Packard was like a punch drunk figher on his last legs by the early 1950s. A booming postwar economy brought young customers into the market excited by Detroit’s flashy new V-8s and lithe styling. Packard had always been considered a notch above Cadillac and Lincoln in prestige and price but that didn’t matter in the brave new postwar world. The independent make’s dowdy styling, straight-8 engines and older buyers made it seem like an anachronism.
Packard president James Nance thought a flashy “halo” car might revive his company’s soggy reputation while he readied new models for 1955. Thus was born the fabulous Caribbean, a factory custom job off Packard’s stodgy Cavalier convertible. The Caribbean’s wheel cut-outs were opened into sporty full radiuses trimmed with chrome while the car’s flanks were stripped clean of trim. Standard convertibles were sent to an outside company to be made over as glamour queens with chrome-plated wire wheels, a continental spare tire mount, a hood scoop and leather interior trim.
Designer Dick Teague’s 1953 Caribbean was an instant classic. Clean-lined, sporty and elegant, it far outsold company customs introduced by GM the same year. Packard’s 750 Caribbeans bested Cadillac’s Eldorado (532) and the Olds Fiesta (458). Amongst the factory customs, only Buick’s Skylark outsold it by moving 1,690 copies.
In the styling obessed 1950s even a design classic couldn’t stand still. The Caribbean was modified for 1954, losing its clean lines to a gimmicky two-tone paint job and conventional lowered rear wheel arches. Sales fell to 400 units.
Packard’s new 1955 models joined the flashy jukebox style that ruled the day. The Caribbean went from being a classy version of a plain car to a gussied up version of an already gussied up jukebox. Three-tone paint, gobs of chrome trim, fender skirts, and dual hood scoops brought the Caribbean faddish glitz, losing its classic elegance entirely. But it had a V-8 engine at last.
A hard top Caribbean was offered for the first time in 1956 and the Caribbean become even more flashy. A popular color combo was white with a powder blue band over a metallic copper lower body. A new air suspension system, a push button transmission, and seat cushions that could be flipped over to offer leather on one side and cloth on the reverse gave the Caribbean all the gimmics one could desire. But it was too late to save a drowning company.
Today Caribbeans are sought after collectibles with prime examples selling in the six figures. But, for all its beauty, the Caribbean proved a final flicker before the company’s flame was extinguished forever. Packard’s merger with Studebaker brought warmed over Studes as the once proud make’s final 1957 and 1958 models. Then, mercifully, it was lights out for a classic American brand.
Please check the slide show and links below for more information:
Packard: Capsule history of an American Classic
1958 Packard Hawk: Going out with a bang
Classic Autos Examiner archive