As World War II ended and U.S. automakers resumed production, the buying public was the real winner. Personal luxury cars were in abundance and relatively affordable. Brands like Packard were still afloat and competing with the Big Three. That didn’t last long, but that short timeframe gave us some wildly awesome cars. One example is the topic of this week’s episode of Jay Leno’s Garage—the Packard Caribbean.
Arguably, prewar cars saw more rapid technical advancement year over year, but postwar production was the sweet spot for when cool ideas were able to go into functional and reliable production. Case in point is the self-leveling suspension on the Caribbean. This is something relatively common in modern production cars, but the Packard system is an interesting twist on how the system works—because it works with a torsion bar suspension.
Most modern takes on self-leveling are centered on the fact that the chassis has independent suspension. Instead, this Packard uses a solid bar to connect the front and rear wheels of each side of the chassis. That solid bar acts as the spring but also uses Newtons third law of motion to force the opposite end of the car to react to motion on one end. For instance, if the front suspension travels over a bump, the torsion bar absorbs some of the force, but it also imparts that force on the rear wheel, which works to keep the car more level while rolling down the road.
Those are just the basics of the system. Packards engineers took one more futuristic step and added static load leveling. An on-board processor could sense the attitude of the car and would mechanically adjust the suspension based on how much weight was on board and how it was distributed. Jay shows this by sitting on the rear fender and allowing the car to compensate, then hopping off and showing the car re-leveling. Fascinating, but also battery draining. Jay points out that he and his friends used to enjoy “riding” the Packards they could find in a parking garage until the battery was exhausted.
Sadly, cool tech like this couldn’t keep Packard in business. The market was moving too fast. Packard was old fashioned in a time when the American buying public was all about the jet age. So much of Packard’s production was tried and true, reliable and trustworthy, but the lack of new and exciting was a death knell for the brand.
Luckily, cars like Jay’s Caribbean have stood the test of time and are now exciting again. They stand as testaments from a brand that had so much going for it but ultimately couldn’t make it last, and also that so many ideas we consider hot-to-trot today are actually decades old and just coming around for a second time, because we have better technology to build or control the system. However, we would take this self-leveling Packard over just about any modern car. Would you? Tell us why or why not in the Hagerty Community below.