Luxury Problem

Choices, choices…

Image: the author

It was not realised by many, except perhaps for the senior management of the troubled Packard company itself, but the 1956 model year would turn out to be the last that a customer looking for a large American luxury car could still choose between all four domestic manufacturers that traditionally served this field(1). Using illustrations from period brochures, we examine the models offered by Lincoln, Packard, Cadillac and Imperial for 1956.

1955 had been a record-breaking year for the domestic US car industry. The forced austerity and hardships of World War Two and the immediate post-war period were, thankfully, increasingly distant if still unpleasant memories. 1956 also proved to be a good year for the car manufacturers, although not quite as stellar in terms of sales numbers as the previous year and, within a year, the country’s economy would be suffering a recession. For the time being, however, things were just fine and putting a lavishly equipped, fast and confidently styled luxury car on their driveway was the ultimate ambition of just about every American driver.

The publicity material for the luxury brands reflected their status: high grade, thick paper and full colour print throughout; noticeably larger in size and page count compared to brochures for more modest offerings, and, of course, no shortage of hyperbole, whether justified or not.


Image: the author

The word new has traditionally been (and continues to be) ridden hard by every copywriter in the advertising industry. Of the four contenders in the 1956 luxury class, Lincoln was the only one that could justifiably claim to be offering something genuinely new, whereas its three competitors’ offerings were all merely facelifts of pre-existing designs. Hence, “The only completely new car in the fine car field” was indeed a truthful claim made in the the Lincoln brochure.

It was high time for a new Lincoln too, as the previous model dated back to 1952 and, after three model years, looked decidedly old hat in the fast moving automotive styling world of fifties America. Despite the fact that these Lincolns were fine road cars and had scored impressive wins in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana road race, their somewhat subdued and formal styling and the lack of that ephemeral, must have, the panoramic windshield, did not generate much showroom traffic. Being uncomfortably similar in appearance to the much cheaper Mercury(2) also did not help its cause either.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was hoped that this new model, its styling for the most part credited to Bill Schmidt(3), would perform better commercially. It is an indication of the size of American cars of this era that the 126-inch wheelbase of the new Lincoln was still the shortest among its peers. Influenced by both the Mercury XM-800 and Lincoln XL-500 concept cars, the new bodystyle emphasized length, and displayed a commendable degree of restraint in the use of chrome embellishments. Naturally, driver and front passenger now viewed the world ahead through a panoramic windshield (but could also become painfully acquainted with the experience of banging their knees on the ‘dog-leg’ A-pillar when getting in and out of the car).

In accordance with Ford’s ‘life-guard’ automobile safety initiative, The Lincoln’s interior displayed several early attempts at accident injury mitigation, including recessed knobs and handles, a padded dashboard, seat belts, safety door latches and a so-called ‘deep-dish’ steering wheel. Offered in Capri and extra-plush Premiere versions, the 1956 Lincoln was available as a two-door hardtop, a four-door sedan and a convertible. All Lincolns were powered by a 285 Hp V8 with a capacity of 368 cubic inches (just over six litres) coupled to a Turbo Drive automatic transmission.

A range of paint colours was available, from stately ‘Presidential Black’ to audacious ‘Wisteria’. The interior could either complement or contrast with the outside, as a total of 27 colour combinations were available in leather, lurex tweed, tufa matelasse, broadcloth, nub weave and chevron weave. The Lincoln’s new, more youthful appearance proved to be quite popular: slightly over 50,000 cars were sold, which represented an 85% increase over the previous year’s sales numbers.


Image: the author

In contrast with Lincoln, the 1956 Packards were based on the oldest design in this group. However, an effective facelift performed for the 1955 model year by Dick Teague rejuvenated a bodystyle that dated back to 1951. Cleverly applied two and three-tone colour schemes distracted the eye from the relatively high beltline, the inevitable panoramic windshield now featured and an imposing new grille crowned the face of what would be the last real Packards. The 1956 model differed only in minor details from its 1955 predecessor.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the company’s words, this was “The greatest Packard of them all”, a claim certainly open to some debate, considering Packard’s previous impressive achievements. Still, the 1956 model was not without a few interesting technical attractions: it boasted the largest and most powerful V8 in the 1956 luxury field at 374 cubic inches or 6,128cc, putting out 290 Hp in standard form, with the option or 310 Hp(4). The Twin Ultramatic automatic transmission with two ranges, operated by pushbutton controls, was designed by specialist engineer Forest McFarland, assisted by a certain John Z. DeLorean.

What really set apart the Packard from the others, however, was its ‘Torsion-Level’ suspension. This was an interlinked, four-wheel torsion bar suspension layout that automatically corrected for the load and weight of the vehicle. It not only provided improved handling — by period standards, at least — but most importantly for a car of this type, it delivered a very smooth ride, even on rough surfaces. Motoring writer Floyd Clymer commented: “You can drive into a corner at high speed with this car and the body remains almost level.”

Available in the expected bodystyles, with the glamorous three-toned Carribean trim at the summit of the range, just over 10,000 customers signed on the dotted line that year, an insignificant number that unfortunately only confirmed suspicions the end was near for what had been for years the undisputed leader in the American luxury class.


Image: the author

The 1956 Cadillac was the second and final facelift of the 1954 model. Only detail styling changes were made to the car and a family resemblance dating back to the older models of the late forties was still evident. This continuity was the result of adhering to a ‘fixed’ set of Cadillac styling themes under the direction of GM styling czar, Harley Earl, and was one of the reasons for Cadillac’s consistently high resale value. This was a trick Lincoln would copy for its 1960s Continental.

Another strong point for Cadillac was its offering the widest choice in bodystyles: two and four-door hardtops, four-door sedan, long-wheelbase four-door sedan, convertible, limousine and the Eldorado with its unique rear-end styling in convertible or two-door hardtop form. The wheelbase spanned a generous 129 inches (328 cm), or 133 inches (338 cm) in the case of the Fleetwood Sixty Special.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

An invisible (but, for driver and passengers, noticeable) change was a larger 365 cubic inch (6-litre) V8 delivering 285 Hp as standard, with 305 Hp optional. The by then well established Hydra-Matic automatic transmission put all this power on the pavement, enabling a 0 to 60mph time of 11.4 seconds – not bad for such a large and heavy (at around 4,500 pounds) vehicle. Occupants enjoyed a variety of amenities and an interior dressed in either frost patterned nylon, metallic nylon, wool gabardine, broadcloth, Bedford cord or, of course, leather.

“Cadillac presents the most inspiring motor cars the world has ever seen!” boasted the brochure, Whether or not this was accurate depended on whom you asked, of course. What was never in doubt was Cadillac’s imperious perch on top of the luxury mountain as far as image and market share were concerned. Impressively, the 1956 model outsold the previous years’ vintage despite a year that was generally slightly weaker for the auto industry. Well over 154,000 Cadillacs were sold, leaving nobody in doubt who now ruled the domestic luxury class.


Image: the author

A year had pased since Imperial had officially become a separate marque instead of merely the most luxurious Chrysler. In the years that followed, Imperial would never really be able to shake off its Chrysler connection and too many amongst the public kept referring to the car as the ‘Chrysler Imperial’. Moreover, the sometimes half-hearted and confusing way Chrysler handled the marketing and promotion of its luxury car also did not help matters.

In 1955 however, newly independent Imperial had been off to an encouraging start; nothing to trouble Cadillac, to be sure, but sales were much better than in dismal 1954. Recently appointed chief stylist Virgil Exner had a lot to do with this: the elegant all-new Imperial was expensive, but looked and felt so too. For 1956, only minor alterations were performed, the most readily visible being the still quite restrained tail fins crowned by distinctive ‘microphone’ taillights.

Compared to its competitors, the choice in Imperial bodystyles was limited: a four-door sedan, two or four-door hardtop and the very pricy Crown Imperial Limousine with its huge 149.5-inch (380cm) wheelbase. The standard Imperials also offered a generous span between front and rear axles: 133 inches (338cm), which was more than any of its competitors apart from the Cadillac Sixty Special that exactly matched this figure.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Part of the impressive appearance of the Imperial was its sheer size(5); at 239.6 inches or 6.08 meters long, it was easily the longest in the luxury class, as well as the lowest.

“The finest car America has yet produced”, as the brochure impressed on the reader, was also not lacking in either amenities or power; a new larger 354 cubic inch (5.8-litre) ‘FirePower’ V8 with 280 Hp coupled to a PowerFlite automatic transmission(6) enabled the close to 4,500 pounds heavy Imperial to accelerate to 60mph in about ten seconds.

Despite these strong points and its handsome looks, just 10,684 Imperials were sold for the model year, barely beating moribund Packard. The next year would be much better with a stunning finned beauty, but 1957 would also turn out to be the high point of sales for Chrysler’s prestige nameplate, and it was all downhill from there.

The 1956 American luxury car battle was easily won by Cadillac once more, selling between three and fourteen times as many cars as its three competitors. The all-new Lincoln came closest, but Ford’s luxury division would drop back again after this year, only to recover in the early sixties with the introduction of the seminal Continental. Imperial and Packard barely created a ripple in the sales pond, but while Imperial at least enjoyed the relative safety of operating under the Chrysler Corporation umbrella, Packard did not have this luxury as Studebaker, with which it had merged, was itself in trouble too. Within a decade, both brands would cease to exist.

(1) Those that survived the great depression of the 1930s and its fallout, at least.

(2) Especially in 1952, 1953 and 1954.

(3) Schmidt would leave for Packard well before the 1956 Lincoln was readied and was among the stylists that worked on the 1956 Packard.

(4) This engine was standard equipment on the Carribean.

(5) Its brochure mirrored this with its very large 14.5 by 14.5 inch dimensions.

(6) It was replaced by the new TorqueFlite as a running change during the model year. 

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

19 thoughts on “Luxury Problem”

  1. Thanks for that. I have to say that the cars have a distinctly uniform appearance, variations on a rather muddled theme. The Cadillac is unusually baroque (the c-pillar curlicue, for example). I notice the small choice of engines too. Clearly petrol prices don´t figure at all. The fuel tanks must have been mammoth baths somewhere under the bloated metal encasing the interior mansions. The funny thing is the immense efforts expended on upholstery choices, with undoubtedly huge teams devoted to thinking of names for the materials. When did anyone last the notice the name of a fabric?

    1. Richard, the Americans back then seemed to be great ones for dreaming up fancy names for things to sound impressive. It must have been murder for the hapless salesman to have to learn a new set of data every year. Not only their interior fabrics and automatic transmissions, but even that C-pillar curlicue you noted was a ‘Florentine curve’ – I’ve no idea why. Fifties Americans seem to have been very advertising-driven, a much more materialistic and consumerist society than any other country in those lean postwar years.
      It’s a totally different culture; they just happen to speak (almost) the same language. 🙂

  2. Good morning Bruno. Thank you. I’d have chosen the Packard, because, well, it’s a Packard… What I didn’t know was the suspension system used, fascinating, a interconnected system using a motor to adjust the pitch of the car. Citroenesque in its intention if not its concept. I’ve found a diagram that I’m trying to get my head around.

    1. Impressive. I think… compressing the front suspension will lift the front arm of the torsion bar spring, some of that movement will be transmitted all the way along to the rear arm which of course points the other way, so that will push down the rear wheel; reducing pitch as the car drives over a bump. So far so simple.

      It isn’t really clear to me what is going on with that motor but it looks like it swings that little link connected to the two rods, either forwards or back as needed. The rods obviously do “Something” to the rods that are parallel to the torsion bars. My hunch is that the connection between the short rod and the parallel rod is pivoted and is probably a bell-crank design. Something similar to the link on the top of the motor but we see it from above not the side, so it is indistinct.

      If needed the motor would twist it’s link and push the rods out, turning- I presume- the parallel rods so that they force the rear torsion bar arms downward, pushing the wheel down and lifting the rear of the car. Because the torsion bars are all of a piece some of that must be fed back to the front but here it will be pulling the nose down slightly. And relax! Until annual service time…

    2. To answer the question of Peter Wilding about who was responsible for this suspension and perhaps give some insight to its workings I have delved into my source material and found this:

      The “Torsion-Level” suspension was developed by en engineer named Bill Allison. He had been working on the idea since 1941 and built a cyclecar in 1950 to demonstrate the principle. Packard was impressed and offered Allison a contract.
      Torsion bar suspension was not new, but Packard was the first car where they were mounted longitudonally and without anchor points, thus connecting left front with left rear wheel and right front with right rear. Under wheel deflection, a bar would twist to produce an equal force on the wheel at the opposite end of the car.
      The result was an absorbent ride without pitching or excessive wheel hop. Over severe bumps, Packards heaved only half as much as conventionally suspended cars, and they had astonishingly good roadholding for their size and weight. There was one catch: however the suspension reacted, the car would remain at the height where its weight distribution balanced the torsion bar’s pre-load. The fix was an electric screwjack operating at the rear of each long bar to maintain a level attitude under all conditions. The car was equipped with a dash-mounted lockout switch for the leveler, and it was quite necessary. Without it engaged, a couple of kids could ride the leveler up and down on a parked car, which quickly drained the battery.
      On really rough roads Torsion-Level performed almost miraculously. As testimony the company filmed a Lincoln, a Cadillac and a Packard in action over a notorious Detroit railroad crossing. The Lincoln suffered damage; the Cadillac humped and bumped its way over; the Packard merely loped across. Though there wasn’t such a dramatic difference in ride motions on smoother surfaces, there was no doubt that the Torsion-Level Packard had the measure of all competitors.
      (Richard M. Langworth, Collectible Automobile, september 1984)

    3. Thank you, Bruno, for typing in such a lengthy reply. You must be a better typist than I. (that wouldn’t be hard… 🙂 )
      Bill Allison. Funny how some engineers’ names go down in history while others are unheralded. Maybe if Packard had lived to fight another day…..

  3. How different the prestige market was then! Depending what country you were in these may or may not have been available, but you knew they would be influencing other countries’ future designs, to a (thankfully) lesser degree. Some of these may have been available in my country to special order, but the British makes definitely were. But imagination is free, so…
    The Imperial is the first I’d cross off my list. It seems strangely proportioned, with the cabin looking too small for all that wheelbase – why didn’t they push the rear seat further back and lengthen the roofline, if the car absolutely had to be that huge? And I really don’t get the appeal of those 1920s microphone-style taillights. Maybe I’m not old enough; my parents were just getting married, and I would arrive about the time of the 1958 models. The less-prestigious Chrysler is a better-looking car.
    The next one I would strike off would be the Cadillac. It’s just too gauche, and that high, bulging bonnet line is reminiscent of a hot dog. It says 1940s. Everybody else had moved on to lower bonnet lines; Cadillac seemed to be keeping a foot in the past. To my eyes the whole is a somewhat discordant mix of retro and futurist, it just doesn’t say Now. It’s just not me. And I’ve never come to terms with those curious little hop-ups for the taillights. It looks like it needs remedial surgery for bilateral fender hernias.
    Then things get difficult.
    The Packard; oh yes, I would like to like the Packard, but… Seriously, if I was in the market for one of these, I would be in a position to understand a balance sheet and know who to ask to find out more. I would not have got into this hypothetical (very!) financial position by making dubious investments, so reluctantly the Packard would have to fall by the wayside. While we are by the way, do we know who the chassis engineers were for that excellent torsion bar suspension?
    That leaves the Lincoln. To my eyes, it has the most modern and harmonious design of the lot. The mechanicals were proven, the body looked all of a piece, you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else, and it appears modern yet tasteful alongside the others.
    But I’d probably wait for the Mark 2 Zodiac. Lincoln looks in a parkable size. 🙂

  4. Good morning Bruno. Thank you for an interesting selection of cars, but I find them all far too Baroque and overdone, and we still wouldn’t reach ‘peak tailfin’ until 1959. It must have been extraordinary to have witnessed the sea-change to the totally different style introduced (I think) by the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Has there ever been a more sudden and dramatic shift in automotive styling?

    1. My father said he was blown away by the DS, but I think that car is the answer to many automotive questions.

      The Ford Sierra was a massive change in my lifetime.

      I’m trying to recall who effectively invented the modern car shape – someone did it in the ‘40s or ‘50s and they were completely ignored at the time. They made a model which more or less looks like a modern hatchback.

  5. Wonderful post, thank you for this. First providing clarity on the murky world of 1950s American luxury, which is an intimidating, massive realm where behemoths juggle for some greater glory, yet still unknown. And secondly, for that Packard suspension. Boggles the mind, but even better, it might just work. Someone was thinking somewhere in this mix. Delightful to see.

  6. Bruno, thanks for the fine story comparing these four luxury makes. As it happens, I have first-hand knowledge of the Packard torsion bar suspension system.
    Around 1992 or 1993, my employer brought in a temporary contract worker who owned one of these Packards. He and I decided to go out and grab some lunch one day and see his car, and the first thing he did once we got out, there was jump on the rear bumper. I watched as the car raised to compensate for his weight accompanied by the whirring of an electric motor. When he hopped off I seem to recall a little bit more whirring of an electric motor to correct for the reduced load. It seemed to take about three or four seconds to make a correction. Impressive. When we drove at lunch, the car was very smooth, but I was impressed at how little it leaned in the turns. Almost all American cars of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s tended to list terribly in turns. That Packard was more composed than a 1970’s Cadillac.

  7. I’m late to the party. Between these four I’d chose the Packard for it’s suspension alone. I’ve been intrigued by the torsion-level suspension for years, but unfortunately I’ve never experienced it.

    There’s a Packard Museum in the Netherlands, not far from my home turf. I will pay them a visit in the not too distant future.

  8. I have been the fortunate owner of all 4 of these 1956 American luxury cars over the last 50 years:
    Lincoln Premier sedan, Cadillac 60s sedan, Imperial sedan, and a Packard Patrician sedan.

    I owned the Lincoln for only about a year, it was a very nice riding car, low mileage [about 25,000 miles], and a rust free original car. I sold it because it was not air conditioned, and where I live, just north of Washington DC, one really needs A/C due to incredibly hot and humid summers. It got so bad some years that prior to air conditioned cars and buildings becoming common place, the British Government paid an extra “Tropical” stipend for UK workers at the Embassy.

    I’ve owned both a 1955 and a 1956 Cadillac 60s sedan, as a matter of fact I sold the Lincoln because I bought the 1955 Cadillac with very cold A/C. Both cars had the Eldorado dual 4-barrel carb engines, and were great high speed cruising cars, but had dreadful fuel consumption. Of course this was also because I have always had a heavy right foot. I sold the 1956 to a long time friend who’s wife was expecting their first baby and they wanted to replace his non-A/C 1953 Packard Patrician. They continued to use the Cadillac as an every day car well into the 1990s, along with their 1954 Chrysler New Yorker [with A/C!]. The Cadillacs were great open road cars on the interstate highways, but wallowed terribly in corners or winding roads. Of all the cars in this list, the Cadillacs had the worst brakes.

    My 1956 Imperial was a very unusual example. I found it in central Germany in 1974, and it became my everyday car until I moved back to America in September of 1975. What little history I was able to discover on this car indicates it was assembled by Facel Metallon in Paris, for France Motors, the importer for Chrysler-Plymouth of France. It had Marchal electrics [except for the ignition system], a kilometer speedometer, and a high quality silk embroidered interior with mouton carpeting. While I have been unable to find a photo of the entire car at the show, I’m reasonably sure it was in the Paris Auto Show in early 1957. I drove that car all over Europe with nary a single breakdown except for vapor lock when attempting to drive it up the road to the top of the Konigstuhl mountain above Heidelberg. I drove the Imperial to an all-Mercedes car meet organized by the M-B Car club,parking it in a lot across from the line of M-B cars. Soon the Imperial had more people around it than the 300 Gullwing. I brought the Imperial back to the USA. It was in my big warehouse in 1995 when the building was hit by lightning and the car was destroyed.

    My favorite 1956 Packard [I’ve had more than a few] was a fairly unique example. It was a Patrician sedan, but the exterior trim was for the Caribbean and had a 3-color exterior; White main body color, light blue stripe, and a dark blue bottom that was also used on the roof. The interior was matching 3-tone leather, but not the reversing cushions used on the Caribbean. It did have the 310HP Caribbean 374 V8 with dual 4-barrel carbs, and the car had every possible option except for chrome wire wheels.

    I bought the Packard from the original owner, a Mr. Lawson from Landover, Maryland. Mr Lawson was successful in commercial real estate investing, and bought a new Packard 2-door every year. On hearing the company was ending production in Detroit, he tried to order a new Caribbean hardtop coupe, but was told the production of all the Caribbeans had ended, however the salesman was able to order the Patrician with Cribbean trim, engine and emblems. It was the only sedan to be built with Caribbean trim, except the serial number plate indicated it was a 5682 Patrician. The spaces on the VIN plate where the color and interior trim was supposed to be listed, were blank. Like all the 1955-56 Packards, the ride was unequaled, especially on rough roads. I’ve owned a Citroen DS as well, and while it’s ride is superior to the other cars, the Packard is better. Hitting the brakes hard on other cars results in the front end dropping down. Not on a Torsion-Level Packard, it actually rises slightly! Step on the gas, and the back end actually raises up as the car moves forward!

    My choices are:

    For reliability and overall vehicle quality, & for difficulty in finding non-mechanical parts to restore, It’s the Imperial.
    For low cost purchase price compared to the other 3, it’s the Lincoln.
    For a nice overall mid 1950s luxury car, it’s the Cadillac, and of the 4, the easiest to find local service & parts.
    For the best ride and handling, as well as garnering more public interest when it was parked in a parking lot, it’s the Packard. Of all my postwar cars that have people coming over to see what it is, only my Tatra T2-603 had more people approach to “talk and gawk”.

    1. Bill, you’ve owned some interesting cars. Your memory of your Torsion-Level Packard makes me want to drive one even more.

  9. Freerk,

    I’ve owned and worked on many ’55-56 Packards with Torsion Level ride, and each time I have demonstrated it’s virtues to other car guys and especially mechanical engineers, they are amazed at how a suspension system on a car, designed in the first half of the 1950s, could ride so well, especially on very poor roads. When it comes to negotiating very rough roads, especially unpaved gravel roads typical of the 1950s, the V8 Packard torsion-level cars have a better ride than cars made today. Compared to the V8 Packards, modern cars do have a more “silky” ride on pavement with only minor imperfections, but when comparison is made under the harsher road surfaces, even almost 60 years later, the Packard is superior.

    Bill Allison’s genius was on display when he interconnected the ends of the torsion bars, allowing for the forces involved with one end to be transferred to the opposite end, with very little force being transferred onto the vehicle. About 1951 he built a small 4-passenger cyclecar using a V-2 Indian motorcycle engine and his own design space frame, and his torsion bar system. The 2 load leveling bars were not operated by electric motors, but by door window cranking assemblies. There is a great DVD on the Allison cyclecar and the original pre-prodution test of the Packard, Cadillac, and Lincoln cars over a series of infamous railroad track crossings in Detroit. The tests were not rigged in any way as they were never intended for publication. The Packard is seen gliding over the crossings, the wheels bouncing up & down as the body remains close to level. The other 2 luxury cars are shown rocking back & forth, bumpers scraping the pavement, and as I recall, one of them ended up with a damaged oil pan, the other had a rear bumper almost pulled off the car.

    People often ask me why, if it really was so superior, the other manufacturers didn’t adopt the interconnected torsion bar suspension, and the answer is basically due to the high costs involved, and the big 3 American manufacturers thought they cound produce a similar ride for a lot less using air suspension, or torsion bars on the front only.

    My long time friend Dwight Heinmuller authored an excellent book on the Detroit V8 Packards, as well as a book on what the 1957 Packard & Studebaker lines would have looked like had the company been able to raise the financial funds it needed. Dwight also has copies of the above mentioned DVD if I’m not mistaken. I’m showing contact info for Dwight, should anyone be interested. Please do mention my name [I don’t get a kickback!]

    Dwight Heinmuller
    16529 Dubbs Rd
    Sparks, MD 21152

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: