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 his 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 (Leno also has a 1955 model in his collection) on a carryover body shell that dated back to 1953.
This version of the Caribbean also featured a V-8 engine introduced in 1955, 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 the company to lose traction in the market.
The Packard V-8 started with a 352-cubic-inch displacement for 1955, but was increased to 374 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, with black on one side of the cushions and white on the other. Only 15 cars were made in those colors, he says 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, Jay claims. Jay demonstrates the system by sitting on the rear of the car, and while it works, it takes quite some time to actuate—much longer than today’s self-leveling air suspensions.
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 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 has sat abandoned for decades, symbolizing the decline of the American auto industry.
Jay spends the last half of the video driving the car, sharing more information, commenting on the ride quality, and letting us hear the V-8 in action. Check out the video for more on this piece of Americana.