Jay Leno drives Packard’s swan song

Packard was one of biggest automotive names of the prewar era, but by the late 1950s the company was in decline. This episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage” features a 1956 Packard Caribbean convertible, representing what is arguably Packard’s last great car.

Launched for 1955 and available as a coupe or convertible, this final-generation Caribbean featured then-current styling dominated by tail fins and chrome on a carryover body shell that dated back to 1953. Leno also has a 1955 model in his vast collection.

This version of the Caribbean also featured a new V-8 engine, replacing the straight-8 Packard had relied on. Packard held on to its straight-8 long after other American luxury brands had switched to V-8s, which caused it to lose traction in the market.

1956 Packard Caribbean on Jay Leno's Garage

1956 Packard Caribbean on Jay Leno’s Garage

The Packard V-8 started with a 352-cubic-inch displacement for 1955, but was increased to 375 ci for 1956. That later version has two four-barrel carburetors and produces 310 hp—up from 275 hp previously. That power is sent to the rear wheels through a pushbutton-actuated 2-speed automatic transmission.

In addition to the more powerful engine, the 1956 model brought some styling tweaks and reversible upholstery. The seat cushions can be removed and flipped, so owners could switch between cloth and leather surfaces. Leno’s car is unusual, sporting leather on both sides and a rare black-and-white color combination. Only 15 cars were made in those colors, he said in the video.

The Caribbean also featured self-leveling torsion-bar suspension. Electrically-actuated bars running the length of the car on either side automatically twist in response to loading to keep the car level, not unlike modern self-leveling air suspension systems. The ride quality is excellent even by modern standards, Leno claims.

1956 Packard Caribbean on Jay Leno's Garage

1956 Packard Caribbean on Jay Leno’s Garage

Leno bought this 1956 model after considering a restoration of his 1955 Caribbean. Realizing that that he could buy an entire car in good condition for the price of that restoration, he did just that. He said the 1956 Caribbean is in somewhat more original condition than the 1955 model.

By the time these Caribbeans rolled off the assembly line, Packard was no longer independent. It had merged with Studebaker in 1954, and 1956 would be the final model year for the Caribbean. Less than 300 convertibles were sold that year, down from about 500 in 1955.

Beginning in 1957, all Packards were rebadged Studebakers, sometimes referred to as “Packardbakers.” The Packard name was retired for good in 1958. Its Detroit plant has sat abandoned for decades, symbolizing the decline of the American auto industry.

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