1899 Packard, Number One
1899 Packard, Number One. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Nineteen-ninety-nine marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Packard, one of America’s most prestigious automobile marques. Established on a dare, it soared to spectacular heights, then died ignominiously 59 years later, a Packard in name only.

Packard’s genesis came in 1898 when James W. Packard of the New York and Ohio Co. in Warren, Ohio, electrical equipment manufacturer, purchased a new Winton from the Winton Motor Carriage Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. It suffered many maladies, and when brought to Alexander Winton’s attention, Packard was haughtily informed that if he thought he could do better, he should build his own car.

Packard, a mechanical engineer, accepted the challenge. By November, 1899, he, his brother William, and some ex-Winton men, had completed a car they called the Model A. It was a buggy-inspired two-passenger with wire wheels, “spade handled” tiller steering, and an under-seat, horizontal, one-cylinder engine. A novel feature was Packard’s patented automatic spark advance.

When the car was offered for sale it sold quickly, prompting Packard to build three cars to exhibit at the first North American auto show in New York in 1900. It sold all three.

Packard was in the car business, first as a division of the electrical company until 1901. It became the Ohio Automobile Co., and in 1902, the Packard Motor Car Co.

Packard was progressive, adopting an H-gated gearshift, foot operated accelerator, and a steering wheel. Buggy heritage was soon replaced by a “regular” automobile layout, and two and four- cylinder engines. The legend is that Packard was so confident in his cars that he urged prospective customers to “Ask the man who owns one.” It became a long time well known Packard slogan.

An early Packard purchaser, a wealthy Detroiter named Henry B. Joy, was so impressed with the quality of the car that he formed an investment consortium to expand the Packard Motor Car Co. When the town of Warren, Ohio, hesitated, the operation moved to a new factory in Detroit.

James Packard stayed in Warren, and although he remained with the Packard Motor Car Co., Mr. Joy’s expansionist mood made him increasingly uncomfortable. He relinquished the presidency to Joy in 1909, and his board chairmanship three years later.

Packard continued to flourish, and Packards distinguished themselves in feats of speed and endurance. In a nice stroke of irony, Packard’s 1903, 61-day cross-continent drive broke Winton’s record by two days. That same year the Packard “Grey Wolf” achieved 125 km/h (77.6 mph) on the sands of Ormond-Daytona Beach, Florida.

In 1904 the Model L introduced a yoke-shaped radiator and hexagonal hubcap indentations. Both became famous Packard trademarks.

The Model Thirty, introduced in 1907 and continued for five years, was the car that really consolidated Packard’s reputation for quality and performance.

The Packard six was introduced in 1911, which put Packard clearly among the elite of American automobiles. Its reputation for engineering and luxury made it, along with Peerless and Pierce-Arrow, one of the “Three Ps of Prestige.”

In 1915 Packard’s chief engineer, Jesse Vincent, stunned the world with the Packard “Twin Six,” the first series production car with a V12 engine. It eclipsed the prestige of Cadillac’s 1915 V8.

With Packard’s V12 experience, Vincent made an invaluable contribution to the outstanding First World War Liberty V12 aircraft engine. Packard would be a prominent aircraft engine builder during both world wars, including the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin.

By 1923 Packard decided that its V12 was too expensive to continue, and used sixes and eights instead. It stayed with these until 1929 when it went to straight-eights.

In spite of the 1930s Depression, Packard felt obliged to counter Cadillac’s 1930 V12 and V16 engines. In 1932 it introduced a new Twin Six V12, re-named the Packard Twelve in 1933; it was built until 1939.

Despite the Depression of the 1930s, Packard produced some of its most elaborate and beautiful cars, bodied by such prestigious coachbuilders as LeBaron, Rollston and Brunn.

Shrinking sales of luxury cars during the Depression forced Packard to respond with a less expensive model, the 120 (for its 120 inch wheelbase) in 1935, thrusting Packard into the medium priced field. Although the 120 led to a 1937 Packard production record, it and later “Junior Packards,” some with six cylinders, eroded the Packard prestige. Packard would never fully recover from this loss of status.

Following war work, Packard introduced freshened pre-war designs to a car-starved market. A new model came in 1948, followed in 1949 by Packard’s own “Ultramatic” automatic transmission. There was another restyling in 1951, and then in 1954 under pressure from the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler), Packard and Studebaker merged to form the Studebaker-Packard Corp.

For 1955 Packard finally introduced an overhead valve V8 engine. This, and new interconnected longitudinal torsion bars with self levelling, gave Packard sales a small but short-lived spurt. When sales sank to just over 28,000 1956 models, Studebaker-Packard discontinued the last real Packards.

The Packard name continued for two more years as re-badged, not very attractive, Studebakers. Packard was discontinued in 1958, a sad end to a once grand marque.

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