Packard Request

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Growing up on a diet of Formula 1, Road & Track, and family outings to Mosport for sports car racing, American cars—and especially American classics—weren't exactly my thing.

Have you heard the newly-minted word sonder? Loosely, it's the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. I had the same realization a few years ago about older American cars: They are just as valid, advanced, and steeped in history as the very best from Europe.

That sounds silly, right? But spend hours watching Honda dominate F1, Porsche dominate sports car racing, and Lancia dominate rally, and you understand my point. Packard? What's a Packard?

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Just a few days ago I featured another Dick Teague design, the AMC Amitron. A reader wrote in to mention that Teague's firm would design just about anything—including the interiors for Boeing jetliners. But in 1955, early in his career, he was chief stylist of the rapidly-sinking Packard.

In its prime, Packard (for those of you under the age of 60) was sort of a modern Citroën, Lexus, and Rolls-Royce combined. They were innovative, they were customer-focused, and they were the chosen car for wealthy clients around the globe. Even the Japanese Emperor Hirohito had a Packard.

By 1955, however, Packard was falling fast and would be dead just four years later. Concept cars were seen as a way to stay relevant during the Jet Age of American motoring, but the company just couldn't keep up: essentially every Packard concept was built on an existing production model. 

For the 1955 show car circuit, Ford had the Futura, a concept that became the Batmobile. General Motors had their gas turbine-powered Firebird concept. And Ford introduced a styling concept called the Nucleon…a car to be powered by a small nuclear reactor.

Packard, though, responded by reading their fan mail. You could say that Teague crowdsourced the 1955 Request concept.

Countless customers and fans wrote in to say that they missed the classic Packard grille. You know, the one put on its cars from before the First World War.

So Packard took a standard 1955 Four Hundred hardtop and grafted on an old-school nose. The whole job took 90 days. But don't let the photos fool you: to add a fat, tall, thick, radiator-aping chrome nose to a car adds weight. 181 kg (400 lbs), to be exact.

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Some say it ruined the car's handling (imagine both Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill sitting on your bumper) but the company had a little-appreciated innovation under the skin: Packard Torsion-Level Suspension.

Very similar to the Citroën 2CV's suspension (but significantly more heavy-duty), the front and rear of the car were linked by torsion bars. Doing this allows the force of a bump to be transferred fore or aft, not vertically into the chassis.

It was electro-mechanical and helped keep the car level. And, importantly, available on the company's production cars. 1955 would be the last good year for the company.

They linked the rear wheels with the wheel in front, transmitting the force of a bump forward or backward. It's something that I'm surprised isn't replicated today, given the major advances in computer processing and electric motors. If a car buyer can get Facebook in 2014, why not Torsion-Level Suspension?

Of course, the company's last major innovation wasn't its final attempt at capturing the public's imagination. But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading