Collectible Classic: 1953-1956 Packard Caribbean

Bob Merlis
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It was the beginning of the end for Packard. The once great manufacturer of elegant vehicles for the ruling class was struggling to survive as the postwar era saw bourgeois arrivistes trading up to Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial from lesser General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler nameplates. Packard management looked to a halo car to cast a modern glow on the marque, which had long deferred introducing a V-8 and was perceived as stodgy and old-fashioned. The new entry was presaged by the Packard Pan American concept that dazzled the auto show circuit in 1952. Dreams turned to reality in '53, when the Caribbean came to market. Packard's sportiest car was based on the standard Cavalier convertible, with custom touches transforming it into a line-topping stunner. Chrome-outlined open wheel cutouts, a sumptuous leather interior, wire wheels, a faux hood scoop, flanks unfettered by chrome, and a continental kit made this the Packard of Packards. The timing couldn't have been better, as that same year saw GM introduce a line of similar quasi-customs from Buick (the Skylark), Oldsmobile (the Fiesta), and, of course, Cadillac (the Eldorado). Amazingly, Packard's offering outsold both the Caddy and the Olds; the halo was working! Or was it? Freshened in '54, the Caribbean's rear wheel cutouts were flattened and side chrome was added in deference to two-toning. Despite the fact that the straight eight grew to 359 cubic inches and churned out 212 hp, sales plummeted precipitously.

Clearly, it was do or die in '55. Packard gave the Caribbean a modern, 352-cubic-inch V-8 with two four-barrel carburetors and an all-new, contemporary body sitting atop a four-wheel Torsion-Level suspension. With a wraparound windshield, twin hood scoops, three-tone paint, and gobs of chrome, the Caribbean was finally equipped to take on the competition from the Big Three. In spite of this, Packard's dire financial situation dictated a merger with Studebaker. Studebaker-Packard managed to squeeze out a Caribbean in '56 and even added a companion two-door hardtop. Engine displacement had grown to 374 cubic inches, and with 310 hp, it was the most powerful Packard car ever, but sadly, it was the end of the line.

There's something uniquely quixotic about the Caribbean; in some ways, it was a return to Packard's prewar glory in terms of exclusivity - but with a flashy nod to Eisenhower-era excess. With style, power, a smooth ride, and, most important, a presence that cannot be duplicated in any modern vehicle, the Caribbean reflects a dream that, ultimately, could not be realized. It didn't save Packard, but it certainly was a glorious end to a noble tradition. Ask the man who owns one, indeed.

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VITAL INFO
What to Pay
Restored examples appreciate daily. Anything less than $60,000 is a comparative bargain, and auction prices can climb beyond $150,000. Hardtops are worth half as much as ragtops.
Body Styles
Two-door, six-passenger convertible (all model years) or hardtop (1956 only).
Production
2189 total, of which 263 were hardtops.
Watch Out For
Trim parts are hard to find, power windows are problematic, and the push-button Ultramatic transmission can be troublesome. Watch for rust, too.

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READ MORE

Packard Motor Cars 1946-1958 Photo Archive
by Mark A. Patrick
Iconografix, $30.
www.iconografixinc.com
Packard
by Dennis Adler
Motorbooks, $25.
www.motorbooks.com

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SPARES & DEALERS

Custom Auto Service
714-543-2980
www.customautoservice.com
Kanter Auto Products
800-526-1096
www.kanter.com

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COMMUNITY

The Packard Club
www.packardclub.org
The Eastern Packard Club
http://clubs.hemmings. com/clubsites/easternpackard/index.html

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OUR CHOICE

The first or the last: The '53 is the purest design and shows understated sporting elegance. The '56 is a blaze of glory, with deeply tunneled headlights, three-tone paint, reversible seat cushions, and a push-button automatic.

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