Packard in the Fifties introduced a series of show and concept cars intended to demonstrate the company's advanced design and styling ideas and to draw traffic to its auto show, fair and dealer showroom displays. Conceived in Packard's design department with input from Packard consultant Alexis de Sakhnoffsky the postwar Packard show cars brought to a new level the practice that had begun before the war with the Darrin convertible victoria’s and phaetons.
In 1951 Henney Company created the Richard Arbib-designed Pan American convertible while Packard built Ed Macauley's custom coupe. The following year Packard introduced the Balboa, a Dick Teague designed hardtop coupe with reversed rear window. It was based on the limited production Caribbean convertible which had developed from the Pan American. Both the Packard Balboa concept and the limited production Packard Caribbean convertibles from 1953-55 were built by Packard supplier Mitchell-Bentley Corporation.
Mitchell-Bentley had grown out of founder Don Mitchell's long experience as a body engineer for Detroit's major suppliers. Its affiliates and subsidiaries included Ionia, one of the last independent builders of wood station wagon bodies and supplier of the framing for the Ford and Mercury Sportsman convertibles, and was a major supplier of interior trim and seats while also maintaining a highly competent group of engineers and fabricators that handled both production and special projects. Don Mitchell had been a pioneer in getting Detroit to adopt new materials, like plywood and plastics for knobs and trim as well as injection molded parts and thermoformed sheet. He remained a daring risk-taker throughout his career whose successes contributed greatly to the development of the modern automobile.
Packard wanted a successor to the Balboa for the 1954 show season and assigned Dick Teague to the project. Its emphasis was, in keeping with the times, on long and low. Teague rushed out a quarter-scale half model of the design but Packard had no time or resources to employ in realizing it. The task was given to Mitchell-Bentley who teamed up with their affiliate Creative Industries to complete the design.
True to Don Mitchell's advocacy of new materials and methods they chose to execute it in a daring material only just beginning to be appreciated by Detroit, glass-reinforced plastic. Using economical molds and hand layup techniques they were able to turn Teague's model into the full-size automobile in a matter of months, bonding the entire body into a single piece in the process, a feat never before accomplished.
First named the 'Grey Wolf' after Packard's 1903 record-breaker of a half century before, the name was soon changed to Panther. The Panther carried on Packard identity with several features including the stretched grille opening with Packard's signature dips in its upper edge and 1954 Packard taillights. An accent ridge swept down the body sides from the headlights almost to the rear bumper. The hood displayed a full width overhang patterned after the Caribbean's hood scoop. The Panther also was Packard's first use of a full wraparound windshield.
The first Panther built served as a show and concept car for the 1954 season and was displayed throughout the US and also crossing the Atlantic to England and possibly to Italy. The second became the Daytona Panther driven by Jim Rathmann on Daytona Beach where it recorded an official speed of 110.9 mph and a later unofficial speed (after the AAA timing officials had departed) of 131.1 mph. Two more Panthers were built subsequently.
This Packard Panther is the first built, chassis M6000050. It, like the Panther Daytona, was fitted from new with a 359 cubic inch version of Packard's straight eight and a McCulloch centrifugal supercharger that brought its power to a reported 275 hp. The other two Panthers have stock Packard eights without the tuning and supercharger.
After the Panthers' round of show and road test appearances were over one became Don Mitchell's personal car for several years. Eventually it was sold but in the early 90's this car was acquired and restored by Mitchell Corporation (the name was changed in 1964) to its original 1953 configuration in its present beautiful silver-grey paint with grey leather and grey carpeted interior and displayed in the company's corporate museum. In 1996 it won the Preserving the Vision award at the Eyes on Classic Design Concours. It was also a class winner at the Meadow Brook Concours.
Don Mitchell's son William fondly recalls his association with both his father's Panther (#4 of the series) when it was kept at the family's summer home and used, he says, "a lot." His recounting of the company's many contributions to American auto manufacturing, from the first use of plastics through assembling the Packard Caribbean’s and Lincoln Continental Mark IIs ("the body panels were stamped on kirksite dies; there was a lot of lead in [those cars]") and the fiberglass parts for Shelby Mustangs, is a history of the evolution of the Detroit motor industry and he is justifiably proud of the contributions of Mitchell Corporation and its predecessors.
Recently acquired directly from Mitchell Corporation it is accompanied by a file of original photos showing its body construction and assembly, press and show photos, original auto show handouts and copies of several magazine articles. It is beautifully restored and freshly detailed with its mechanical systems refreshed so it runs and drives as intended. The other three 1954 Packard Panthers are in long term private collections, unlikely to become available any time soon.
The car itself is gorgeous, a rare and distinctively styled example of Packard's efforts to keep itself in the forefront of automobile design in the early Fifties. It has been displayed at major auto shows in the US and England and is powered by a special Packard supercharged eight. The combination of talents that contributed to its design and construction, Richard Arbib of Henney, Dick Teague and Ed Macauley of Packard, Len Terry of Creative Industries and Don R. Mitchell of Mitchell-Bentley, is exceptional. It is a singular achievement of design, advanced materials, construction and assembly that will be a centerpiece of any collection.