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'Ask the Man Who Owns One'

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Packard line long emblematic of fine quality

Lately, the business news has been full of how giant Delphi Corp. of Troy, Mich., has filed for Chapter 11 protection and is negotiating with the unions for big wage and benefit cuts, while awarding executives healthy bonuses. Several subsidiaries are involved in the proceedings as well, including Delphi Packard Electric. This firm is a direct descendant of Packard Electric of Warren, Ohio, a large manufacturer of electrical and other parts for General Motors. Packard Electric traces its lineage back to the New York & Ohio Co., which was started in Warren in the late 19th century by brothers James and William Packard to manufacture electrical transformers and incandescent lamps.

James Ward Packard, however, did a lot more than make transformers and light bulbs. The Packard brothers were wealthy and progressive men who tossed around the idea of building a car throughout most of the 1890s. Finally, they decided to buy one of the new-fangled "horseless carriages" then on the market. In 1898, there weren't a lot of choices, so James Packard took the train to Cleveland, where Alexander Winton was selling cars. There, he bought a brand new Winton and set out to drive the thing back to Warren, a distance of some 50 miles.

During that drive, as the story goes, the new Winton's engine overheated repeatedly and the drive chain broke. Packard was thoroughly disgusted and covered with grease and mud by the time he finally arrived in Warren behind a team of horses. Shortly later, Packard (who had been trained as a mechanical engineer), called on Winton and told him what he thought of his car and what was needed to improve it. Winton replied with some heat that his car was as perfect as "… lofty thought, aided by mechanical skill of the highest grade …" (or words to that effect) could make it, and added that if Packard thought he could do better, to have at it!

So Packard did! But first he hired away Winton's shop superintendent plus another executive (Winton's reaction to this raid is not recorded), and made space in the New York & Ohio factory for a workshop. On Nov. 6, 1899, the first Packard automobile was finished. It was a buggy-like machine with bicycle wheels, chain drive, tiller steering, 2-speed planetary transmission and a 1-cylinder 9 hp engine. Four similar cars were built before the end of 1899, with the last one sold to a Warren businessman.

In 1900, 49 cars were built and a new firm, the Ohio Automobile Co., was formed to oversee production. Several 1900 models were exhibited at the New York Automobile Show that November, where no less a personage than William D. Rockefeller bought two of them.

In 1901, a wealthy Detroit businessman named Henry Joy went to New York to buy a Stanley Steamer. Unfortunately, a steam gauge on the vehicle broke, spraying Joy with hot water and souring him on steam automobiles. A short distance down the street, a Packard was parked at the curb. Just as Joy approached, a fire engine raced past with horses galloping and bells ringing. The Packard driver grabbed his starting crank, gave one pull and roared off in pursuit. The Packard's instant start so impressed Joy that he bought one on the spot.

The famous Packard slogan ("Ask the Man Who Owns One") was adopted in the fall of 1901, and was used throughout the almost 60 years of the Packard motor car's existence.

In 1902, the firm was renamed the Packard Motor Car Co. with a bunch of new investors, including Henry Joy and several of his Detroit friends, who soon took steps to move the factory to Detroit.

In 1903, a 4-cylinder Packard was built, although James Packard wondered why, since "they had enough trouble with just one." Also, that year, a 1-cylinder Packard Model F, nicknamed "Old Pacific," made the cross-country run from San Francisco to New York, knocking a day and a half off the record set just two weeks earlier by a Winton, although the Winton did have bragging rights as being the first car to cross the continent.

A new Packard factory was built in Detroit and production started there late in 1903. James Packard was president of the Packard Motor Car Co., but he seems to have spent most of his time in Warren running Packard Electric, which by that time was making electrical components for automobiles. Joy hired a new engineer who designed a 4-cylinder engine, which was put into a sleek aluminum-bodied racing car called the Gray Wolf. The little car set many records, placed fourth in the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup race and beat Alexander Winton's Daytona speed record.

The year 1904 brought forth the 4-cylinder Model L, the first Packard to look like a car rather than a buggy. Packard's distinctive radiator shape and sharply creased hood first appeared on the Model L, while the famous hexagonal-shape hubcaps appeared in 1906. Both design features were retained until the last true Packard was built in 1956.

About that time, James Packard resigned as company president and had nothing more to do with the cars that bore his name.

Packard began building limousines in 1905 and continued with large, expensive cars until production was halted during World War II. Joy and his successors didn't worry about making cars for the common man: Let Ford, Chevy and Plymouth take care of that market. Packard, along with Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow and Lincoln, built luxury automobiles for the elite. These cars were heavy and big, with long hoods, elegant appointments and fine engineering. They were quiet, comfortable, dependable and smooth running, and showcased the owner's wealth, position and prestige.

After the war, Packard seemed to lose its bearings, or maybe its market. Old customers complained about the new styling. The tried-and-true flat head straight-eight engine looked out of date compared to the competition's new high performance V-8s. New top management took over and purged many of the old Packard men. Quality problems surfaced, a first for Packard.

Whatever the reason for its decline, Packard tried to stem the downward slide by merging with Studebaker, another faltering company, in 1954. The merger didn't help, and Packard's Detroit factory was closed on Aug. 15, 1956. A few thousand Studebakers were badged as Packards during 1957 and 1958, but they didn't fool anyone and the once proud Packard nameplate gave up the ghost.

I hope the same fate doesn't befall Delphi-Packard.

For more information:

- The National Packard Museum, 1899 Mahoning Ave. N.W., Warren, OH 44483; (330) 394-1899; e-mail: national@packardmuseum.org

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@copper.net