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Old Factories: Packard

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by Joe Babiasz  More from Author

Packard's East Grand Boulevard assembly plant

“Ask The Man Who Owns One.” That was the slogan Packard used as its advertising motto. The company understood an endorsement from a current owner was the best advertisement any company could have. After all, the Packard brand was among the finest in the world and for nearly six decades, Packard continued to produce world-class vehicles. Until its demise in 1958, over 1.6 million Packards were sold to owners who agreed with that slogan.

The majority of the 1.6 million vehicles produced were built at Packard’s East Grand Boulevard assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan. The East Grand Boulevard plant was, in many respects, responsible for creating what we know today as middle-class America. The Packard Motor Car Company took part in building a thriving community that helped provide opportunities for people willing to work hard, and had the dream of living America’s good life.

Today, the same facility provides a somber look at the potential future of the American automobile industry. In ruins, the ghost of a plant is a sad remembrance of what once was the largest, most modern automobile plant in the world. Stretching over six tenths of a mile long, the facility was considered the jewel of the automotive industry. With broken windows and collapsed roofs, and picked clean of anything of value, the plant is a stark reflection of what happens when a domestic automobile company is left to fail. Not only did Packard fail, so did the surrounding neighborhood. Once a vibrant place to live and work, this part of Detroit is nearly a 21st century ghost town.

Packard Motor Car Company had its modest start in Warren, Ohio as the Ohio Motor Car Company. Within a few years of founding the company, it became necessary to expand due to increased sales of their popular motor car. The decision was made to move from Warren, Ohio to Detroit, Michigan. The main reason for the move was because all of the investors who were putting money into the company lived in Detroit. Henry Joy, an entrepreneur who assembled the group, provided $275,000 of seed money for Packard–more than double the amount the Packard brothers were able to bring to the table. After putting the team in place, Joy was asked to find an architect to design the new facility. Joy chose Albert Kahn, a world-renowned architect who later designed the Packard Proving Grounds, the GM building, and other Detroit landmarks.

In order to make the move to Detroit, 66 acres were purchased for $19,434, about $294 per acre. Additional land was later purchased to connect the future Packard plant to the Michigan Central Railway system. In the early 1900s, Albert Kahn began experimenting with a new type of construction using reinforced concrete, later known as the “Kahn System”. The new design provided for easier building expansion and allowed a building to have multiple floors. Packard bought in on the new design, and all Packard buildings would be built the same fashion.  

When the original plant was unveiled for the press, it was considered flawless in every detail. It was $117,000 and 100,000 square feet of perfection, with hot-air heating and a special ventilation system that assured clean air for the employees. The layout of the facility left little doubt that Packard expected to expand in the future. Six hundred employees were hired to start producing cars.
The first Packard built at the East Grand Boulevard plant was the 1904 Model L. The Model L was a prestigious car, costing $3,000–about triple what a Cadillac cost at the time. Standard equipment included two side- and rear-mounted oil lamps, a tool kit, and front and rear storm aprons. The car weighed 1,900 pounds and was powered by a 241 cubic-inch, 4-cylinder engine that developed 22 horsepower and could go over 40 mph.  It was impressive by any standard, and Detroit was now making it.

During the early years, business was very good for Packard. By 1909, there were 6,000 employees and the plant encompassed about 1.5 million square feet of floor space. Packard was on a roll, and it became one of the most respected automobile manufacturers in the world. Production continued to grow and in 1937 output exceeded, for the first time, 100,000 cars for the model year. By the start of World War II, Packard had produced over 891,000 vehicles.  

Just as in World War I, Packard did its part for national defense in World War II. From 1942 until 1946, it built the Merlin V1650 piston engine used in the famous P-51 fighter planes. The P-51 proved to be the fastest piston-powered fighter planes ever built. Packard also produced V-12 marine engines for PT boats.

Automobile production resumed in early 1946.  Demand for post-war vehicles was immense, and management planned to increase the number of employees to 28,000 to meet the demand. But before the first post-war Packard could be assembled, the government-owned defense machinery had to be removed and the automotive machinery reinstalled. Unfortunately, most of the pre-war Packard machinery was stored outside during the war years and was in deplorable condition. Packard had high hopes for postwar production with a goal of 200,000 vehicles per year, but the delay in getting the plant up and running, and a lack of raw materials available after the war, hurt the company at a time when the public was clamoring for new cars. Unfortunately Packard produced only 42,102 cars during 1946, and lost a golden opportunity as well as almost $4 million that year. The industry was in a seller’s market, but Packard simply could not produce the volume of cars that buyers wanted.

Eventually vehicle output rose, and by 1949 104,593 cars were produced. Packard was now employing over 40,000 people. The company continued to sell over 100,000 vehicles in 1950 and again in 1951, but the seller’s market was turning into a buyer’s market and fewer than 63,000 vehicles were sold in 1952. Packard did its best to adjust to the new market, but more storm clouds were brewing. It wasn’t only the changing market that struck a mortal blow to the company, it was the sale of Briggs Body Company to Chrysler that had Packard up against the ropes.

In December 1953, Chrysler purchased Briggs. Briggs had been building bodies for Packard, but after the Briggs purchase, Chrysler advised Packard that they were not willing to continue body production. Packard needed to find a way to produce its own bodies at a time when cash flow was low, and many independents were having difficulty staying afloat. The East Grand Boulevard plant was now 50 years old, and could not be economically retrofitted to build the bodies in-house. With little money or time to build another facility, Packard moved vehicle production to an existing building one quarter the size of their current plant. The new plant was considered too small, but it was all Packard could muster up during these difficult times.

The company soldered on for a few more years, but with little cash available, Packard struggled. A decision was made to find a partner and unfortunately, Studebaker was chosen to merger with. At first, the merger appeared to be a match made in heaven with Packard believing Studebaker would bring in additional cash, but the truth was that Studebaker had secretly cooked the books and was, in fact, in financial ruin. Officially, Packard stayed in business until 1958; however, most automotive buffs recognize 1956 as the last true year of Packard. Subsequent-year cars were actually re-badged Studebakers.

After Packard ceased using the facility, a variety of businesses rented space in the building until it became mostly uninhabitable. Surprisingly, today a few small businesses continue to use the small portion of the building that is still considered safe. Looking at the ruins of the East Grand Boulevard plant eerily reminds us of the current turmoil with our domestic automobile manufacturers. The demise of Packard reflects what happens when a domestic car company is not supported. Not only do we lose a U.S.-based company, but also many people lose one more opportunity to live the American dream.

The East Grand Boulevard property is currently privately owned, and for sale. The price is $13 million.

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