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Pan American, the mysterious Packard concept sports car. Which way did they go?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

After a special unveiling and tumultuous overture by a military band, Pan American is shown to the public for the first time at 1952 International Motor Sports Show in New York City. Queen of the show, Miss Shirley Talbott, poses with Pan American #1 and talks with onlookers about Pan Am and its features. Photos from the author’s collection unless otherwise noted.

[Editor’s Note: Leon Dixon, who wrote the book on Creative Industries, has more recently been investigating the Packard Pan American sports cars. He wrote us recently to see what additional information (or, ideally, what other cars) we could shake loose, so we suggested he first write up a history of the cars for a baseline. If anybody does have anything to add, let us know and we can put you in touch with Leon.]

Henney Auto Body Company called it “the first truly American sports car.” Of course there might be some who would argue this notion into the ground today, despite whatever validity Henney’s claim seemed to have in 1952. But suffice to say that when Packard’s Pan American concept debuted at the 1952 International Motor Sports Show, the word was “Wow!” The concept fulfilled the American lust for a modern car that was long, sporty, luxurious, and low. Based on a standard 1952 Packard convertible, the Pan American had been chopped (the windshield), sectioned (strip of body removed and lowered) and channeled (body dropped lower on the chassis).

Pan American was more than just concept car. Its debut was a paradigm shift–a sign that Packard was aggressively re-claiming its place in the luxury realm. Pan American rose to the challenge in a stunningly beautiful execution that was also well loved without a doubt. The Pan American took top honors at this New York City show and again later at the Petersen Motorama auto show in Los Angeles. And Pan American was featured in magazines and newspapers all over the world.

Pan American #1 as it appeared at Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. Trophy sitting to the left in image was won at International Motor Sports Show earlier in the year at New York City. Note large logo hanging behind Pan American was also used in smaller size on driver’s and passenger’s doors. Color here was referred to as “Green-gold”… a play on the slang term, “Gringo.”

But in all the years since it debuted, few people have ever known that there were actually six Packard Pan American sports cars built. Due to the huge popularity and interest generated by the first car, Packard agreed to have five more Pan Americans built at Henney Motor Company. That’s right–there were a total of six of these magnificent beauties. And they had differences. Of course these differences and the many subsequent morphings of these cars merely combined with erroneous rumors to cloud the Pan American histories. Thus, where they all are today and how they are today remains partially obscured in folklore and rumors.

While I’ve kept up with the Pan Americans since they were new, I’ll tell you a little secret: The automotive Holy Grail for me would be to track down the whereabouts and fates of all six Pan Ams. And frankly, I’ve spent a lot of years attempting to follow this very dream–chasing it. Some of the search has been very rewarding. But much of it has also been frustrating–even fruitless. You see, some of the Pan Americans are missing.

After decades of searching, countless phone calls, letters, faxes, emails, and more, there are still Packard Pan Americans out there somewhere… perhaps hidden–perhaps even destroyed. But no matter what has happened to these concept cars or where they are today, I am trying once and for all to resolve the story of these magnificent Packards.

Rear of Packard Pan American bore more than passing resemblance to what would later be known as Ford Thunderbird, introduced years later as a 1955 model. This Pan Am lives today in a museum in New Jersey. Rear deck antenna and smooth wheel hub covers were added more recently and mimic look of the original Pan Am #1. This car has a folding top.

Of course I don’t mean to say that where they went–how they went is all mystery. Some of the Pan Americans and their whereabouts are indeed known today. But the full story of these Packard concepts deserves to be told–even if the conclusion of this story remains tantalizingly elusive.

Pan American #1 factory issued photo taken shortly after completion. Note smooth center caps on hand-built wheels with long spokes laced to outer edge of rims. Factory wire wheels made by Motor Wheel Company (not Kelsey-Hayes are typically believed) had shorter spokes laced inward on rim. Also note deck-mounted swept-back rear antenna. Later Pan American copies had vertical mast antenna mounted on driver’s side front fender and no rear deck antenna.

Pan American #1 as it appeared on Colorado Blvd. at the Pasadena Tournament Of Roses Parade, followed by accessorized 1953 Packard convertible. Note that wheels are now changed to factory-type wire spoke wheels made by Motor Wheel Company. Caps now have “Packard” names and hallmark red hexagon logo made of reflective Scotchlite material. Note California dealer plate and Earle C. Anthony, Incorporated license plate frame.

PAN AMERICAN NUMBER ONE
While the history of Pan Am #1 is fairly well known, even it is mired in mystery since this poor car underwent so many changes. The first changes took place when it was featured in the world famous Pasadena Rose Parade. A staffer with Earle C. Anthony, Inc. (West Coast Packard Distributor and huge dealership) once told me they discovered the hand-built wheels looked nice for show, but simply were not very roadworthy. During prepping for the Rose Parade, it was discovered that Pan American #1 was “all over the road” with shakes and shimmies. Factory Packard wire wheels (made by Motor Wheel Company) were installed to correct the problem. Had things stopped here, it would simply have been a case of a factory upgrade rather than wholesale customizing. But afterward, Pan Am #1 was eventually subjected to endless morphings and bizarre “styling” by the head of Packard design. As I have said before, the owner of this Pan Am for most of its life was like a Hollywood movie star who just didn’t know when to stop having plastic surgery. Only the surgeries took place on the cars. Every time Ed Macauley (Packard’s styling chief) got a new idea, whatever car he was driving at the time was rolled into the engineering garage or design studio. Then out came the torches and the bars of lead. Nobody knew what he might do next and Mr. Macauley was never satisfied with whatever changes that were made. So once Edward Macauley got possession of Pan American #1, this car began a never-ending series of morphs that finally resulted in something unrecognizable from the sleek award-winning car it once was. Of course styling is a subjective thing. But one man’s dream can be another man’s nightmare. Today this car is painted white with the grille changed, fenders changed, interior changed (including a 1955 instrument panel and wheel) and 1955 Packard cathedral tail lights grafted on. If you didn’t know what it once was, you wouldn’t know what it once was.

Foreground in white is Pan Am #1 as it appears today. Note differences with Pan Am #2 such as chopped windshield and vent window on #1. Also not header bow alignment pins atop windshield on #1 indicating it has a folding soft top. Side glass, logos on doors and beltline trim were all special for Pan Americans. Car #1 now also has a 1955 Packard instrument panel and steering wheel. Passenger door mirror was also added later. Photo courtesy Stuart Blond and The Packard Club.

THE REST OF THE PACKARD PAN AMERICANS
While the remaining five cars took on very interesting, but sometimes obscure lives, thankfully none were morphed quite as much as #1. Pan Am #2 was repainted numerous times. At one point it grew a black paint job. Today it is fitted with European bucket seats and a gold paint job–erroneously claimed to have some impossible connection to Packard’s Golden Anniversary. Both of the first two Pan Americans ended up being owned by the same person and ultimately donated to the City of Detroit. For now, both cars reside in a museum.

Overhead shot taken at Packard Proving Grounds of mildly modified Pan American #2 (gold in foreground) and wildly modified #1 (white in background) reveals much. Car #2 now has ill-fitting bucket seats from European car, same for driver’s door mirror. Gold color is not original and is not connected with “Golden Anniversary” models as claimed today. Car was once black–after being “Green-gold.” Car #1 was modified countless times at whim of owner, Ed Macauley. Last mods were done by Creative Industries of Detroit at Macauley’s request. Rear fenders were extended with 1954-1/2 Packard Panther fiberglass ends grafted on (made from Panther molds) along with new cathedral tail lights. Skirts were removed along with wire wheels. Regular discs and Panther wheel covers were transferred over to this car. Mr. Macualey and his friend, Bill Mitchell of Mitchell-Bentley did not like cleaning wire wheels and referred hubcaps. Photo courtesy Stuart Blond and The Packard Club.

Still another Pan American resides in a famous collection in New Jersey where it has been restored to magnificent condition and slightly altered to look like the original version of Pan Am #1.

But the rest of the Packard Pan Americans have their histories largely clouded in mystery. One of the Pan Americans ended up traveling the world and was in auto shows in Europe. Another was used in a horse-jumping rodeo act that ended up on national television. Still another was owned by the designer Richard Arbib and became the scene of sexcapades with the most famous pin-up model of the 1950s (Richard’s girlfriend at the time was Bettie Page and they were pictured together with Pan Am #1 at the debut). Another Pan American is often claimed to be in a museum in Europe that denies having the car. So perhaps you can see how the stories go in circles often leading to dead ends.

A later Pan American copy was sent to shows in Europe, one of which was in Belgium. At some shows American Firestone tires were replaced by European Engelbert whitewall tires. The whereabouts of this car today are uncertain, but it was rumored to have remained in Europe after showings. Note antenna on driver’s fender and factory-type Motor Wheel wire wheels.

Contrary to rumor, not all Pan Americans were topless. One other point apparently unknown is that early on a removable Carson-type top was made for #1 by Creative Industries of Detroit on behalf of Henney. This top is actually depicted in early Henney Auto Body ads for Pan American and again in Richard Arbib concept art. But this top was apparently never used, never photographed and was eventually discarded. Because space here is limited, suffice to say at least two of the Pan Ams had folding tops–despite persistent stories to the contrary. Both soft tops were installed after the main construction was completed. One Pan Am so equipped was Richard Arbib’s car. This Pan American was photographed numerous times with the top in raised position, so the top is a fact.

Pan American Designer, Richard Arbib in his Pan American outside radio/TV station WOR in New York City. Note that Arbib’s car had a folding top, shown here in raised position for winter weather! Top fabric was green in color. Note factory-type wire wheels and antenna on driver’s side front fender. Photo courtesy Stuart Blond and The Packard Club.

In the end, it remains unknown just how many Pan Ams received folding tops. However, if you notice photos of a Pan American showing three header-bow alignment pins on the windshield header, they were there for a reason.

THE PACKARD CARIBBEAN PROTOTYPE
The Pan American was the inspiration for Packard’s 1953 Caribbean production car built by Mitchell-Bentley Corporation. In fact the very first prototype Caribbean was painted in a light shade of metallic green as a kind of tribute to the Pan American, which itself was painted in a color called “green-gold.” This was a play on the slang Latin American term for Americans, “gringo” –and it made a slight return (in theme) as Mopar “Green-go” in the 1970s.

Only known original color photo of 1953 Caribbean prototype from author’s collection. Green color here was different from Pan American, but was done in tribute to the Pan Am Packards.

There were many more twists and turns in the Packard Pan American story. The full history (at least as complete as it can be to date) is being finalized as we speak. This Pan American history will appear later this year in The Packard Cormorant magazine, the glossy publication of The Packard Club. But in the meantime, I’m still looking for photos and information and continuing to tie loose ends of this history. So if you know where one of the Packard Pan Americans is today, or even back when, I’d love to hear from you. Particularly important are the engine numbers, body numbers, serial plate numbers and “theft-proof” digits pressed into the firewall. This information will confirm which of the six cars each may be. If we’re lucky, you may just find one that is among the missing.

Yes, some of the Pan Americans are presently missing, but I remain hopeful that their fates will eventually be uncovered. Until then, as a great poker player once said, “nobody knows where the hobo goes when it snows.”

RUMORS AND MYTHS
The Packard Pan Americans have generated (or have been subjected to) an ever-increasing number of myths over the years. Here are a few:

• None of the cars had tops (not true–at least two Pan Ams had folding soft tops)
• One of the cars is in a big European museum (all of the museums contacted so far have denied this story)
• One of the cars was given to pin-up girl, Bettie Page (although her boyfriend at one point was Pan American designer, Richard Arbib, and he did indeed own one of the cars, but Bettie never received a Pan Am either as a gift or purchase)
• One of the cars was destroyed in a Hollywood movie (interesting story but there is absolutely nothing to confirm it)
• All of the cars were supercharged (the Pan Americans were normally aspirated)

Packard straight-8 engine was normally aspirated (via 4-barrel carburetor), not supercharged as some have claimed. This engine is in the car now in New Jersey, but is typical of the rest of Pan Americans. Hood support rod was necessary due to lots of heavy lead in hood to form the air scoop. Note metallic “Green-gold” body color.

• There is at least one Pan American disassembled and sitting in a garage (this is one rumor that just may have a ring of truth. But which car and where?)