bodies in white. But with Packard moving all assembly to Conner, the facility had to be fitted out with a trim shop for the upholstery, the paint shop and the final assembly line. Miraculously, Packard re-fitted the plant in a breathtaking 60 days, but there were problems - big problems. With Conner suddenly transformed into a full-production facility, the plant was very, very cramped. The final assembly line, rather than being a straight line as at East Grand, snaked and curved. Workers described the facility as "a cracker box". The upshot of it was that Packard's proud tradition of building very high-quality cars was seriously injured. Warranty costs skyrocketed. What was happening was the polar opposite of what Nance was striving for in restoring Packard as the premier American luxury car. The Monday Morning Quarterback advises us that Nance would have been better advised to resume body production at East Grand and continue to utilize the much more spacious final assembly line there. He would have avoided most of the quality issues that resulted from the hasty move to Conner.
With this drama as a backdrop, Nance had Packard's engineers and styling chief Richard Teague working feverishly to finalize the all-new 1957 models. As a precursor to the '57s, Teague and Packard engineering designed the fabulous "Predictor" show car. The car was aptly named as it showcased many features that would have become standard on the '57 Packards - and it "predicted" many features that the auto industry would later adopt - some of which didn't occur in any meaningful way until 30 and even 40 years later!
One of the first production 1956 Clipper two door hardtops was taken from the assembly line and shipped to Ghia in Italy where it was converted to the Predictor. Thus the Predictor was not just a shell as some show cars were, it was a fully functional vehicle. Among its features:
• Impact absorbing front bumper - the first in the industry and not required on cars until 1973.
• Fuel injection. Ford and General Motors offered mechanical fuel injection as a very limited option on some '57 Fords, Chevys, Corvettes and Pontiacs, but Packard would have made fuel injection standard on the '57 models. Packard was some 40 years ahead of the curve with this feature.
• T-top. The Predictor's roof was the industry's first t-top.
• Retractable rear window. This feature was supposed to be a part of the '53 Packard Balboa-X show car, but in fact, the window on the Balboa didn't retract. It did on the Predictor and that combined with a unique front fresh air intake on the '57 Packards would have given these cars the most advanced fresh air circulation of the time and, again, done so in a way that didn't become common for a number of years. When Packard closed, Nance went to Lincoln-Mercury and took this idea with him where it became the "Breezeway window" on Mercurys.
• Swivel seats. The front seat swiveled to make ingress/egress easier. Chrysler adopted this idea in 1959 and offered it for a few model years as an option.
• Aircraft-style overhead switches. More gimmicky in a car than practical, nonetheless, Studebaker later used overhead switches on the 1963-1964 Avanti.
• Four wheel disc brakes. This superior braking system would have been standard on the '57 Packards and is another feature where Packard was many, many years ahead of the industry.
• Transaxle. In order to achieve better weight distribution and handling, the Ultramatic Drive transmission was fitted to the rear axle. Pontiac used this feature on their Tempest compact in the early '60s, but it is an idea that never caught on.
Thus the Predictor was a test bed for engineering and styling features that would have appeared on the 1957 Packards and a precursor for many engineering features that would become common years after the Predictor was on the show circuit in 1956. Much of the styling of the Predictor would have been used on the 1957 Packards. The Predictor served another function: it gave Nance a bargaining chip as he sought financing for the '57s.
As fantastic as the '57 Packards might have been, we have to wonder if they would have changed Packard's fate. They would have come to market just as the sharp recession of 1957 and 1958 hit... Would Packard's fate have been different if the Packard board had persuaded Nance to join the company in 1949 when they first offered the job of president to him? As it was, he finally joined Packard in 1952 and after a very promising start, things deteriorated in ways no one could predict and in ways that Nance was powerless to change. Packard didn't survive, but the Predictor did. It is housed at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.