The last Packard–the classic American luxury car with the famously enigmatic slogan “Ask the Man Who Owns One”–rolls off the production line at Packard’s plant in Detroit, Michigan on this day in 1956.
Mechanical engineer James Ward Packard and his brother, William Dowd Packard, built their first automobile, a buggy-type vehicle with a single cylinder engine, in Warren, Ohio in 1899. The Packard Motor Car Company earned fame early on for a four-cylinder aluminum speedster called the “Gray Wolf,” released in 1904. It became one of the first American racing cars to be available for sale to the general public. With the 1916 release of the Twin Six, with its revolutionary V-12 engine, Packard established itself as the country’s leading luxury-car manufacturer. World War I saw Packard convert to war production earlier than most companies, and the Twin Six was adapted into the Liberty Aircraft engine, by far the most important single output of America’s wartime industry.
Packards had large, square bodies that suggested an elegant solidity, and the company was renowned for its hand-finished attention to detail. In the 1930s, however, the superior resources of General Motors and the success of its V-16 engine pushed Cadillac past Packard as the premier luxury car in America. Packard diversified by producing a smaller, more affordable model, the One Twenty, which increased the company’s sales. The coming of World War II halted consumer car production in the United States. In the postwar years, Packard struggled as Cadillac maintained a firm hold on the luxury car market and the media saddled the lumbering Packard with names like “bathtub” or “pregnant elephant.”
With sales dwindling by the 1950s, Packard merged with the much larger Studebaker Corporation in the hope of cutting its production costs. The new Packard-Studebaker became the fourth largest manufacturer of cars in the nation. Studebaker was struggling as well, however, and eventually dropped all its own big cars as well as the Packard. In 1956, Packard-Studebaker’s then-president, James Nance, made the decision to suspend Packard’s manufacturing operations in Detroit. Though the company would continue to manufacture cars in South Bend, Indiana, until 1958, the final model produced on June 25, 1956, is considered the last true Packard.