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?


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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 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.

  3. 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).

      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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

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