In 1899, brothers James Ward Packard and William Doud Packard built the first Packard automobile in their native Warren, Ohio. In 1900, they formed the Ohio Automobile Company in partnership with George Weiss, which was soon renamed the Packard Motor Car Company and moved to Detroit, Michigan. The company grew rapidly, and soon became America’s preeminent luxury automobile manufacturer.
Packard was an early leader in innovation and performance. In 1904 Packard’s “Grey Wolf” race car was the first automobile to exceed 60 miles per hour. In 1915 the company debuted its famous “Twin Six” (V12) engine, the most powerful engine ever fitted to an American automobile at that time. The onset of World War I saw Packard introduce its “Liberty Motor” airplane engine, the first-ever mass produced airplane powerplant.
The Great Depression devastated the luxury field. Although Packard survived the worst of the Depression, it realized a volume product was needed to complement it’s top-line offerings. Packard’s solution came in the form of the lower-priced “120” that debuted in 1935. The new “120” was a rousing success and led to Packard’s best ever year in 1937 when the company built 109,518 cars.
World War II saw Packard once again supply aircraft engines, this time the Rolls-Royce Merlin powerplant for the P51 Mustang. The company also built naval engines for PT boats.
In the postwar era, Packard distanced itself from the luxury market and focused more on the larger-volume upper medium-priced field. Still, Packard struggled to compete as the 1950s began. Packard and Studebaker explored a merger beginning in 1953 and formally merged in October of 1954. The new Studebaker-Packard Corporation was promoted as a great triumph, but in reality, neither company was healthy. One industry veteran termed it as “two drunks helping each other across the road.”
The new Studebaker-Packard Corporation was unable to reverse either company’s fortunes. In the wake of falling sales and growing losses, Studebaker-Packard closed Packard’s Detroit plant in the spring of 1956. Packard production continued through 1958 at S-P’s South Bend facilities. The South Bend-built Packards were rebadged and redecorated Studebaker President models and, although fine automobiles, held little appeal to longtime Packard owners. The new Packard Hawk model introduced in 1958 also failed to make an impact, as 1958 was Packard’s final year.
About this Series
Studebaker’s Cousins was on display at the Museum in 2014. This series of articles comes for the displays from that exhibition.