Despite its early success with quality luxury cars, bad business decisions after WWII ultimately led to the end of Packard.
Packard was a luxury car company which would go up against other mainstream luxury giants like Cadillac and Lincoln during the years prior to WWII. It would survive the depression and the war - something many, many other carmakers (especially luxury carmakers) - were unable to do. But the company would fold not too long after that. Which is a shame, as Packard had once been at the forefront of automotive technology, as well as a byword for luxury.
The first Packard automobile was built in Warren, Ohio, in 1899. The town was home to a number of industrial ventures belonging to the Packard family, and was even named after town’s founder Warren Packard. It was Warren’s sons, James Ward Packard and William Doud Packard, who built the car, and the following year, they founded the Ohio Automobile Company to produce their Model A. The one-cylinder car was more expensive than the competition, but it was also of very high quality, as Packard planned from the beginning to be a luxury brand. These early years already saw a number of innovations from Packard.
In 1900, with the Model B, Packard introduced H-pattern shifting and automatic spark advance. In 1901, it became the first automaker to switch from a tiller to a steering wheel, and although it didn’t invent the device, this same year saw the introduction of a pedal for an accelerator instead of a lever, the combination making the car much easier to drive. Henry Bourne Joy, a wealthy resident of Detroit, bought one of these early Packards, and was so impressed by it that he convinced a couple of other investors to buy the Ohio Automobile Company and move it to Detroit, with the previously informal Packard name for the company now becoming its official name.
It was during this period, between the move to Detroit and the Second World War, when Packard would really rise to prominence. In 1915 it would make the world’s first production V12, the world’s first car with 4-wheel brakes in 1923, and the same year would see the introduction of hypoid differential gears. Also in 1923, a Packard dealership in Los Angeles acquired the first two neon signs in America, items which would cause passers-by to stop and stare. In 1919, a Packard using an aircraft engine (leftover from Packard’s wartime aircraft manufacturing) was driven at 149mph, setting the new land speed record.
By the late Twenties, Packard was the dominant luxury carmaker in America, outselling even giants like Cadillac. The onset of the Great Depression killed off many of Packard’s competitors, including greats like Pierce-Arrow, Peerless and the legendary Duesenberg. But Packard would respond by restructuring its whole model lineup into even bigger and more expensive "Senior" models and its cheapest-yet "Junior" models. It was thus that it survived the depression and then spent the war building the licensed Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines for the P-51 Mustang fighter planes.
Packard seemed to be doing well following the war, but it made a few mistakes right out of the gate. The first was that it failed to come out with any proper postwar models until 1951, much later than most companies. Up to that point, it was selling the same models as before the war, and these looked extremely dated when most other companies had all-new models by about 1948. The other mistake was that, during this period, it also only produced the Junior models, thus robbing itself of the prestige which the Senior models had brought.
By the time the new models debuted, Packard had essentially lost the luxury market to Cadillac and Lincoln. Although it was no longer a proper luxury brand, Packard was still doing fairly well during the early Fifties. But the early postwar years were nonetheless difficult for smaller companies, and in 1954, the possibility was introduced for Packard to join with Nash, Hudson and Studebaker to form AMC. The deal would end up falling through, with only Nash and Hudson becoming AMC and Packard left alone with the struggling Studebaker. This company, known as SPC, would attempt to duplicate the successful Senior and Junior model which had seen Packard through the depression.
Packard would build luxury cars and Studebaker would take the more mainstream modelds. It didn’t work, and with the added problems caused by Studebaker’s previous money issues, SPC would kill off Packard in 1959, with Studebaker following it to the grave a few years later. The final years had seen quite a bit of platform sharing, and it was viewed by many as the diluting of the once-fine Packard name. So despite having built some truly great automobiles, a handful of bad business decisions killed off Packard over a relatively short period of time.