With outdoor temperatures souring well above 30 degrees, even Denmark currently feels like a place where you would want to fold away the roof of your classic car. Convertible, cabriolet, droptop or roadster – call it what you will, but in weather like this, wind-in-hair motoring has always been a divine pleasure. Today’s car simply has everything you could possibly want for a warm summer’s day. Even the model name is highly appropriate: Caribbean.
I can only imagine, that sat behind the steering wheel, the view ahead would be quite spectacular with the wide bonnet seemingly continuing into eternity. If I turn my head and look behind, the rear wings will reach even further from me. The front seats meet at the middle creating a vast benchseat, and I’m sure we could easily accommodate six grown people without compromising legroom or comfort. My hand resting casually on the steering wheel needs to acclimatise to the huge diameter and narrow rim of this imposing tiller, while my eyes dart around the dashboard with its many dials and buttons. It’s elegantly finished in machined aluminium and colours which will forever be associated with American design from the fifties. It might well have become a bit of a cliché over the years, with the style exaggerated on various industrial retro adventures right from bar stools to bread toasters, but when you witness the real deal, one simply must succumb to the fabulous atmosphere it creates. Like a brown gravy, a cheap rip-off will obviously disappoint while the proper product is simply luscious. American car design from the fifties is just so right!
Then there’s the engine note, which I imagine is somewhat lazy and heavily subdued, almost like the deep rumble from a sleeping bear. Quiet and calm but with a clear message that there is so much more awaiting you if you dare wake it. It only takes a prod of the right pedal to wake this big V8, but it would probably take a while for it to come around. There’s no immediate answer – rather than jumping energetically out of bed all ready to go, the sleepy-eyed giant needs a moment to stretch its limbs back into action first. But once awake, there’s plenty of low compression V8 torque at your disposition to propel the almost two-ton heavy landyacht into the burning summer sun.
The Packard Caribbean became the proud American firms last prestige car and it was only ever produced in very limited numbers. The final ‘55/’56 model was a redesign of the previous model which was introduced in 1953. It was only available as a convertible, except for the very final year where Packard introduced a hardtop to the model range for the more shy. The redesign was rather extensive and included all those key elements which have come to define the extravagance of an American fifties design: voluptuous curves, extensive flirting with the concept of jet age, lots of chrome and not just two-tone but all of three-tone paintwork. Under the bonnet – needless to say – a big V8 lump was to be found. Also the engine had received some attention for what became the last incarnation, and after a strict workout it was claimed to push out all of 310hp – albeit measured by the flattering SAE system, but in 1955 this was still quite impressive. All that power was delivered to the rear wheels through Packard’s own automatic transmission called the Twin Ultramatic, which in the latest version was active through pushbuttons placed on the dashboard.
Packard’s Ultramatic was actually quite unique. None of the other smaller and independent automotive manufacturers, and for that matter not even any of “The Big Three”, had developed their own automatic transmission. At Packard however, the development had started as far back as the early 1940s with the first transmissions being used in Packards in 1948. But as Packard always found themselves financially challenged after the Second World War, it was often the further development of their Ultramatic transmissions which was compromised when money was tight. Eventually this effected Packards reputation poorly, and in the clarity of hindsight, they should have probably given up on the Ultramatic for the new ’55 model and utilised a more modern transmission from an external source. Yet they persevered and the new Caribbean was equipped with the Twin Ultramatic which they marketed as a technological gem developed for the strains of modern traffic and ultimate comfort.
The new Caribbean was launched as the most comfortable full-size car available on the market thanks in large to Packard’s suspension. There was nothing humble about such a statement, but they backed up their claim with their innovative torsion bar suspension with built-in height adjustment. The advanced system was dubbed the “Torsion-Level Ride” and the video below explains how it works:
By the modern standards which we’ve grown accustomed to, the name Torsion-Level might be a little misleading. In contrast to current self-levelling systems, Packard’s system wasn’t capable of adjusting the cars ride height in real time. Instead it adjusted for the extra weight of passengers and baggage with a seven second delay as a large electrical motor adjusted the tension of a pair of springs which in return adjusted the chassis to remain parallel with the road below.
Where the system brought new innovation to the automotive industry, was by Packard uniting the tension of the front suspension with the tension of the rear suspension through torsion bars running along the length of the chassis. It’s not the easiest thing to explain with words, so perhaps this illustration will be helpful.
The concept of uniting front and rear suspension was a rare one, but hardly unique. Citroën used it on their 2CV and a few others flirted with the idea as well, but it enabled Packard to solve a fundamental problem which American cars of the fifties struggled with: They handled like a big old boat! The soft springs gave the big, heavy cars quite lively handling characteristics with exaggerated roll during cornering and a scary tendency to dip excessively under braking and not least raise the nose under acceleration.
The Packard Motor Car Company’s incessant financial challenges were a continuous balancing act. An otherwise optimistic merger with Studebaker in 1954 was meant to strengthen their cashflow, but proved to be a case of too little too late. Their downward spiral towards the end continued and the last true Packard was assembled in Detroit in 1956, with Packard badge-engineered Studebakers continuing the brand for a further two years before the Packard brand disappeared entirely.
But despite the demise of the marque, the Packard Caribbean was certainly a fascinating car. Not least when it came to its breath-taking price tag – an astronomical US $ 6,000. In that context, it was perhaps not surprising that they only managed to sell 500 Caribbean’s in 1955, and even with the introduction of the Hardtop version the following year resulted in a similar number distributed on 263 Hardtops and 276 Convertibles. Those glorious surviving Caribbeans are now loved by enthusiasts and collectors alike who value it as the last truly grand Packard. Some even claim that it’s the best and most exclusive convertible of that era…