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1956 Packard 400

By Jeremy Wilson

In 1956 the automotive press was abuzz with excitement about the new Packard. Positive reviews focused primarily on innovations, with good reason: Packard automobiles now offered an electrical pushbutton transmission, a limited-slip differential, torsion-bar suspension (introduced in 1955), and more horsepower than any other production car. Track tests prompted comments from test-drivers such as, “She’s doing 105 and only loafing!”

Collector Dave McCready takes a particular interest in 1956 Packards because his father owned one when Dave was in college.

“Well, Dad bought this new Buick he was so proud of. But the transmission developed repeated oil leaks,” said Dave. “It was back to the dealer three times in the first 30 days. It kept going back and back and back and finally GM said, ‘We’re going to take the car and find out what’s wrong with it.’ They dismantled it and found a warped bell housing. They installed a new bell housing in it and that fixed the car. But in the meantime, the Buick he depended on wouldn’t run.”

“Ward Matheson had sold our company a number of Chev pickups, and realizing how Dad needed a car to depend on, he suggested a used Packard 400 two-door hardtop they had just taken in trade. A couple had driven it 40,000 miles in 18 months pulling a travel trailer all over the United States. Ward said, ‘It’s a lovely car, come down and look at it.’ Dad discovered what torsion bar suspension was all about and how much better it rode and he never did take the Buick back for his use, when it finally got fixed.”

Dave’s father really liked the Packard; but he didn’t like two door cars.

“I remember Ward was in the office one day and Dad said ‘Ward, find me a four door.’ So Ward turned up a ’55 Packard Patrician with a plush interior that didn’t have many miles on it, and that’s what he drove for the rest of his life.”

Shown on this page is what Dave calls car “Number Three,” also a 1956 Packard 400 the same color as his father’s.

“I bought car ‘Number Two’ from a man named Tom Malloy and when I did, I found out where ‘Number One’ (Dad’s 1956 400) had gone. Tom had acquired it as a parts car, having found it under blackberries, for ‘Number Two.’ I bought car ‘Number Two’ from Tom along with ‘Number One,’ when Tom move to Arizona. I later parted out Dad’s Car. ‘Number Two’ now belongs to Ron and Sandy Norman in Vancouver, BC.

A number of years went by when Dave got restless again and purchased “Number Three” when he saw it for sale on eBay: a two-family car from Farmington, New Mexico.

“I looked forward to a rust free car and it is. The car has dual spotlights, and it’s been reupholstered in vinyl. But it’s a very nice job; really a pretty lovely car.”

The 1956 Packard Caribbean’s 374 cubic-inch, dual four-barrel carbureted engine produced 310 horsepower. The 400 model, with a single four-barrel, produced 285 horsepower.

“Dad’s car always got 14 to 15 miles per gallon. This one came from high altitude and required rejetting of the carburetor to obtain the correct enrichment. And with a ten to one compression ratio and 355 gears, it’s not that bad. It has a lot of engine, a lot of power, and a direct drive transmission. You don’t step on the gas very hard to make it go.”

Ultramatic transmissions lock into direct drive so energy is not lost to the slippage of the torque converter. Packard’s Ultramatic provided direct drive as early as 1949, which is how they differ from other automatics of the time. The Ultramatic relies on it’s torque multiplication of 2.9 to one, providing the gear ratio for take off. Once at speed, the direct drive clutch locks the torque converter. For steep hills, the Ultramatic has a low-geared ratio that can manually be selected; later Ultramatics had a Drive and a High Drive selector position. In Drive, the transmission would automatically shift from low to high.

“In Drive, this car automatically shifts from low to high at 18 miles an hour or so. It’s kind of severe, I don’t like it. As much power as these have, I like to drive to this car in High Drive. By 5 miles per hour, you don’t want for anything else. You just step on the gas and it’s responsive.”

And that would be the end of the story--but there’s one more car to discuss. Dave was browsing eBay and he discovered what has become “Number Four!”

“This car has had a full body-off restoration in what turns out to be catalyzed enamel. It’s a full repaint and all the chrome and stainless has been redone. Every piece of it is just like new. They got the interior fabric from S&M and the seats and interior have all been done using the correct fabric and leather. They’re still in their plastic sheaths and have never been installed in the car. It’s down at my son’s shop getting the mechanicals done now. We’re doing the brakes over for safety reasons, and it turns out the power steering isn’t working right. I’m looking forward to that car, and it has Factory air conditioning. I think this will be the ‘NEW’ one I always wanted!”

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

Beverly Kimes
Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company
Automobile Quarterly, Hardcover, 2005-01-01

”The magnificence and coverage of the work is just unimaginable. This book is of major importance.”

-- Keith Marvin, The Society of Automotive Historians Inc.

R.M. Clarke
Packard 1946-1958 Gold Portfolio
Brooklands Books, Paperback, 1988-12-12
This is a book of contemporary road tests, specification and technical data, new model introductions, long term tests, development.

Dennis Adler
Motorbooks International, Hardcover, 1998-10
This is the complete story of Packard, from its earliest days in 1899 through its final demise in 1958. Archival b/w photos, as well as beautiful new colour photos, accompany a thoroughly researched text.

The Hemmings Motor News Book of Packards
Hemmings Motor News, Paperback, 2001-03
From pre-war models like the 526s, 734 Speedsters, and Sport Phaetons, to the Custom Super Eights, 300s and Caribbeans of the baby-boom era, this book of Packard’s finest thoroughly examines nearly a dozen of the independent manufacturer’s significant models from 1928-1958.

Packard Motor Cars 1946-1958 Photo Archive: Photographs from the Detroit Public Library's National Automotive History Collection
Iconografix, Inc., Paperback, 1996-04-11
This book covers Packard’s Final Years. It includes the twentieth through twenty-sixth series, 5400 through 5600 series, and the final S7L and S8L series cars with factory & custom bodies.

Evan P. Ide
Packard Motor Car Company
Arcadia Publishing, Paperback, 2003-06-03
The images featured in this book represent the early years at the Warren, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan factories. Packard Motor Car Company contains rare images from the Larz Anderson Auto Museum that were saved from the Packard factory and the personal collection of James Ward Packard when the company closed.
History and Production Notes

In 1956 a Packard ad said simply: “This is PACKARD.”

The copy read:

It is the one fine car with

  • Up to 310 Horsepower - giving you mightier wheel-driving force than any other car
  • Torsion-Level Ride - the new suspension principle that outmodes coil and leaf springs
  • Electronic Touch-Button Drive - the only electronically operated finger-touch control
  • Twin-Traction Safety Differential - for dramatically safer road grip the year round
  • The fastest increase in resale value of any car - up as much as 9.6% in the past year
  • Styling that is dynamic in beauty - distinctive in its impeccable good taste


The ad makes six claims: four are technological, one speaks to quality, and one to styling. Interestingly, the automotive press chose the same criteria in numerous reviews praising the 1956 Packard’s technical innovations, while little was said about the car’s appearance. Granted, changes from 1955 were not significant, but this alone does not explain the apparent reluctance to comment.

One reviewer articulated what others did not when he wrote:

Styling of the car is hard to assess. It achieves the desired effect of massiveness and, while basic lines are not too different from some of the other cars in its class, several distinctive touches keep it from being taken for anything but a Packard...Perhaps it’s best just to say that current Packards are a big improvement over the upside-down bathtubs of the earlier postwar years.

When comments were made, they were often terse. Less complimentary reviews described the body style as “not particularly inspired,” “embarrassingly large,” and “not the most delightful car to behold among the glamorized chariots.” On the positive side, some said it was “noticeably distinguished,” “big and solid in appearance,” “eminently adequate,” and “less gaudy than many current models.”

In an era valuing form over function, Packard bet on the appeal of mechanical innovation, perhaps the only reasonable bet it could make given the circumstances. In 1953, during construction of the new Packard V8 engine plant, Chrysler purchased Briggs Manufacturing Company, the body builder used by Packard since 1940. Chrysler gave Packard notice that they would no longer be doing their coachwork after the 1954 model year. In the fall of 1954, Packard recovered by converting their Connor Avenue plant to a modern body assembly facility in just 62 days. That same year, Packard and Studebaker merged on October 1, 1954. With all the resulting upheaval, tooling up for a new body became impossible. The 1956 Packard line was therefore the latest revision of the 1951 body style. Distinguishing it (possibly too much) from other makes of its era was its high beltline: Below the belt it looked tall and boxy--above the belt the roof almost looked chopped.

Behind the scenes, the automobile maker faced more turmoil. The new assembly plant was not ready for mass production during the 1955 model year. Build quality was so poor that dealers had to repair cars before they could sell them. Several suppliers were failing to meet their commitments and Dana’s Spicer rear axles began failing breakdown tests, resulting in a twenty-million dollar impoundment of cars from, or destined for showroom floors.

Though 1955 saw a significant rise in production (55,247 for the model year), 1956 was a major disappointment for the struggling carmaker. Most makes saw a decrease in sales from ’55 to ’56, but as wary buyers defected from Packard to other luxury marques, sales of Cadillacs and Lincolns actually increased. And thus ended the Packard era. For two more years, Studebakers with sheet metal and fiberglass modifications sporting Packard trim would be sold as Packards, but it was an undignified end to a grand marque.

PRODUCTIONNOTES Production Notes...

According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, 1956 Packard production dropped to 28,835 cars for its total model run and calendar year sales were a mere 13,432. The production total for the 400 was 3224 and its shipping weight was 4290 pounds.

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