Updated: Nov 28, 2020
The success of the Pan American, Caribbean, and Balboa led Packard in 1954 to create another concept, this time even more special and innovative.
Initially called the Grey Wolf II, after the legendary Packard racer of 1903-04, Packard ultimately chose the alliterative name “Panther” for its 1954 concept car and backed up its dramatic styling and design with serious performance muscle under the hood.
The Panther’s body was an innovative one-piece fiberglass molding, a daring move for a full-size car that measured some 200 inches long. Created by the Mitchell-Bentley Corporation, it was designed by Dick Teague who had designed the Balboa, working with Packard’s chief styling engineer Edward Macauley and engineering Vice President William (Bill) Graves. Macauley and Graves had long been staunch advocates of modern design and styling to help bolster Packard’s image and visibility. The success of Packard’s concept cars, and polishing of Packard’s image for innovation and creativity, is largely attributable to the low-key, behind-the-scenes vision and persistence of these two Packard stalwarts.
The Packard Panther was based on the standard 122-inch wheelbase Cavalier chassis and its design is a remarkable accomplishment. A two-seat roadster, its body is so low that it becomes a sleek, aerodynamic package. Lowered over the wheels, the top of the front wheel wells was flattened over the top of the tires to further the low profile appearance while the rear wheels are covered with slightly scalloped skirts. At the front Teague managed to integrate a low, full-width grille with the classic Packard radiator shape, picking up the dual-tier intake feature of the Pan American, continuing it to integrate the headlight nacelles and then extending in an accent down the Panther’s sides to give perfect visual separation between its two-tone paint scheme. The Panther was the first Packard to employ a wrap-around windshield, foreshadowing this important detail in the 1955 Packard line.
James Nance, Packard’s President since 1952, gave the Grey Wolf II/Panther the go-ahead on a fast track in mid-1953 with a target for its completion in time to appear at the increasingly important and well-publicized Daytona Speed Week in early 1954 – a nearly impossible schedule for any new vehicle and one that challenged everyone with the requirement that it be a complete, running, high-performance car ready to be timed at the Daytona Beach speed trials. Teague created a 3/8 scale model in under two weeks and turned it over to Mitchell-Bentley to create the body, which because of the size of its one-piece design, utilized fiberglass up to one inch thick for stiffness and durability. In an astounding feat of workmanship, the Panther was ready in time.
Powered by Packard’s 359 cubic inches eight driving through Packard’s Ultramatic automatic transmission and driven by Dick Rathmann, one of the multi-talented drivers of the era who drove everything and would win the Indianapolis 500 in 1960, the Panther turned in a speed of 110.9 miles per hour through the official Daytona Beach time clocks. Since it later turned an unofficial 131.1 miles per hour after sanctioned and officially observed timing was completed, its early performance is likely to have been due to insufficient time for shakedown and development – no surprise considering its telescoped design and construction schedule. Its performance induced Packard to rename the concept car the Panther-Daytona.
Packard and Mitchell-Bentley built another three Panthers that toured the country along with the Daytona Beach car generating publicity for Packard. Eventually, all four were brought back to Mitchell-Bentley for updating. Two of them received only cosmetic attention with updated paint and trim. The other two were more extensively modified with new rear quarters incorporating Packard’s 1955 style cathedral taillights, a rear deck with dual accent ribs, and updated paint colors.