1936 Packard One-Twenty
1936 Packard One-Twenty. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

It is ironic that the Packard Motor Car Company, one of the grandest marques in American automobile history, was saved during the 1930s by what many dedicated Packard fans derisively called a “cheap” Packard. But if it weren’t for the “lowly” One Twenty, the great Packard name that once stood with Pierce-Arrow and Peerless as the “Three Ps of Prestige,” would have disappeared along with them in the 1930s.

Packard dated from 1899 when James and William Packard, prosperous electrical equipment manufacturers in Warren, Ohio, became disenchanted with the reliability of their Winton car. When they complained, Mr. Winton, in effect, told them that if they could build a better car, go ahead. So they did. It was a successful little machine, so they made another, and were soon in the automobile business.

The Packard Motor Car Company moved to Detroit in 1903, and Packard gradually built a reputation for quality, up-scale cars. In response to requests for information, James Packard is supposed to have told the inquirers to “ask the man who owns one.” Thus was born a famous slogan, one used by Packard for 55 years, the longest in automotive history.

Packard started with one-cylinder models, but soon recognized that multi-cylinder engines were the future. In 1903, a huge 12.0 litre (730 cu in.) four-cylinder was introduced, and by 1911 the company brought out its first six. Then in 1915, Packard announced the world’s first series production V-12, which it called the Twin Six.

Packard was well ensconced in the luxury field when the 1929 stock market crash brought on the Depression. As economic conditions worsened in the early ’30s, sales of luxury cars plunged. By 1932, Packard was losing money on sales of only about 9,000 cars annually, compared with almost 50,000 in 1928. This would decline even further to 6,265 in 1934. Something clearly had to be done; the solution was to move into the medium-priced field.

The Packard One Twenty was the answer, and it represented an about-face for the organization. The switch from largely hand-built luxury cars to a mass-produced, mid-priced model was a dramatic change.

To accomplish this, Packard set up a separate plant to build the new car, and engaged the services of a manufacturing expert, George Christopher, recently retired from General Motors. He would soon become president of Packard.

By 1935, the “Junior Packard,” as the lower-priced models came to be called, was ready. The One Twenty, named for its 120-inch (3,048 millimetre) wheelbase, was powered by a side-valve in-line eight cylinder engine displacing 4.2 litres (256 cu in.) and developing 110 horsepower.

In some respects the One Twenty was more modern than its senior corporate sister; it had, for example, independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes, features the big Packards wouldn’t get for a couple of years. It did, however, share something very important with its senior siblings: the distinctive radiator and hood shape that identified Packards to the world.

The One Twenty came in a full line of models, including coupes, convertibles and sedans. But what was more important was the price. The new series was in the $1,000 to $1,100 range, compared with the senior models that ran to more than $6,000 for the Packard Twelve. The prestige of Packard ownership was now available to a far wider spectrum of new-car buyers. The public was quick to recognize the value of the One Twenty, and made it an immediate success.

In spite of a January, 1935, introduction, almost 25,000 One Twenties were sold during the model year. This pushed total Packard sales to almost 32,000, or more than five times its 1934 level. For 1936, sales of the One Twenty more than doubled to 55,042 while senior Packards sold 5,985, down a little from 1935.

Taking a lesson from the success of the One Twenty, Packard introduced an even lower-priced model for 1937. This was the six-cylinder One Ten, the first Packard six since 1928, and it brought the price of Packard ownership under $800.

The One Ten was also a success, helping push total Packard sales to 122,593, its best year ever, although in the process it further diluted the prestige of the Packard name.

The Packard One Twenty was produced until 1941, with gradual improvements along the way. Its name was changed to the Packard Eight in 1938, but was switched back the next year as the company recognized the market value of the One Twenty name.

Although looked down upon by some Packards devotees, the One Twenty accomplished the necessary transition of bringing the company from the hand-crafted, ultra-luxury car market to the mass-production era. In the process it also saved the corporation, not a bad legacy for a “cheap” Packard.

Connect with Autos.ca