Test Drive: 1956 Packard Clipper

Went to visit my pal Pete yesterday. He’s the family friend from whom I purchased the Alfa. A trip to Pete’s place is always a guaranteed entry into some automotive fun, as he has a nice collection of “older” and “newer” cars, and always gives me a chance to take several of his cars out for drives.

There was no way I could have anticipated the “drive” which was on the horizon this day for both of us.

We were cruising in his 1979 Volvo 265 (original owner, 41,000 miles, AACA Preservation Award winner), with me behind the (thin-rimmed, non-air bag) wheel, when Pete said “see those cars on the left? Pull into that lot”.  Those cars on the left were unmistakable, even from a distance of several hundred yards: a first-generation Corvair sedan, and a mid-fifties two-tone Packard sedan. I stopped the car. Pete got out and said “let me find the guy”.

1956 Packard Clipper Custom 4-door sedan
1956 Packard Clipper Custom 4-door sedan

 

The guy was the proprietor of the gravestone marker business in whose parking lot we were sitting. Pete returned within moments, the Packard’s keys clutched in his hand, the guy right behind him. They were discussing a test drive route in the area. The guy motioned for me to climb in, said to both of us “have fun”, and went back to tend to several ladies who were shopping for granite.

Packard from the rear: it's as large as it looks
Packard from the rear: it’s as large as it looks

 

“We” were going for a test drive in this car, a 1956 Packard Clipper 4-door sedan.

Steering wheel feels 3 feet wide - it just that modern wheels are so much smaller
Steering wheel feels 3 feet wide – it’s just that modern wheels are so much smaller

 

Observation #1: there is a lot of room in the front seat of a ’56 Packard. The bench seat, combined with a dash barely extending out from the windshield base, provides a lot of stretch-out space. Pete, who is fit and slender, looked lost behind that enormous steering wheel. With the key in the ignition, the big V8 fired right up. Pete moved the column-mounted shifter into “R”, which on this car is at the far right, next to “L” (can’t say “PRNDL” here), and backed the car out of its parking spot.

Observation #2: a 1956 Packard does not have seat belts, unless some previous owner had decided to install them at some point during the car’s 50 years of life. No previous owner had made that decision here.

Grad rope is in lieu of belts; note obigitory ashtray
Grab rope is in lieu of belts; note obligatory ashtray

 

As we headed toward the road, a busy two-lane highway with a de facto speed limit of around 60, I asked Pete “are we turning left or right?”

Pete: “left”.

To myself: “oh shit”.

We both were trusting that this rig would not stall when the gas was mashed, that the steering wheel would at least pretend to be vaguely connected to the front tires, and that the brake pedal would not sink to the floor upon initial application. In other words, there was no parking lot test drive before stepping out to play with Friday’s traffic.

Pete successfully made the left turn, and the car was up to 50-55 with little effort. We cruised for several miles at that speed. I noticed that with Pete’s hand steadily on the wheel, the steering did not need constant correction in order to continue straight – impressive (and certainly not how my ’57 Ford steered).

Orange valve covers out of place on green engine block
Orange valve covers out of place on green engine block

 

The road started downhill, the posted speed limit dropped to 40, there was construction on the right, an 18-wheeler was behind us, and the traffic light up ahead turned red. We needed to slow down QUICKLY. Pete braked with his left foot. The car dove to the right, he let up on the pedal, reapplied the brake, and the car darted left. The brakes pulled badly. The tractor trailer, in Pete’s words, was “up my butt”. To his credit, Pete controlled that big wheel, modulated the brakes, and got us safely stopped. Speaking of stopped, my breathing did for about 10 seconds. I recovered. Did I mention that the car had no seat belts?

Battery, hoses, clamps look recent; otherwise things look refreshingly original
Battery, hoses, clamps look recent; otherwise things look refreshingly original

 

As we turned left into a residential area, I was relieved to be away from that busy 2-lane. This was when Pete pulled over, put it in Park, and said “OK, your turn”. I had not driven a ‘50s-era automobile in many years. I had never driven a Packard. This was going to be a thrill.

With the transmission back in “D”, I pulled out onto the quiet 25-mph street. The car’s power steering certainly was effortless, but inputs did have a direct effect on the car’s direction. Accelerator tip-in was fine, and the V8 had lots of torque. The most remarkable observation during the test drive was the car’s ride. It was supple without being too floaty. There was nary a squeak or rattle from any of the four corners. The car handled better than a 2-ton ‘50s American car would be expected to handle. (And this on bias-plies.)

Kids: handle on right controls door window. Rotate one direction to raise, the other to lower
Kids: handle on right controls door window. Rotate one direction to raise, the other to lower

 

The two issues with the car were the aforementioned (drum) brakes, which needed adjustment or perhaps a service, and the transmission, which needed its quadrant adjusted, and which at one point during a downshift made a groaning sound.

The car’s odometer indicated 57,614 miles, and Pete and I agreed that nothing we saw before, during, or after our test drive would give us reason to doubt those miles were original.

Car's styling rivals anything else from Big 3 for '56; note exhaust pipe
Car’s styling rivals anything else from Big 3 for ’56; note exhaust pipe

 

Back at the gravestone store, I parked the Packard exactly where we had found it. Pete ran the keys back to the owner. It was then that I got the story that the Packard (and the Corvair) had belonged to the owner’s father, who passed away a year ago. He was just getting around to putting them up for sale. The ask was $16,000. Pete told him that he would think about it.

I know that Pete would love to have the car, but like many of us, he has an issue with room. His 4-car garage is full, and there’s still one (newer) car outside. Additionally, at almost 19 feet in length, there’s some doubt that it would fit (unless one drilled holes in the wall for the Dagmars). This car looks like it’s had one high-quality repaint but otherwise appears to be in fine original condition. It’s just several weekend’s worth of detailing away from being an HPOF candidate at an AACA event.

Front & rear badges say "Clilpper"; "Packard" is in small font on side of decklid
Front & rear badges say “Clipper”; “Packard” is in small font on side of decklid

 

Observation #3: a 1950s-era Packard motorcar would make a fine addition to anyone’s car collection.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 


SIDEBAR: 1956: the year of the last “real” Packards

The history of the Packard Motor Company is a fascinating study of how a successful maker of some of America’s finest luxury cars still managed to go out of business. It is impossible to go into great detail here, except to note that by the 1950s, Packard merged with Studebaker, and finally replaced its straight-8 engine with a V8 for 1955. But there was much more to the 1955 Packards than that. Quoting from my copy of the Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide:

“… the 1955 Packard was a technological marvel. Prime among its wonders was “Torsion Level” suspension: long torsion bars connecting front and rear wheels on each side. A complex electrical system enabled the suspension to correct for load weight, and effectively interlinked all four wheels for truly extraordinary ride and handling despite two-ton bulk…. …these were impressively fast and roadable cars…. Customers were scared away by … the ’55 Packards’ notorious quality and service problems. Ironically, the ‘56s were better built….”

Their write-up goes on to say that in a truly desperate move, Packard decided that the “Clipper” would be an entirely separate make for 1956:

“Besides registering the name as a distinct make, (company President James J. Nance) decreed separate Clipper and Packard dealer signs…. As a final touch, “Packard” appeared nowhere on ’56 Clippers except for tiny decklid script – and some didn’t even have that.”

By the 1957 model year, Packards were being built in South Bend, Indiana on restyled Studebaker bodies. It was the end of an era. But reading the above, it’s now understandable why our test-drive car rode so well (and why I’d want to learn more about the suspension’s electrics before plunking down my hard-earned cash). I also had no idea that “Clipper” was a separate make in 1956, which explains the badging on this particular car. Based on the quality and the engineering of the example we drove, it is a shame that Packard did not survive.

2 thoughts on “Test Drive: 1956 Packard Clipper

  1. Hi Steve, thanks for the comment and the link. I purposely avoided insertion of an opinion regarding “the guy’s” asking price – yes, he’s above what several online price guides indicate what would be an average value. However, a quick scan of ’50s era Packards on both Hemmings and my local Craigslist reveals the usual dilemma: most other Packards for sale are either more money than this one, or, are no better than parts cars. Given the convenience of this car’s location (15 minutes from Pete’s house) combined with the yet-to-be-made lowball pitch, Pete may have a shot at it.

    The link you sent reiterates Packard’s downfall as an unfortunate combination of poor decisions combined with forces beyond their control. The Big 3 were determined to have the market to themselves. But the marque still has its fans – a visit to Fall Hershey and the many Packard vendors bears this out.

    Ask the man who owns one.

    Richard

    Like

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