Thursday, August 6, 2015

1955 Packard Clipper

"Small wonder people with a desire for individuality so warmly welcome this distinctive new car which sets both itself and its owner apart from the crowd. There's nothing uncertain in their approval  . . .  they are trying and buying the 1955 Clipper in unprecedented numbers. One visit to your Packard dealer will show you the reason for this tremendous reception  . . .  and will convince you the 1955 Clipper is the most individually distinctive car in the medium price field."

Who wouldn't like to be an individualist? At first glance, the advertisement for the new 1955 Clipper sounds great, but in its historic context this was the only way left for Packard to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming competition. Packard's brand image as America's undisputed luxury leader gradually diminished since the company had decided to expand Packard's high dollar lineup into the medium price field, and launched the Clipper in 1941.

Because Clipper sales initially looked very promising, Packard's brass came to the conclusion to base the more prestigious Packard models on the successful Clipper design, too. This idea didn't go down well with Packard's conservative clientele who wouldn't see the point of paying a premium price for almost identical looking models, save for different trim appointments. Besides, the Clipper managed to conquer customers  from other makes at a disappointing rate of 30 percent. The vast majority of Clipper buyers were Packard owners that previously had been paying much more money for their Packard. That seriously affected the revenue and made substantial product updates nearly impossible.

In the mid-1950s, Packard was in the unfortunate situation of being neither fish nor flesh because of its ambiguous brand image. The wealthy clientele went on to buy shiny new Cadillacs, while the sensible customers didn't see much value in the low-end Packards when a Oldsmobile or Buick offered more glamour for the same buck. By 1954, Packard's sales had dropped to around 31,000.

Packard president James Nance settled on a twofold solution for the dilemma: first, separating the Clipper as an own marque from the pricier models (effective from 1956 and revoked already mid-year, after massive dealer complaints), and second, a merger with another independent car manufacturer. Hudson and Nash had just found each other to form AMC, and, brokered by the Lehman Brothers of New York, Studebaker seemed to be the most promising candidate left. Unfortunately, this shouldn't be the last time the Lehman Brothers miserably failed in their prediction: only after the merger, Packard should realize the precarious financial situation of the South Bend brand.

Back to the Clipper: the facelift for 1955 indeed transformed the Packard into a all-new looking car. The designers under the lead of Richard Teague skillfully modernized the aging Packard body from 1951 by adding a panoramic windshield and a new front clip sporting ultra-fashionable hooded headlights which appeared on this year's Mercury, too. Under the skin, Packard had some real goodies to offer for 1955: an all-new V-8 engine, "Twin Ultramatic Transmission" and  optional "Torsion-Level Ride" made the Clipper a truly competitive automobile.

Around 55,000 cars sold in 1955 were an encouraging sign of relief, but the profit went directly into covering the losses caused by the merger with Studebaker. Developing a new body didn't seem reasonable, and thus, the next generation of Packards should merely become rebadged Studebakers. By now, only a few would perceive a Packard a luxurious automobile, and consequently the less than 2,600 cars sold in 1958 became the last Packards ever.

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