1954 Packard Caribbean
1954 Packard Caribbean
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

In the first third of the century, Packard was one of the grand automobiles names. From the beginning, when the Packard brothers, J.W. and W.D. of Warren, Ohio, built their first single-cylinder model in 1899, they developed a reputation for quality.

Packard gradually moved up the scale becoming, with Peerless and Pierce Arrow, one of the great “Three Ps” of luxury. It startled the automotive world with its 1916 “Twin-Six” V-12, and was the only one of the Three Ps to survive the 1930s Depression.

But the Depression took its toll on Packard, forcing it to dilute its reputation by bringing out the medium priced Light 8 in 1932, and then the One-Twenty (for its 120-inch wheelbase) model in 1935. It would, however, retain some of its fading prestige by offering a V-12 until 1939.

After the Second World War, Packard’s new post-war model arrived in late 1947. It did surprisingly well for a couple of years, but in 1949 a decline set in. A somewhat stodgy image, stronger competition, and the end of the pent-up demand for cars that had been created by the war, began to take their toll.

Cadillac brought out its restyled post-war model in 1948 with trend-setting new tail fins. It followed in 1949 with its short-stroke, overhead valve V-8 engine, that along with Oldsmobile’s new V-8, would set the American trend in powerplants. Chrysler brought forth new models in 1949, as did Lincoln.

Under the hood, Chrysler launched its “Hemi” V-8 in 1951, and Lincoln got its overhead valve V-8 in 1952. But Packard had to soldier on with an outdated side-valve, straight-eight until 1955. Something was required to rejuvenate the Packard image, and it came in 1953 as the Packard Caribbean.

The Caribbean “sports car” was inspired by the Packard Pan American show car which Packard displayed at the 1952 New York Auto Show. The Caribbean was based on Packard’s regular convertible, and thus shared the same 3,099 mm (122 in) wheelbase and most of its sheetmetal. There were, however, some significant styling and luxury items.

The interior was trimmed in leather, and there were many effective exterior touches wrought by Packard stylist Dick Teague. He was quickly proving himself the master of the low-priced restyling, a skill that would serve him well in his later role as chief stylist for American Motors Corp.

The wire-spoke wheels were nicely accented by full wheel cutouts with chrome surrounds. A hood scoop added front end character, while a continental spare tire finished off the rear.

The Caribbean was powered by Packard’s 180 horsepower, 5.4 litre, side-valve, in-line eight, and was available with Packard’s “Ultramatic” automatic transmission.

In spite of competing with three new specialty cars from General Motors, the Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Skylark, and Oldsmobile Fiesta, the Caribbean’s 750 sales figure was second only to the Skylark’s 1690, and ahead of the Eldorado’s 532 and the Fiesta’s 458.

Because Packard was really feeling the financial pinch brought on by the relentless competition of the Big Three, the hoped for V-8 engine and model makeover just couldn’t be accomplished for 1954.

The ’54 Caribbean was, therefore, largely carryover, although Teague did dress it up with some two-tone paint schemes and chrome accent strips. He tried to make it look longer by eliminating the fully cut-out rear wheel openings.

There were, however, changes under the hood, although still no V-8. Packard gave the Caribbean the corporation’s largest engine, a 5.9 litre, straight-eight with 212 horsepower, the highest powered post-Second World War in-line eight. It was a valiant try, but the public didn’t respond and only 400 1954 Caribbeans were sold.

As the year drew to a close Packard and Studebaker merged to form the Studebaker-Packard Corp. It was a clue to the failing strength of both companies.

For 1955 Teague did a masterful job with a major facelifting for the Caribbean. He added a wraparound windshield, dummy scoops on the hood and the leading edges of the rear fenders (a la Cadillac), a heavy eggcrate grille, and twin rear fender antennas. He topped the Caribbean off with a garish three-tone paint job.

Under the jukebox exterior there was finally a new overhead valve, 5.8 litre, 275 horsepower V-8. Suspension was by “Torsion Level” suspension which used torsion bars inter-connected front to rear, and provided load levelling. The redesigned “Twin-Ultramatic,” transmission was controlled by push-buttons in the middle of the dash.

With new competition from Chrysler’s C-300 and Cadillac’s Eldorado, Studebaker-Packard sold only 500 of its restyled Caribbeans. When just 276 found buyers in 1956, the Caribbean went into the history books, along with all of the other real Packards. A brave attempt at reviving a once-grand name had proved too little too late.

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