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The Packard Story: The Car and the Company

The Packard Story: The Car and the Company by Robert E. Turnquist
Published 1965 by A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc. (Third Printing 1969)
286pp., hardcover

Library of Congress No.: 65-14240

Purchased with other books from a collection posted on Kijiji.ca

It was this post on Disaffected Musings that had me selecting The Packard Story: The Car and the Company as my next read. I had recently purchased this book, along with some others. I hadn’t researched this book before I bought it (I rarely do), but the title had me excited. I somewhat naturally thought a book called The Packard Story: The Car and the Company would be a decent history, and explain the story of why Packard, healthy at the end of World War II, would exit the scene in the mid 1950s. That was the hope. I found Robert Turnquist’s book to be at times informative about Packards, at other times it wandered off onto related though maybe less relevant subjects.

So, let’s start with some obvious things. Chapter 1 is titled ‘The Second Series Eight and the Third Series Six’, and begins ‘The year is 1925…’ Considering the Packard brothers’ company was founded and produced a car in 1899, it seems an odd place to start ‘the story’ of Packard a quarter-century late. Turnquist does touch on the company’s beginnings — including the famous story of how dissatisfaction with a Winton drove the brothers to build their own car — but in truth, it’s only about 2 and a half pages of text to cover 25 years of history, and also touches on some of the company’s racing history.

The chapter continues with 5 paragraphs describing the Packard Six and Eight, followed by a couple paragraphs about the automotive landscape of 1925, and finally a description about Packard’s hallmark of releasing cars in ‘Series’ rather than by model year (at least until 1935).

Most chapters are generally like this. Chapter 2 (the Third Series Eight and Fourth Series Six) begins with a listing of the executive suite at Packard mid-1920s, and a half page about the advertising agency and in-house newsletters. There’s almost a page describing the National Auto Show, and finally 4 pages of text about the cars of the 2 series. The point is that chapters do not always limit themselves the car or the company, which means chapters get filled quickly.

The chapters are all around 10 pages, and in each, space is devoted to an overview of the National Auto Show and what competitor automakers were offering. Interspersed within chapter are topics including correct restoration tips for Packards, the details of correct paint on classic cars, the process for how fine leathers are selected and processed, and many pages about the custom coach and body builders of the era. Many coachbuilders including Dietrich, Derham, Rollston and Darrin (who was featured in this edition of Automobile Quarterly) are profiled. (For more information about the custom body builders, Coachbuilt.com is a good resource, though not a secure website.)

Chapters focus on specific series up to chapter 17 on the Twentieth Series of 1942, which was truncated by the change to wartime production. Chapter 18 is titled ‘The Postwar Packards’ and summarizes the 1946-1957 period in only 12 pages. The remaining 88 pages of the book are an appendix of charts detailing year-by-year (or rather series-by-series) production of Packards from 1899 up to the Twentieth Series before World War II production began. This includes production dates, engine bore and stroke, and a listing of body styles available with shipping weight and base price.

It turns out, Robert Turnquist was a respected automotive historian, and a Packard expert. He was a founding member of the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA), and a noted restorer. He championed car collecting and restoration. In that light, The Packard Story, as it’s written, makes a little more sense. Turnquist was certainly quite focused on ‘the Classics’, that is, Approved Classics as defiined by the CCCA. That explains why the post-WWII cars seem an afterthought, though it’s a little confusing why the pre-1925 cars were not included. It also helps explain why restoration information is included, and why so much attention is given to the custom body builders as well as Packard’s place among automakers.

Colour plate pages.

In terms of ‘the Packard story’, I found Turnquist did, to some extent, offer ideas on how the end came to be. He argues the mid-priced Packards were not a major factor in the demise of the company. To the contrary, Turnquist asserts that the high-end luxury market, and especially the custom-bodied luxury market, was always a small piece of the market as a whole, and declined as a result of the nation’s economic circumstances in the 1930s. Rather than tarnishing the Packard image, the introduction of the mid-priced Packard One Twenty provided a needed income source as fewer expensive senior Packards were built.

Turnquist then summarizes his beliefs about the company’s failure, mostly in the post-war chapter. Firstly, Turnquist says that following the Twentieth Series, the dies for the 160 and 180 cars were sold cheaply to Russia at the urging of the US Government. This left Packard with only the Clipper series to sell as the Twenty-First Series when the war ended. Secondly, despite winning accolades for design, the automotive press reacted very negatively to the Twenty-Second Series Packard, the ‘upside down bathtubs/pregnant elephants’, which did not help public opinion. Thirdly, while sales of Packards were very good in 1949, Turnquist suggests many of those sales were to people of lower income levels who used post-war bonus money to buy better cars. This meant few of them would become repeat buyers as their income simply wouldn’t allow for another new car in the same range. Finally, Turnquist lays much of the blame on James Nance, who became president of Packard in 1952. It’s Turnquist’s belief that Nance embarked on a far-too ambitious diversification and expansion program. Nance revamped management, forcing many long-term employees into retirement. He apparently also introduced a program to break with the past, destroying many historic corporate files as well as the store of obsolete parts Packard had on hand to sell to owners of older models. At the same time, Nance committed the company to debuting a completely new car by 1954 (which was ultimately pushed to 1955), as well as building a new engine plant in Michigan. Not only was capital stretched very thin at this point, but a plan to supply AMC with engines backfired. Packard was to purchase parts made by AMC, but when Packard didn’t actually purchase much, AMC stopped buying Packard-made engines, leaving the brand new engine plant operating at a much reduced capacity. The final blow was the merger with Studebaker. In that alliance, Packard was actually more sound financially, and Studebaker was in much worse shape. When the 1955 Packards came out, they soon developed quality issues in large part because the all-new chassis had not been thoroughly tested. While sales of the 55s were good, the quality issues seriously hurt sales the next year. Due to crippling financial issues, and that Studebaker management had more control, much of Packard’s production was moved to Studebaker’s facilities. A deal with Curtiss-Wright also hurt badly, as Curtiss used Packard-Studebaker as a tax loss vehicle, selling off assets or converting them to Curtiss-Wright production. In the end, the Packard name was grafted onto Studebaker shells as the company focused on the small car market, and eventually faded from the landscape.

So, ultimately The Packard Story: The Car and The Company is an interesting if somewhat wide-ranging book that tells at least a decent portion of the Packard history. Turnquist does provide a good amount of information about the Packard series he does cover. The extra info, about competitors and coachbuilding and restoration work, is useful in helping one understand where Packard fit in the automotive landscape. While I would have preferred more ‘inside baseball’ info, such as how and why corporate decisions were made, this book provides a sense of Packard and what the brand stood for. That is important when one considers that the last Packards were built over 65 years ago, and many have little to no firsthand memory of the marque. And while chapter covering the final years is greatly abbreviated, there is some very good information and pictures of Packard prototype cars and what might have been future production.

Notable in this book is the inclusion of 8 colour plates. Long time readers will know that every ‘older’ book I’ve reviewed has contained only black and white images. There are numerous black and whites throughout, but these 8 pages provide a great look at some classic Packards in their period correct colour schemes. In face one of the plates is the Eight Color Combination offer ring from what seems to be the Sixth (or possibly Eighth) Series.

Packard predictions, the Request and the Predictor.

Pros: A good deal of information about the classic Packards, written by an acknowledged expert on the marque, and written relatively soon after the company collapsed
Cons: wide-ranging information means less space devoted to full, detailed exploration of the cars and the company
Where to find it: Amazon, used bookstores, private collections

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