1956 Packard Caribbean: Magnificent Vessel!
There it was again. A magnificent relic from The Fabulous Fifties. When cars were gorgeous, airbags were non-existent, and we all loved Lucy. OK, variations of that line have been used dozens of times in the past, but when I see a fantastic classic luxury car like this, especially when it’s unexpected-like at the small cruise night at the baseball park downtown … I tend to get a little melodramatic. Eldorados have the same effect.
I have previously written other articles on the 1957 and ’58 “Packardbakers” and the Studebaker Packard merger, the downfall of Packard, and the later downfall of Studebaker. It’s a sordid story and everybody has different opinions on what could have been done, if anything could have been done, to keep the company from going out of business or to keep Packard from joining the South Bend Boys.
But really it was 1956. Because 1956 was the last year Packards were made inside the fantastic, historic, gigantic Packard factory in Detroit (portions of which are being demolished at this writing). After that, they were just dolled-up Studebakers. Not bad cars, but not Packards. Certainly not Packards like this one.
I first spotted this car in July. The local baseball park hosts a weekly car show in their parking lot every Wednesday evening, and since I get off work at 4:30, it’s very convenient to just cross the Mississippi River and check out the vehicles. A lot of times it’s the same cars, but sometimes you see a really amazing one. Like this one.
Of course, if you’re even mildly interested in ’50s classic luxury cars, you will know that 1956 was the last year Packard made real Packards. And they were gorgeous. The ’55 models were very handsomely restyled on the 1951 body that was largely styled by John Reinhardt. There’s only minor differences here and there between the 1955 and ’56 Packards. But fans know the details.
As had been the case in the past, Clippers were separated, price-wise and styling-wise, from senior Packards. In 1956 only, there was an odd hybrid, the Packard Executive, which was basically the Clipper body with the senior Packard front end and fancier interior trim.
But the primary exterior differences in the senior Packards—which included the Caribbean, the Four Hundred two-door hardtop, and the Patrician four-door sedan—were a new grill and the bold, Dagmar-style bumper guards moved a little bit further apart, going directly beneath the headlights instead of slightly inboard, as on the ’55s.
On the Four Hundred hardtop, the chrome trim that stopped at the simulated rear quarter van on the ’55 extended all the way to the taillights on the ’56s.
But I’m slightly digressing from our featured car. (If I’m not careful, I’ll be writing another thousand words or so on all the various aspects of the different ’56 Packards because I love them so much.) So, we were talking about the Caribbean, weren’t we? Let me get back on track.
In 1956, the convertible (and arguably the flagship of the Packard line) returned: The Caribbean. With its awesome tri-tone exterior and interior trim, the convertible went for $5995 ($65,700 today), had a curb weight of 4960 pounds and—hold on to your hats!—a mere 276 were built.
But wait, there’s more. For 1956—and 1956 only—there was also a Caribbean two-door hardtop. As you’d expect, it had the same exterior and interior trim as the convertible, but it was 500 bucks less at $5495 ($60,200), and only 263 were built.
And as I was typing that last paragraph, I was even more surprised than you to learn how few were made. Before I got into my Standard Catalog of American Cars to research this article, I would have guessed about 400 Caribbean convertibles were built this year. Clearly, I was wrong.
But, of course, I knew they were rare, and that’s why I went nuts when I saw this beauty at the Davenport riverfront and took about 30 pictures of it, most of which you see here.
When I was about 8 years old, my grandparents, Bob and Ruby Klockau, got me a little hardcover coffee table book called Decade of Dazzle that had huge wonderful color pictures of 1950s classic cars.
Included were the 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner hardtop, the 1956 Continental Mark II, and several other wonderful cars, but the one I remember best was the 1955 Packard Caribbean. It just blew me away.
It was the first time I’d ever seen or heard of one (of course, I was just a kid at the time), and I fell in love with it immediately. It was just so spectacular, even compared to the Lincolns and Cadillacs that I loved from an early age. This was a whole other level of classic car!
And so it was that circa 1995 my parents got me the Franklin Mint 1/24th-scale model of the 1955 Caribbean. I still have it in a display case in my home office.
Caribbeans are beautiful cars. I love them and always will. I see a car like this and just wonder what might have happened if the Packard that was around until 1956 had continued into the late ’50s and early ’60s. We’ll never know, but it’s definitely food for thought.