Although rapidly fading from the memory of all but the most passionate automotive historians, Packard was a premier luxury car make in the American market from the 1920s to the 1940s. It commanded a dominant position in the market, outselling Cadillac until 1950.
But by 1955, Packard was in trouble, having slipped from first to third place, behind Lincoln. A desperate merger with Studebaker did nothing to stanch the bleeding. Further market share losses were predicted unless something drastic was done.
Packard’s director of design Richard Teague approached Studebaker head of design Bill Schmidt and asked for permission to create a concept that would embody all the design ideas for the future that were being discussed in the Packard studio.
Teague got the green light for the project, and he and his chief stylist Dick MacAdam set to work on a crash program, starting in the late spring of 1955 with a goal of having the concept car on the Packard stand at the 1956 Chicago auto show in January.
While the design team worked, the engineering team set out to experiment with its own ideas. An innovative new suspension and a reorientation of the transmission were planned, all with the idea of a more equal weight distribution, and to give sports car handling to a large car.
At the last second, though, many of these innovations, proposed by a bright and aggressive young engineer, had to be scrapped in favour of a more standard chassis. The disappointed engineer began to think about looking elsewhere for employment.
When a scale model and technical drawings were finished, the project was sent off to Ghia in Italy for construction in a very rapid 90 days. Ghia fulfilled its obligation and returned the finish car to Detroit at the end of 1955.
The car was un-crated at Packard on 1st January, 1956, and Packard discovered to their horror, that many of the electrical and mechanical systems had not been tested because of the accelerated timetable. Servo-motors did not work. Electrical shorts were rampant – a couple even causing small fires.
The car was trucked over to Creative Industries in Detroit, and the team there began a round-the-clock emergency repair, and spit-and-polish to the interior, while polishing up the exterior.
Miraculously, the Predictor arrived in Chicago on time, with a number of technicians in tow just in case anything went wrong. When the car was at last revealed at the Chicago Auto Show on 7th January, it was a smash hit. At times, crowds were lined up 10 deep around the turntable.
Teague and his team had transformed the shoebox architecture of the production Packard into a low, long slab, with a strong emphasis on horizontal lines and formal styling. Gone were the curved streamlines of the 1940s; the Predictor was more crisp and architectural.
Its front mask was unlike any other Packard. Strongly horizontal with hidden headlamps, it looked wider than it was. The horizontal elements were broken only by a central prow that featured a narrow version of the classic Packard grille.
The grille was there by popular demand. A survey of Packard loyalists – customers and dealers – revealed that there was a strong nostalgia for the classic Packard grille, and corporate management had encouraged its inclusion in this design and others to follow.
The streamlined horizontal chrome strip that made up the grille extended around the sides of the car, even flattening the wheel arches as it passed above. The effect was to make the car look like a vast slab of streamlined steel. And vast it was – it was lower and longer than Lincoln’s Mark II of 1956, which was the largest and most expensive car sold in the US that year.
Complementing the slab-like lower car was the more formal roofline of the cabin, which had a pair of tambour or roll-top roof openings that operated with doors. The roof also had two Thunderbird-style portholes and a reverse-sloping roof with a rear windscreen that partially opened for ventilation.
At the rear, the obligatory tailfins were an opportunity to create a taller and sculptural version of the Packard’s ‘Cathedral’ tail light. Though touted as see-through for safety, the tailfins were really just sculptural elements terminating the composition of the lines of the car.
For those who were lucky enough to be allowed to look into the interior, a personal rolling lounge awaited. As the doors opened, the front seats swivelled to greet both driver and passenger. This clever “why hasn’t someone already designed this”-type luxury was actually a necessity in design of the Predictor.
The front doors were narrow for a two-door car and the wraparound windscreen made them even more restrictive – plus the roof was low, making the retracting roof another necessity for entry. Finally, because the seat backs of the front buckets did not fold, one relied on the swivelling action to allow enough room to squeeze into the back seats.
Most of the models that Packard hired for the Predictor stand and publicity photos were short and petite young ladies who could easily get in and out of the car. Taller models and Packard executives were photographed outside the car.
The instrument panel had a standard speedometer and a nacelle with push-button transmission to the driver’s left. The instrument panel was designed to follow the contour of the bonnet in front and was low in front of the driver for better visibility.
Sharp-eyed show attendees noticed the off-centre steering wheel. Again, this seems to be a concession to entering the tight cockpit.
The centre console rose to meet the prow of the bonnet and contained a host of gauges and sliding lever controls. Over this console are ceiling-mounted switches between the roll-top roof panels.
The crowds at the Chicago show proved to Packard that they had a hit on their hands. Despite the expense, Studebaker allocated some funds to send the Predictor to auto shows and select dealers around the country. Crowds gathered wherever it was shown and the press gave the car very favourable reviews.
Automotive designers were watching, too. Teague was already well-known in Detroit and many designers closely followed his work. The Predictor would quietly influence the design of many cars in the coming years – the ‘flat-top’ GM sedans of 1959-61, the wide-track Pontiacs of the 1960s, the 1958 Thunderbird with its expanded four-seat personal luxury lounge, and many more.
But, for Packard, it was all for naught. Packard cars would soon become merely badge-engineered Studebakers, offending both Packard and Studebaker purists. After 1958, the marque disappeared altogether. A sad, quiet end for such a storied brand and heritage.
The Predictor itself is now in the collection of the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana, after many years of storage.
Richard Teague went on to lead the design department at American Motors for 22 years. Widely respected in the industry, Teague became a sort of ‘Patron Saint of Lost Automotive Causes’, having created innovative designs at Packard and AMC with miniscule budgets, scant resources and impossible deadlines.
Dick McAdam, Teague’s leading stylist, moved to Chrysler and rose to Vice President of Design, succeeding the legendary Ellwood Engel in the 1970s.
And that young engineer who was so disappointed after his innovative engineering ideas were not implemented in the Predictor? His ideas had found their way to General Motors and he soon found employment at Pontiac, where his engineering concepts had a budget and a car culture to support their development.
The name of that young engineer?
John Z. DeLorean.