The 1955 model year was a very good one for the automobile industry with record
production of nearly eight-million units. On that basis alone, opening a new car
dealership for 1955 would seem to have been nothing other than a money making
opportunity. However, things were not so rosy for the independents. Packard, for
one, did not get much benefit out of the overall record production of automobiles.
Opening a new Packard dealership at that time from the perspective of today could
easily be judged to have been a way to lose money in a hurry. Wendell Hawkins
opened his Packard dealership in late 1954 and was profitable from the start.
Unfortunately, his contribution to Packard sales was not nearly enough to save the
company from extinction. His experiences as a dealer during the last days of Packard
(before the “Packardbaker” era) are interesting and he was willing to share his
memories of those times for readers of Cars & Parts.
Wendell Hawkins Packard, Inc. was located at the corner of Milam and Hadley in
Houston, Texas. Prior to Mr. Hawkins’ sales agreement with Packard, the building
(which had been built in the early 1920s) served as the Earl North Buick Company.
Gene Meador had just retired his Packard dealership (located several blocks away
from Milam and Hadley) which paved the way for Hawkins to step in as Houston’s
Packard dealer. From the beginning, Wendell had the full support of Packard Motor
Car Company with 24 sheet posters covering all of Houston and frequent, full-page
newspaper advertisements which were scheduled by Packard’s ad agency, D’Arcy.
When he asked Packard to display their one-of-a-kind show car, the Predictor, in his
showroom he got it. That support along with Wendell’s experience as president of a
Houston advertising agency handling several major accounts undoubtedly provided
the means to keep the dealership in the black. He was later offered a Studebaker-
Packard dealership which he quickly turned down in favor of selling other makes
such as Chrysler, Volvo, Rolls Royce, and Jaguar. The short, but rewarding time
Wendell had with Packard revealed to him what was wrong with the company and why
During our interview, Mr. Hawkins first wanted to help end the myth that Packard’s
problems started with their down-market 120 series of the thirties. He said, “The
greatest myth of why Packard failed was building lower priced cars in the thirties.
That did not hurt their prestige, but rather it saved them.” The main reason Packard
failed according to Wendell was that “mostly wealthy, old men” were in charge of
many Packard dealerships during the ‘40s through ‘50s and “they were not
aggressive enough.” One example of what he meant was dealer Gene Meador who
paid cash for his cars and would never discount them. The cars sat on the showroom
floor until a customer came along who was willing and able to pay full price. He also
mentioned that the Dallas-Ft. Worth dealerships had low sales. The Dallas zone
office had such difficulty they called Wendell to ask him if he would buy their cars at
dealer cost which he did. Many of the cars had sat so long valves had become stuck
and/or had other problems associated with sitting inactive for long period. Wendell
said Packard “took care of those issues.”
Wendell noted a major failure of Packard Motor Car Company was in not offering a
V-8 as early as 1951. “The public preferred the short stroke V-8s and Packard could
have produced a V-8 in 1951, but they got complacent. A V-8 would have meant
everything to Packard’s survival. The long stroke straight-eight was a good, smooth,
dependable engine, but it did not provide the quick acceleration of the Kettering V-
8,” said Wendell. Of course Packard got around to offering their first V-8 for the 1955
model year. That was not the only new feature on Packards that year. Their cars also
got new styling and a revolutionary torsion bar suspension. The new ‘55s had their
problems though. Warranty work was “slightly above average for the first four or five
months” at Wendell’s dealership. Afterwards, warranty work was at a “very low level”
through the end of 1956 production. However, the quality control problems with the
early ‘55s “cost Packard dearly”, said Hawkins. (He noted that “Packard was very
generous when it came to paying for required warranty repairs.”) Wendell does not
know why Packard gave up their Grand Boulevard plant for the smaller plant at
Connersville Avenue. Chrysler bought Briggs who had built bodies for Chrysler and
Packard forcing the latter to build its own bodies. Unfortunately, Packard “got the
worst employees from Briggs which hurt the quality of an otherwise innovative
product.” Also hurting Packard was their choice to build their own transmission.
Wendell explained that, “Their Ultra-Matic was a great transmission; it had a direct-
drive lockup unlike Buick’s Dynaflow. No other independents in the industry built their
own transmission, but instead purchased them from Borg-Warner, Ford, or GM. The
cost of constructing a transmission plant was very expensive for Packard.”
Two other problems faced by Packard Motor Car Company were the high cost of
steel and canceled military contracts. Packard did not need the volume of steel the
big three consumed; therefore they could not get the same quantity discount their
competitors received. The cancellation of military contracts by the U. S. Government
hurt Packard’s profits, too. During World War 2, Packard built 55,000 Rolls-Royce
Merlin aircraft engines (while Rolls-Royce assembled much less).
Not everything was wrong with Packard. Their torsion bar suspension was well liked
due to the exceptional ride quality it provided. Wendell noted that with proper tire
inflation and periodic adjustments the torsion bar suspension “provided a fantastic
ride.” Packard’s V-8 impressed a lot of enthusiasts. For 1956, Packards received a
horsepower boost and a stronger crankshaft. Packard had planned to increase its
displacement to an incredible 500 cubic inches for 1957. Hawkins also noted,
“Packard had the most modern proving ground in the business.” He got the chance
to see it first hand when he visited Packard’s Grand Boulevard facilities and met with
company president, James Nance.
When Nance took over the presidency of Packard he set out to modernize the
company, but he “made many mistakes” according to Wendell. One of those was
purchasing Studebaker through a “gentleman’s agreement ... There was no
accounting review. What Packard later found was that Studebaker was in a sea of
red ink; the company was in very serious trouble. George Mason as president of
American Motors had planned to join the company with Packard, Studebaker, and
Hudson, but when he died the plan was dropped.” Packard enthusiasts must wonder
about what might have been had Mason lived to follow through on his plans.
During the last days of Packard, “dealers were the last to know anything” about
Packard’s financial condition. “Everything was presented as rosy,” said Hawkins.
Wendell learned of Packard’s demise through a telegram from the president of Curtis-
Wright. That telegram indicated Packard would continue. Wendell said he got more
information about what was happening at Packard through the Wall Street Journal. At
the end of production, Hawkins had about 40 new Packards in stock. Packard offered
to repurchase the cars or pay a rebate of the difference between dealer cost and
factory cost. Wendell elected to keep the cars and sell them at dealer cost; he sold
all of them within three weeks. His lease agreement was for ten years with options.
Had it not been for the new Edsel which debuted for the 1958 model year, Hawkins
would have been obligated to continue paying the rent. Fortunately for Wendell, an
Edsel dealer wanted the building which released him from the contract.
While Wendell’s dealership was in business he helped support a few interesting
experiments involving Packard products. A private company tried to sell the city of
Houston on the idea of a monorail system. They built a prototype which was tested
with a variety of engines, but those did not give the desired results. An official with
the new company called Wendell about the project. He sold two Packard V-8s to
them which worked well in the experimental monorail. Packard engines were not
enough to overcome political opposition to the program, though. In 1956, Humble Oil
was developing Golden Esso gasoline for higher compression engines. Wendell was
contacted about testing the gasoline in a Packard since their cars had the highest
compression in the industry at 10.0:1, so he loaned one to them. Furthermore, the
last Packard tested by Road & Track and Mel Martin with the Houston Post was his
personal demonstrator, a 1956 Four-Hundred, which averaged 122.46mph on three-
way run near the Addicks Dam just west of Houston.
Packard faded away forever when Studebaker-Packard shareholders approved
dropping the Packard name from the corporate title in April 1962, but Wendell
Hawkins’ relationship with the marque has not faded at all. Thanks to him and other
collectors, Packard cars will continue to grace the roads and car shows across not
only this country, but all over the world. He remains active in The Packard Club
(ArkLaTex Packard Club regional chapter) and was honored for his contributions to
Packard during the festivities celebrating the 100th anniversary of the marque at
Warren, Ohio, in 1999.
SELLING THE 1955-56 CARIBBEAN
Dealers had difficulty in obtaining the new, very upscale Caribbeans. The Los
Angeles dealer, Earl C. Anthony, received ten convertibles for 1956, which was likely
the most for any dealer. Wendell Hawkins dealership received five convertibles for
‘56, but he actually sold more than that. For example, the Marshall, Texas, dealer
could not sell the one he received which can be explained in part by the model’s high
price (more than that of a Cadillac Eldorado). He contacted Wendell about swapping
for a Clipper Sedan which he did. Wendell said that Houston was a great market for
the Caribbean as well as the other senior level (Patrician and Four-Hundred)
Production of the Caribbean was limited since the model was intended to bring more
sales to the senior level cars. James Nance had instructed dealers to try to sway
potential Caribbean buyers to the Patrician. The reason was simple. Packard lost
money on the Caribbean even at the price of $5,995 (for the ‘56 convertible).
Demand for the Caribbean exceeded production, so one dealer found a solution to
meet the demand he had for the cars; it was the Esquire. Harry DuBois, Inc. in
Arlington, Virginia, got inspiration for his idea from James Nance who told dealers at
the end of Caribbean production in May of 1955, to try to salvage unfilled Caribbean
orders with Four-Hundreds fitted with rear dual aerials. DuBois went further than that
by adding not only the suggested dual aerials, but also altering the side trim on the
two-door hardtop to resemble a Caribbean and installing the Caribbean hood.
Esquire script replaced the Four-Hundred scripts. The practice was later expanded to
the four-door Patrician and was continued into 1956. Customers later wanted other
extras such as an Autronic Eye which was an accessory often found on Cadillacs.
DuBois did basically whatever the customer wanted. At least one 1956 Esquire
|The Last Days of Packard
As Seen by a Former Packard Dealer
(Published in Cars & Parts, Dec. 2006)
By David W. Temple
Photographs courtesy of Wendell Hawkins