Let's Talk Rusty Iron

'Ask the Man Who Owns One'

| June 2006

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.


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