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A Gentleman's Car, Built By Gentlemen, For Gentlemen

1950s Packard dealer postcard (United States Public Domain)

Packard Motor Car Company used to be a name synonymous with class. Outside of Rolls-Royce, they may have been the best car ever built. From 1903 to its demise, Packard manufactured automobiles from inside a 3.5 million square foot plant at East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. On a 40-acre site, this state-of-the-art, first-ever reinforced concrete buildings in Detroit housed the most modern car manufacturing site in the world, handling 80 different trades.

President and General Manager from 1916 to 1939, James Alvan Macauley put Packard on the map. The business code states that people in high places have to hire the right people to make a buck. Macauley was no exception. He brought aboard engineer Jesse Vincent--an employee since 1912--as the company’s head designer to oversee the technical side of the company. The outcome was the highly-successful 1916 Twin-Six Touring car with the first 12-cylinder engine in a production car, a 424-cubic-inch monster. Selling for $4,000--a hefty figure at the time--it set the standard for luxury American automobiles. Over 10,000 were purchased, helping to set company profits at a cool $6 million. The engine was also used in US Army Air Force World War I aircraft, as well as record-setting motorboats in the 1920s.

In 1923 an eight-cylinder Packard model called the Single-8 appeared and quickly became the favorite of European royalty for years. It was lighter than the Twin Six, with 20 percent better gas mileage, and 10 percent more horsepower. Company profits now jumped to $12 million. By 1928, Packard was the dominant luxury car in the US, outselling Cadillac and all the others combined. Profits reached $25 million, with international sales playing a large part. In 1931, Japan’s royal family owned 10 Packards. By then, the company slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” had been firmly entrenched by Macauley. According to auto historian Beverly Rae Kimes, Macauley made Packard “a gentleman’s car, built by gentlemen, for gentlemen.”

When the Great Depression hit, the luxury vehicle market was the first to be negatively affected. Like so many other businessmen, Macauley thought the good times would be back in a couple years. But as time went on, the Depression deepened. Unemployment and business closures soared. Bread and soup lines were established around the country. As luxury car sales continued to plummet, Macauley fixed that problem when he went after the mid-range market by hiring a team of several engineers from the Big Three--Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors--to design two cars called the 110 and 120 that sold for under $1,000, hundreds of dollars less than any other Packard. While many other luxury companies such as Cord-Auburn-Duesenberg, Stutz, Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, and Franklin, folded in the 1930s, Packard remained intact. In  1937, they sold 109,000 vehicles, their best ever to that point.

In June 1940, with World War II less than a year old, Great Britain was seeking a deal with Edsel Ford (Henry’s son) of Ford Motor Company to build 6,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines for Britain’s war cause (mainly for the Spitfire and Hurricanes fighters) and another 3,000 for American use. But the deal fell through when Henry Ford stepped in and demanded his company only wanting the home use part of the deal and nothing for overseas. Feeling betrayed, Rolls-Royce chose Packard instead. Ford lost out on a $130 million contract.

Once the United States became involved in the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, vehicle manufacturing was brought to a standstill in February 1942, forcing car companies into military production. By the end of the war, Ford Motor Company was facing bankruptcy, despite manufacturing B-24 Liberator bombers in their Willow Run, Michigan plant (a logistics mess at first), while Packard cashed-in building the V-1650 Packard-Merlin. Over 55,000 were manufactured for use in the North American P-51 Mustangs and Curtiss P-40 fighters, plus the Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bombers and the de Havilland Mosquitos over the border in Ontario. Packard also built 20,000 V-12 marine engines for American PT boats, and British patrol and rescue boats. In 1943, at the height of its dominance, Packard had over 36,000 employees, almost all at the East Grand Boulevard plant.

Some World War II historians believe the Allies would never have won the air war without the Packard-Merlin, nicknamed the “Cadillac of the Skies.”  A liquid-cooled, V-12 piston engine, with 1,500 horsepower and a two-stage supercharger for excellent performance and very decent fuel consumption at high altitudes, the P-51 fighters could escort American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers from English bases all the way to Berlin, and still have enough fuel to engage  enemy German fighters en route.

Following the war, Packard in excellent financial shape, went right back into the car business, producing mid-range and luxury cars. But Cadillac was quickly replacing Packard as the top luxury-car builder in North America. Head designer Jess Vincent retired in 1946, then Macauley, as chairman of the board, resigned in 1948. With the company’s two best people gone, the future suddenly didn’t appear that bright.  

Reconditioned 1939 Packard Twelve in Laval, Quebec in 2011 (Worldwide Public Domain)

Up until 1952, Packard designs took on the looks of “Bathtubs.” Although made well and dependable, they were bulky and boring to the eye. Once their bodies became more streamlined, sales had already slumped, despite new ownership and getting back into the luxury market fully again to compete against Cadillac. Up to 1954, Packard had outsourced their body-building to Briggs Manufacturing (owned by the family who sole-owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team from 1935-1956). But when Chrysler bought out Briggs in 1954, Packard had to convert to in-house body-building at a new Detroit plant that ended up being two small. It took two years to straighten that out. More time and sales lost.

It was now a changing scene in Detroit. For years, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had gobbled other car companies to become bigger and better. In the Fifties, Kaiser merged with Willys. Nash and Hudson became American Motors, after a four-way merger attempt with Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Packard didn’t materialize. One of the reasons was Studebaker’s plant being too far away--in South Bend, Indiana--from the common Detroit base. In financial trouble following World War II, Studebaker also had high labor costs. Out on a limb, Packard merged with the non-progressive Studebaker--a company barely hanging on--in 1954. Actually, it was more like a Packard buyout or a shotgun wedding, at best.

By 1958, Packards were starting to look like Studebakers so much so that people were calling them “Packardbakers.” They were ugly as sin. By year’s end, Packard was gone. Bankrupt. Studebaker closed its South Bend, Indiana complex and continued on in Hamilton, Ontario, where it had been since 1948, at the doorstep of Canada’s steel industry. There, Studebaker hung on, surviving until 1966, before it closed the doors. By 1967, Studebaker was officially out of business.

The old Packard plant built on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 1903 is still there today, the largest abandoned factory in the world, surrounded by a slum, miles from downtown. Closed to auto manufacturing since 1958, it’s been a half-mile length of crumbling bricks and concrete, neglected and defaced by looters and vandals. But there may be hope in the future. On 12 December 2013, Fernando Palazuelo, a 58-year-old real estate investor from Lima, Peru purchased the old Packard plant for $405,000 cash. That comes to 15 cents per square foot. Private security patrols are now on duty twenty-four seven to prevent trespassers from entering the 40-acre site and defacing it even more.

Palazuelo has plans to renovate the site over the next 10 years to entice various businesses to occupy the buildings, hopefully even a Big Three auto manufacturer, in exchange for free rent. So far, a car company has shown interest, as well as a distillery. According to people he’s working close with, they say the reinforced concrete edifices are still structurally sound.  His cost estimates are at least $350 million to fix up the old plant. Palazuelo even has more-immediate plans to convert a second-floor area inside one of the buildings into a combination office-apartment for himself as early as sometime this year.

If only there were more such people as Fernando Palazuelo stepping forward. There’s still another 75,000-plus abandoned buildings in the once-great Motor City to renovate and occupy.

While car companies have come and gone in the last one hundred years (with some of the quality ones during the Great Depression), very few have left an impression quite like Packard. It’s the ultimate American-built car to own. A true-blue collector’s item.

When an owner drives his reconditioned Packard around the block on a beautiful, bright sunny day, he’s a somebody.



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