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
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
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
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
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:
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