Saying goodbye to the Patrician

by Sam Barer

In a matter of days, all I’ll have are memories of my great 1955 Packard Patrician.  After seventeen years of family ownership, the current ownership democracy (two votes for my wife, one for me) voted to sell it.

Between 1901 and 1957 Packard’s name was synonymous with luxury and class.  Slotted slightly above Cadillac and Lincoln on the prestige scale, Packard was the choice of the elite, and even American Presidents. Their slogan oozed exclusivity: “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

By 1955 Packard and its then parent company Studebaker were in serious financial trouble.  Hoping to preserve the marque by wooing younger affluent buyers, it released a new top-of-the-line Patrician sedan featuring fresh looks, technical innovations and Packard’s first V8 engine with significantly more power than previous straight-8s.  The big news, however, was the Patrician’s use of the world’s first four-wheel torsion-bar suspension system, which even integrated an automatic load leveling system to maintain a flat ride.

1955 Patricians offered air conditioning, power windows, power bench seats, power antenna and signal seeking AM radios, as well.  All this for a price of $4,000, roughly twice the price of a Chevy Bel Air.

To help market the car, Packard organized high-speed endurance track testing of a stock 1955 Packard Patrician.  The car averaged 25,000 miles at 104.73 MPH, a new world record.

Today’s featured Packard Patrician is originally from Walla Walla, WA.  My uncle only paid $500 for it, because the owner was desperate to move the non-running car out of the garage after selling her house.  A year later, after some mechanical work and new paint, the Packard was gifted to my father for his 50th birthday.  Serving as an unofficial partner, I washed, waxed and organized the ongoing restoration, and my father paid the bills…not a bad deal.

Since the day it arrived, it has been the ultimate cool gangster-looking car, with black paint, wide whitewalls, miles of chrome and its authentic 1954 Washington State license plate (with “O” designation for Walla Walla and a '55 year sticker.) 

After nearly ten years of short weekend jaunts, a number of breakdowns and payments to mechanics, my father lost interest, so the car was put in storage.  A year ago, I took over full-time ownership, moved it down to Olympia, got a carburetor rebuild, tune-up, and fitted new radial tires in place of the dry-rotted bias plies.

Now the engine springs to life nicely for a nearly 50-year-old car.  The sound is smooth for a V8.  In the cabin there’s no doubt that you’re in 1955.  The gold colored dash, large steering wheel, wool carpet, and seats resembling couches provide a time-warp feeling.  Even the transmission is hopelessly dated, with reverse placed beyond low gear at the end of the selector.

Driving the Packard is an exercise in planning. It needs time to warm up, time to slow the 4300-pound car with its Easeamatic brakes, and despite the light steering, turning requires a slow corner entry speed.  Failure to drive the car with respect can prove dangerous, because there are no seatbelts or padding on the dash.  Brakes require strong pedal effort and fade rapidly, which increased my pulse on many a long steep hill.

265 horsepower and huge low-end torque allow the Patrician to accelerate well.  Overall the Ultramatic automatic tranny is decent, but is too brittle to handle the ongoing punishment of the V8’s increased torque.  The transmission linkage is also prone to torque-lock with the selector in park, making a working parking brake a necessity. 

The torsion-bar suspension really makes road irregularities almost imperceptible.  With the load-leveling system activated, rear passengers feel like they are almost floating.    All this technology, however, leads to higher costs to fix items that inevitably break or wear out.

Recently the great, luxurious Packard has seen more use than in previous years, albeit no more than once per week for quick errands around West Olympia.  With a lack of seatbelts, my two year old daughter can’t ride in it.  It also competes with other cars for my attention, which my wife says isn’t enough to justify it taking up a space in the garage, forcing her Oldsmobile Intrigue into the cold.

So all good things must come to an end:  the marque itself, and now my time with the Patrician.  


Sam Barer writes for Apex, an Olympia, WA based freelance writing company. To submit a car for a future “Sound Classics” story, email

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