Packard Clipper or Oldsmobile 88: Which Fifties Fixer-Upper Do You Favor?

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! I don’t know how long I can keep the alliterative titles up, but for now I’m kinda digging them. Yesterday we went back to the ’80s; today we’re going back even further, to the mid-1950s. And while we’re there, we’ll see if we can get that sports almanac away from Biff and finally straighten out this stupid timeline once and for all. But first let’s see which ’80s time machine you chose:

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Wow, close one! But Ziggy says there’s a 51% chance you’re supposed to take the Quantum leap, so we’ll call that the winner.

And I do apologize for wrongly invoking the name of Carroll Shelby; I trusted the seller, and I should have checked. In my defense, it’s just me writing these in the evenings between walking the dogs and fixing dinner; it’s not like I have a team of researchers at my disposal or anything. (The dogs offered, but they’re no help.) I will endeavor to verify claims of rare or special cars in the future.

[Editor’s Note: I have no idea how that slipped through the cracks of our new AI editing system, JJON-AJ. I’ll see about installing an extra 16K memory module in the Mattel Aquarius it runs on. – JT]

Now, moving on: The 1950s were a time of massive changes in the automobile, with new technologies coming fast and thick, and controversial new designs appearing every year. (Sounds a lot like today, actually.) Overhead-valve V8s, automatic transmissions, and hydraulic power steering sound like old hat now, but they were the new hotness in the ’50s.

Everyone knows the biggies from the decade: the “shoebox” Chevys, the early Thunderbirds, the ’59 Cadillac. But there are a lot of forgotten shapes, cars that don’t get a lot of love, and aren’t worth a whole lot even in great condition. But this makes them cheap to buy as projects. We’re going to take a look at two likely subjects now; if nothing else, there’s some good history to discuss here.

1954 Packard Clipper Deluxe – $1,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 327 cubic inch inline 8, 2 speed automatic, RWD

Location: outside Olympia, WA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Nope

Poor Packard. They spent the early 1950s trying to catch up to the rest of the marketplace while fighting off the Grim Reaper, and then they bought out Studebaker without realizing it was like buying a first-class cabin on the Titanic. The marque wouldn’t see the end of the decade, and Studebaker only wheezed along for a few more years.

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But while it lasted, man, it was beautiful. Packards may have been behind the technological times when this 1954 Clipper Deluxe was built, but no one could fault their smoothness or refinement. This car’s flathead straight 8 – a design dating back to 1935 – was said to run so smoothly you could rest a coin on the cylinder head at idle and it would just sit there. (If I tried that with any of my engines, that coin would go flying, and with my luck, fall into the fan and ricochet into my eye.) Packard’s two-speed “Ultramatic” transmission was equally smooth, and their fit-and-finish was a cut above as well.

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This old Clipper has seen better days, but it looks like it’s all there, and suffers mainly from surface rust. That busted taillight might prove hard to replace, though. But the fact that the tires all appear to be holding air tells me it hasn’t been mowed around too many times.

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The inside looks rough, but again, complete. And as long as it still has that magnificent eight under the hood, it might make a really satisfying, though obviously very long term, project.

1955 Oldsmobile 88 – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 324 cubic inch “Rocket” V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Might be Brownsville, TX; might be somewhere in Mexico

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Um, no

Similar in shape and size to the Packard, but with a different execution, this Oldsmobile 88 would have been a competitor to the “entry-level” Clipper. In contrast to Packard’s ancient inline 8, Olds powered this sedan with their already-famous “Rocket” V8, here displacing 324 cubic inches. It’s backed by an early Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, featuring four forward speeds and a fluid coupling instead of a torque converter. (This is a distinction I broadly understand, but is best left to one of our “enginerds” to explain, possibly in a future article.)

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This 88 looks similar in condition to the Packard, maybe a little rougher, but to find out for sure, you’d have to find it. The listing is from Dallas/Fort Worth, the ad header says it’s in Brownsville, Texas, and the pin in the map is deep into Mexico. If it really is in Mexico, that could explain the missing title.

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At least we can tell what colors this one used to be: turquoise and white, a classic combination from the time. Two-tone cars need to make more of a comeback.

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The beating heart of the machine looks like it has seen better days, and someone swiped the radiator at some point. But Olds produced similar V8s for years; I doubt anyone would fault you for replacing it with a newer motor. I’d hate to see the six most overused letters in all of automobiledom – “LS swap” – applied here, but even that is a possibility, I suppose.

Obviously, both of these cars represent a massive undertaking, and neither is popular enough to justify the expense. But as a long-term passion project, I could see either one finding a home in someone’s garage, working towards that first cruise to the ice cream shop or Cars & Coffee. Which one would you rather tackle?

QuizMaker

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63 Responses

  1. In 1952, my Dad bought a new Packard 200. We drove (my sister and I rode) in that car for 8 years. In 1960, Dad decided to surprise Mom with a newer Packard for Christmas. What we found was a beautiful, fully loaded 1954 Packard Patrician. Unbeknownst to me, Dad bought the old Packard back for me and gave it to me for my 16th Birthday for my first car.
    There was no way I would pick the Olds!
    The Packard’s were great driving cars, super smooth and the huge back seats were great for making out.
    Great cars, but just couldn’t keep going on the advertising: “Ask the man who owns one”.

  2. Both of these are ‘total rebuild’ restoration jobs. There is nothing you will not have to touch on these cars. Not a single nut or bolt.

    That said? Packard.

    Believe it or not, the Packard Straight-8 has a major following. Because it’s largely the same as the pre-war version. So parts are actually much easier to source than Olds Rocket parts. (This is from the era of CBOP all having wildly different castings.) Body parts will be somewhat harder, but these are steel and don’t show major rot, so an expert restorer should have enough to work with here. There doesn’t seem to be any rot through either.
    The truly impossible to source parts are all not only present but intact, and in excellent condition as well. If the engine and gearbox are both trash, it’s a non-issue. Even though this is just one year before the joint AMC/Nash/Packard/Studebaker 327ci V8. (Parts for that engine, ha ha ha, good fucking luck.)

    Neither is going to sell for more than it costs to restore. So, fuck it. Go for the weird one. (Especially since it only took me 30 seconds to find repro tail light lenses.)

  3. This is a tough choice. I went with the Packard because the Olds being somewhere in the Texas/Mexico region with a missing title is a huge red flag. Parts might be difficult to get for the Packard, but if you were able to find them and get it into running shape the Packard would be something unique that would get tons of attention everywhere it went.

  4. Easy win for the Packard. I’m usually a ‘save the manuals’ guy, but actually the automatic in the Packard is one of its big selling points for me – it is the Packard Ultramatic, which was both one of the earliest automatic transmissions and also the one that was way ahead of its time, with a lock-up torque converter. The Ultramatic deserves an engineer-geek-out deep-dive article on this lovely website.

  5. Both are cool. Whatever happens I hope these cars would be restored to stock condition. For me that’s when they become interesting. There’s enough Tweetey bird themed 50s hotrods on the road already …

  6. Packard, no question at all. Parts aren’t nearly as hard to find as you imagine. Probably a little harder than an Olds of the same era, though.

    The real drawback to the straight 8 wasn’t the power, torque, reliability, or even the efficiency — it was the shape. Anything you want to put it into has to have a very long hood. And it’s not a slant, so it has to be tall, too. And the smoothness? Yes, you actually can stand a nickel ON EDGE on the cylinder head at idle. I’ve seen it done.

    When you’re done with either one, you’ll have a huge, heavy car with about the same useful cabin space as a modern mid-sizer, and a trunk big enough for almost a week’s worth of mafia hits. But the Packard will never feel sluggish because the Packard Straight 8 motor is a buttery smooth torque monster.

    While I’d rather have a bathtub Packard, my preference is slight, and a Clipper is a great model, too. I’d definitely take the Packard every day of the week over the Olds not just because I like the styling better, but also because it’s what I’d much rather drive when it’s finished. The Olds is probably faster, but the Packard is a better drive.

  7. “…it’s not like I have a team of researchers at my disposal or anything.”

    It is summertime. Seems like a good opportunity to hire Otto as an unpaid intern. Nepotism be damned!

    On a slightly different note, is there a Shitbox Showdown email address to which we could send submissions of cars to be considered? Or would this just add to your workload?

    Yesterdays QotD on that other site resulted in me, and many others, perusing local car listings for the cheapest vehicle in our respective neighborhoods. I came across an interesting listing for a cheap 240Z project that I wanted to send your way, but couldn’t find an email addr. So I wound up sending it to Rob, who always ignores my tips (“You bastard!!” as Kyle would say).

    1. There will probably be a tip line at some point, but for right now it’s easier for me to just pick cars. I’ll let things settle in a bit before I bug the guys about adding an email.

      If you want to post something and get a discussion going on your own, you can always head over to Opposite-Lock.com, they’re always game to discuss crappy (or non-crappy) cars found for sale.

    2. “…it’s not like I have a team of researchers at my disposal or anything.”

      how about just outsourcing that to … us? Can we be the researchers? We won’t charge any more than we’re worth.

  8. Not only would it be easier to restore the Olds, but I think that it just looks better than the Packard design wise. Plus, you’d get to experiment with a two tone paint job that the Pack couldn’t pull off. You could probably get a 3D printed replacement tail light for the Pack, but everything else would be a chore.

  9. Interesting that all the posts are in favor of the Olds so far, but the votes are significantly in favor of the Packard. I went Packard just because it’s more unique and cooler, I get that also means more expensive and harder to find parts for, but I’m not actually buying them, and I would much rather have the Packard. Inline engines are way more fun, and especially with a straight 8!!!

  10. Olds but really neither.
    Just the cost to do the chrome sinks the Clipper….and shoots the Rocket.
    That said in my youth I pulled a 55 Buick out of a field..paid $35..tidied it up and drove it for over a year.

  11. Ooooo, this is a toughie! As much as I would love to cruise around in a straight-8 Packard, I’m leaning towards the Olds. The Rocket V-8 should have enough of a following to source parts to get it running well, plus the higher volume Olds should make it a lot easier to source various other parts.

    Then factor in that you could fix it up as a 1955 Olds Golden Anniversary tribute, and you’d have Burt Reynold’s ghost’s attention.
    https://topclassiccarsforsale.com/oldsmobile/391199-1955-oldsmobile-golden-anniversary-ww-and-the-dixie-dancekings-burt-reynolds.html

    1. FWIU Studebakers are relatively easy to source parts for because when the company went out of the car business (having poured profits from their last hit, the ’59 Lark, into diversification) they sold the entire factory parts depot to the Studebaker Drivers’ Club rather than dumping it into the nearest body of water as was often done when carmakers went belly-up (Iacocca ordered this *twice*, first with the pre-1970 Mopar stuff when he took over at Chrysler and then with all the pre-78 AMC-Rambler parts when the AMC buyout happened).

      1. The link below is to one of my very favorite cars I’ve ever seen featured in a magazine, a one-of-one 1964 Studebaker Lark with a supercharged R3 304ci engine. The guy who owns it has the original computer punch card that detailed the special order for it, which was only made possible by what you described. If you haven’t seen this, check it out. What a hell of a car.

        https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/south-bend-stealth-1964-studebaker-super-lark-r3

  12. Completely out of my wheelhouse but the Olds seems like it would be easier to find parts for so it gets my vote.

    Side note: I would way rather have one of these fully restored over a 50’s Chevy. Maybe the route 66 car show ruined me but a restored Bel Air just isn’t special when you see row after row of them…

    1. There’s a weekly car show a few miles from me, and it’s always full of 50’s Chevy’s. They’re…nice? I guess, but they’re boring. Last week, I spent all of my time by a ’35 Auburn Boattail because it was beautiful and DIFFERENT.

  13. Agreed on the Olds. While I love Packards, parts are almost impossible to find, and insanely expensive when you do. Both cars seem complete, but the Olds appears to have less body rust, and being a GM product will be (slightly) easier to get parts for.

    1. Just perfect. A way to have oddball American luxury while at the same time having peace of mind with the crankshaft!

      Pity they couldn’t experiment with V8s earlier. Or hell, even make a V12 cruiser to fill in the Continental’s shoes!

      Now, imagine Packard surviving along with Studebaker as a flagship company to the former…

  14. Impulse was to go Packard cause it’s different-and straight 8. But I love pillarless hardtops, and that trim ‘swoop’ on the side really looks good. I miss old-school two-tone paint!

  15. I voted Packard. Mostly because I read a lot of WWII history, especially the aviation related parts.
    The Packard company make Rolls Royce Merlin engines under license to boost the war effort.
    I seem to recall reading that in doing so they didn’t make boat loads of money doing so.
    I know that they made some bad decisions, but I have always had a soft spot for them.
    Reading about the cars later in life, I found that they were pretty innovative, which adds some “cool” for me.

  16. I would not buy a car from 2010 that had been sitting out in the Olympia rain, let alone one that had been outside for decades. It rains in Olympia all the time. Seems to me if you are going to restore something you’d start with the one that has the least rust to the body, even if that means a cross-border foray.

  17. I don’t have the money, time or expertise to do either of these any kind of justice, so I just picked the one I’d most want when it was done. The Packard just feels more interesting to me.

  18. IT’s a close call. Either way, I’m converting them to EV but leaving the bodies as they are as much as feasible for a daily driver. Then I’m putting the Rocket V8 in a 39 Ford and the Packard on 34 rails with a Model A roadster body.

      1. Those are the best! I love those ship’s wheel emblems. I actually prefer those years to the earlier post-war models. I think of them as the last great gasp of Packard, and pretend the catfish-express “Packardbaker” abominations never happened. There’s a guy in my town with a ’55 Clipper in a two-tone white/aqua that I would really like to own someday.

  19. I just can’t get past the possible title issue on the Olds, and I’m a sucker for the Packard name and the straight-eight. Plus, you have another $800 for the restoration (which will be a drop in the bucket compared to the cost for an actual proper job).

  20. Both are going to take a lot of work, the 88 has more tunes out there and looks like an easier job.
    I’d stuff a more recent Olds V8 and transmission in it, IMO the old hydramatic is horrid.

  21. This was a legitimate tossup for me. They’re both gorgeous, and in the best condition I could ask for at a Shitbox price anyway. I pick the Olds just because I find it slightly cooler-looking. No way I’d bother keeping either one original, though. That Olds is a flame-spewing lead sled in my mind’s eye.

    1. And thank you, Mark, for finally digging us out of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years and getting to the shitboxes that truly move me! I absolutely adore this feature, but it was a grim game of Would You Rather for a while there.

      This is, I think, the first one where I really do want both.

  22. Firstly, I thought this was clapped out VW week, not alliteration week. Where’s my fix of mouldering teutonic regret?

    I know Oldsmobile is supposed to have been GM’s envelope-pushing tech-heavy marque, which should make it the most interesting to me, but I think it’s actually the one that I’ve always liked least. Certainly it was the one that seemed least relevant or least in possession of a raison d’être back when I was first interested in cars until it got the chop.

    50s cars don’t hold any appeal to me as a rule, but the Packard seems marginally more interesting. Somewhat counterintuitively, in this match up I would rather have the late period technological dead end rather than the old-new-hotness years before it actually gets interesting to me

  23. I went with the Olds because it’s a four-door *hardtop*, and it was something of the enthusiast’s choice new with the “Rocket” V8 and the original 4-speed Hydra-Matic which was much more responsive than Buick’s tuned-for-smoothness torque converter only “Dynaslow”.

    1. Long time Packard fan here. My fantasy for a car of this vintage is to drive it a lot, and enjoy a complete analog experience. But, vintage automatics do not appeal. My 60 Cadillac had a Hydramatic. First was just to get you rolling, then immediately upshift. 1 and 2 were a pair, as were 3 and 4. In mine, the 2 to 3 shift felt awkward, and back from 3 to 2 was likewise. For someone who likes the feel of the rotating bits doing their job crisply, no more Hydramatics. My understanding is the Ultramatics were kludgy as well. So, my fantasy will hold out for either of these with column shift.

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