Founded in 1899, Packard quickly became one of America’s leading luxury car manufacturers. The company survived the Great Depression and emerged out of World War II in excellent financial condition, but things went downhill in the 1950s.
Facing a brutal sales war between Ford and GM, which were cutting prices and forcing cars on dealers, most independent automakers merged to cut costs. In 1953, Willys and Kaiser joined forces to create Kaiser-Willys, while Nash and Hudson merged into American Motors Corporation (AMC). In 1954, Packard bought Studebaker to form the Studebaker-Packard Corporation.
Before that happened, Packard designed and showcased the Panther, one of its greatest and most innovative concept cars. Also known as the Daytona, the Panther was part of a series of prototypes that Packard developed during the “dream car” craze of the 1950s.
It all started with the Pan-American, a concept car that Packard first showcased at the 1952 New York Auto Show. Based on the Series 250, the Pan-American cost Packard around $10,000 to build.
The company made six cars, but the Pan-American did not go into full production. But it did inspire the iconic Caribbean, which arrived in 1953.
Shortly after the introduction of the Caribbean, Packard created the Balboa, a prototype version of the drop-top. It debuted a reverse-slanted rear window that could be lowered for ventilation, a feature that Mercury introduced on a production car in 1957.
The Pather was commissioned by Packard president James Nance in mid-1953. He demanded that the car would be ready for the Daytona Speed Week in early 1954, so the company’s designers and engineers had less than a year to put it together.
Amazingly enough, the new concept car was ready in time for the event. But unlike the Pan-American and the Balboa, the Panther had more than just a unique design to showcase: it featured a one-piece fiberglass body.
Granted, Chevrolet and Kaiser had already showcased fiberglass sports cars by then (the Corvette and Darrin), but Packard was the first automaker to build a full-size car from this lightweight material.
On top of that, the Panther’s body was bonded into a one-piece molding, an innovative idea at the time. The body was fabricated by Mitchell-Bentley and Creative Industries.
Design-wise, the Panther wasn’t radically different from the Packards that were available in showrooms at the time. But it featured a larger-than-usual front grille and a bubble-top roof with extremely wide B-pillars.
The low stance and the two-tone paint job made the Panther appear sleeker than other vehicles of similar size. Some of the cars were later modified to include the cathedral-style taillights that Packard introduced in 1955.
And yes, I said “cars.” Packard made more than one Panther. Although the nameplate never made it into production, the company put together four cars.
Following an initial pair of Panthers that it made for the 1954 auto show tour, Packard built a second pair for Don Mitchell of Mitchell-Bentley and Rick Terry of Creative Industries. One of them was a convertible, while the other featured a removable hardtop.
Under the hood, the Panther featured Packard’s regular-production 359-cubic-inch (5.9-liter) straight-eight. That’s mostly because the company’s V8 was still under development at the time.
However, the first couple of Panthers also got a McCulloch supercharger, which increased output to 275 horsepower. An impressive figure for the era, it enabled the Panther to hit 131 mph (211 kph) at Daytona Beach.
Unfortunately, Packard’s acquisition of Studebaker resulted in severe financial problems, and the company shelved the project despite promising interest from potential buyers and dealers.
Come 2022, and the Panther is mostly a forgotten chapter in Packard’s history. However, its unique construction, scarcity, and sleek design turn it into an attention-grabber at car shows and auction events.
While not as valuable as the iconic Packard Twelve, known to fetch more than $3 million in Excellent condition, a Panther is probably worth at least $1 million nowadays. In 2013, the last time a Panther hit the auction block, it changed hands for $850,000. In 2009, a different Panther sold for $700,000.