By the early 1950s, prestigious carmaker Packard was like a punch-drunk fighter wobbling on his last legs. A booming postwar economy had brought young customers into the market excited by Detroit's flashy new V-8 engines and lithe styling. Though Packard had always been considered a notch above Cadillac and Lincoln in prestige and price, that didn't aseem to matter in the brave new postwar world. The independent make's dowdy styling, outmoded straight-8 engines and older buyers made it seem like an anachronism. An attempt to compete in the mid-priced market lessened the brand’s prestige, the one thing that had set it apart.
Packard president James Nance thought a flashy new "halo" car might revive his company's stodgy reputation while he readied new models for 1955. Thus was born the fabulous Caribbean, a factory custom job built off Packard's less glamorous Cavalier convertible. The Caribbean's wheel cutouts were opened into sporty full radiuses trimmed with chrome while the car's flanks were stripped clean of trim. Standard convertibles were sent to an outside firm to be made over as beauty queens with chrome-plated wire wheels, a continental spare tire mount, hood scoop, and leather interior trim.
Designer Dick Teague's striking new 1953 Caribbean was an instant classic. Clean-lined, sporty and elegant, it far outsold limited production customs introduced by GM the same year with Packard's 750 Caribbeans besting Cadillac's Eldorado (532) and the Olds Fiesta (458). Amongst the factory specials, only Buick's Skylark outsold it by moving 1,690 copies.
In the styling obsessed fifties, even a design classic couldn't stand still so the Caribbean was modified for 1954, losing its clean lines to a gimmicky two-tone paint job and conventional, lowered rear wheel arches. Sales fell to 400 units.
Packard's new 1955 models reflected the flashy jukebox style that ruled the day. The Caribbean went from being a classy version of a plain car to a gussied-up version of an already flashy jukebox. Three-tone paint, gobs of chrome trim, fender skirts, and dual hood scoops brought the Caribbean faddish glitz, losing its classic elegance entirely, but it finally had a V-8 engine.
A hard top Caribbean was offered for the first time in 1956 and the Caribbean become even flashier. A popular color combo was white with a powder blue band over a metallic copper lower body. A new air suspension system, push button transmission, and seat cushions that could be flipped to offer leather on one side and cloth on the reverse gave the Caribbean all the gimmicks one could desire, but it came too late to save a drowning company. It wasn’t just Packard, all the independents were being knocked out by the big three automakers.
Today Caribbeans are sought after collectibles with prime examples selling in the six figures. Though, for all its beauty and exclusiveness, the fabulous Caribbean proved but a final flicker before the company's flame was extinguished forever. Packard's merger with Studebaker brought the brand warmed over Studes as the once proud marque's final 1957-58 models. Then, mercifully, it was lights out for a classic American brand.
Written by Jim Cherry