Gear Head Tuesday – A Golden Gate Packard

Gear Head

Adapted from Hemmings and the Petaluma Argus-Courier

UPDATED – SEE BLUE PRINT BELOW

Golden Gate Packard-37

When the Golden Gate Bridge opened between San Francisco and Marin County, California on 27 May 1937, the very first car across the bridge was a 1937 Packard, seen here behind the police motorcycle.

The now iconic and world-famous Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County, California opened on 27 May 1937. The very first car across the bridge was a 1937 Packard owned by Helen Putnam who was then living in Petaluma, California.

Golden Gate Packard

Helen Putnam’s 1937 Packard was the very first car across the Golden Gate Bridge on opening day, 27 May, 1937.

The Golden Gate Bridge District acquired the car in the 1980s and gave it a complete restoration. Naturally, the car figured in the 50th Anniversary celebration of the bridge opening. For this event, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and thousands of people walked across the bridge – but they were led by this ’37 Packard 3 passenger coupe.

Golden Gate Packard -50

The above photo from 1987 shows the Packard being prepped to lead walkers (below) across the bridge for its 50th Anniversary.

Golden Gate 50

On the bridge’s 75th Anniversary in 2012, the Packard was driven across the bridge into San Francisco and to Crissy Field where a celebratory event took place. Steve Miller, Director of Bus Maintenance for the Bridge District (which operates busses in Marin and southern Sonoma country) is in charge of maintaining the Packard. It was Miller who drove the Packard across the bridge for the 75th Anniversary event at Crissy Field. He said, “I drove it myself to Crissy Field. It was five a.m. when I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was no one else on the bridge but me and the car. It gave me goosebumps, thinking about all that history.”

When the Bridge converted 100% to electronic toll taking, the Packard, driven by then-Bridge District President Dick Grosboll, accompanied by Board member James Eddie, handed over the last cash ever taken at a Golden Gate Bridge toll booth.

The Packard figured in this weekend’s celebratory events marking the Bridge’s 80 years.

Golden Gate Packard - data plate

Originally delivered in Bakersfield, owner Helen Putnam’s Packard had moved with her to Petaluma and she, driving her Packard, was the first across the Golden Gate Bridge when it opened on 27 May 1937. The 1088 on the date plate indicates that this is a six cylinder business coupe.

Packard had its best year ever in 1937, delivering 109,000 vehicles. This was the year that Packard further eroded its well-earned image as being the luxury car king by introducing the Six, a step below the eight cylinder-powered 120. The Six was well-received by the public, representing 53% of Packard’s record volume in 1937. The Twelve, at the top of the line, had its best year – but only 1,300 were made. In its quest for volume, Packard sowed the seeds of its own destruction by emphasizing the lower-priced cars over its luxury cars. No one will argue that Packard needed a volume line to pay the plant overhead, but the mistake that led to the grand marque’s demise was not making enough distinction between the lower-priced volume line and their luxury cars – and also by failing to continue to court the luxury market buyer.

Thus students of Packard history will note the irony wrapped in the fact that the first car across the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 was a Packard, but it was a lowly 3 passenger “Junior” Six cylinder business coupe – not a 120 Eight, not a “Senior” Super Eight nor a  Packard Twelve. Packard’s arch-nemesis, Cadillac, never would have built a business coupe, but Cadillac was supported by GM’s other brands, whereas Packard had only itself to look to for a volume car to support the luxury car line at a time when it was increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for luxury makes to stand on their own.

Golden_Gate

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge taken in Albany, CA, with an outbound container ship passing under the bridge, going from the Port of Oakland back to Asia. The sun set on Packard, but the Golden Gate has reached its 80th milestone.

-00OO00-

FURTHER UPDATE:

“Bud J.” who is the “unofficial” photographer for the NorCal Region of The Packard Club sends the photo below of Helen Putnam’s Packard paying the last cash toll taken on the Golden Gate Bridge. He doesn’t say who took the photo. but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the photographer!

PACKARD-GGB-TOLL_BOOTH

He also kindly corrected me about what I replied to Dave Brownell (in the comments below) about the location of the Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership in Oakland, California.

There had been a Packard dealership on Broadway in Oakland. That building has been converted into a luxury condominium project, named appropriately enough, The Packard Lofts. I had lived in the Bay Area for some 40 years and I knew that the Broadway site had once housed a Packard dealership. I also knew that Earle C. Anthony was the California distributor for Packard and had operated Packard dealerships up and down the state. I mistakenly put two and two together and assumed that the site on Broadway for the Packard dealership had been the Earle C. Anthony location. Dave Brownell was quite right that the ECA Packard dealership had been by Lake Merritt in Oakland. What I didn’t know was that the building, designed by the esteemed Bernard Maybeck, had been torn down before I arrived in the Bay Area in 1977. So I never knew that building. It was another 20 years after arriving in the Bay Area that I became more than passingly familiar with Oakland. Until “Bud J.” wrote me yesterday, all this time later, I was still unaware that the Maybeck-designed building had existed. The site is now home to the Roman Catholic cathedral for the Oakland Diocese, Christ The Light.

Maybeck-ECA-Packard-Oakland

Above – Architect Bernard Maybeck’s sketch of the Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership in Oakland on Harrison Street across from Lake Merritt. Note how the service department is built into the slope of the site. Below: The ECA building in Oakland as built, a splendid venue from which to sell Packards!

ECA-PACKARD-OAKLAND

For reasons I have yet to learn, Earle C. Anthony gave up the Lake Merritt site for his Oakland Packard dealership in 1939 – well before Packard began its death spiral. The Packard dealership on Broadway had been there since 1913, before Anthony became the California distributor for Packard and before Anthony built his Maybeck-designed Lake Merritt location.

Christ-the-light-exterior

Above and below: Christ the Light, the cathedral for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, is now on the site where the Bernard Maybeck-designed Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership was once located.

Christ-the-LIght

Interestingly, a former ECA Packard dealership in Los Angeles, located at 1000 S. Hope (at Olympic), has been converted into a luxury condominium project, also named as in Oakland, The Packard Lofts.

Packard-lofts

Constructed in 1913 is this building at 2355 Broadway (at 24th Street), Oakland, CA. Now home to The Packard Lofts, I had mistakenly assumed that this building had been the Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership in Oakland.

Packard-lofts-door1

Packard-lofts-door2

Maybeck also designed the ECA Packard dealership building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Fortunately, that building still stands, relatively intact as Maybeck designed it. It currently is home to the San Francisco Jaguar and Land Rover dealer.

Packard-Showroom_SFHeritage

Still retaining much of its Bernard Maybeck-designed splendor, this building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco was once home to the Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership. It is now a Jaguar/Land Rover dealership.

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  1. Dave Brownell 30/05/2017 — 06:02

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that era of Bay bridge openings (both the Bay and the Golden Gate) both included Packards as their lead cars. The Bay Bridge (not as beautiful but far more critical) used a senior Packard, driven by legendary Packard dealer/distributor Earle C. Anthony. Anthony had ornate dealerships throughout California, notably connecting by this Bay bridge his showrooms in Oakland (on Lake Merritt) and San Francisco (on the Van Ness auto row). I believe that the Convertible Sedan he chose sported a Cadillac hood ornament as a tribute to a friend who owned a Cadillac dealership, but who had died before the bridge’s opening.

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    • Dave – yes, both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. Without doing some digging, I can’t say that you are wrong about Earle Anthony and the opening of the Bay Bridge. That would be an appropriate opening for that Bridge! I think you are likely correct that Earle Anthony drove a Packard across. What I can write without doubt is that his Oakland dealership was on Broadway, not by Lake Merritt. (There was a Cadillac dealership near, but not by Lake Merritt. It now houses a Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods Market.) The former Packard dealership Anthony owned on Broadway has been converted into luxury condos and is now known as The Packard. The former Anthony Packard dealership on Van Ness in San Francisco was a grand building that still shows British Motors, featuring Jaguar and Land Rover.

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      • The Earle C. Anthony agency was on Lake Merritt. It was a grand building designed by Bernard Maybeck. There was also an earlier Packard agency on Broadway, but I am not sure who owned it. The Lake Merritt building sold Buicks after Packard’s demise and was torn down in 1974. Many of us who lived in the area walked through the empty building in the days before it was torn down and saved some of Maybeck’s hand-painted cypress boards from the rubble after.

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      • Bud – thank you very much for this update. I must apologize to Dave Brownell – the Harrison site of the ECA building designed by Maybeck was gone by the time I arrived to the Bay Area – and it was another 20 years later that I became more than remotely familiar with Oakland. What a shame that this splendid building was torn down! At least the Maybeck-designed former ECA building in San Francisco survives relatively intact. I wonder if ECA moved to the Broadway site that is now the Packard condominiums?

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  2. Wayne Graefen 31/05/2017 — 10:37

    Now, I can’t tell you which Anthony store in the Bay area this was but one of them sold Chrysler and Imperial in, as I recall, ’57-58 and perhaps a few more years. I previously owned a ’57 Chrysler 300C hardtop that was sold through that store. Anyone have more details of years and location?

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  3. Dave Brownell 31/05/2017 — 17:28

    Books could be written, assuming that they haven’t already, on the many magnificent buildings that served as Packard dealerships (or “distributers”) in the era of the brand’s heyday. One Packard regional club has a current calendar with color pictures of at least twelve of them. Some of the surviving buildings have been turned into lofts (LA, Oakland, Seattle, Philadelphia and St. Louis) using variations of the Packard name, so the cache still holds value, 59 years after the car’s demise. Many of the bigger Packard dealerships were multistory buildings (ramps and elevators for the cars) that sometimes took up an entire city block. The PackardInfo.com website has a long inventory of Packard dealers over the years, usually with addresses and some with pictures. Shortly after WW II, Packard Motor Car Company sought to modernize the dealer image with one story buildings and bigger lots for the cars, new and used. More than a bit of fascinating history was lost when that happened.

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  4. When I see the early Packards I wonder?????? How could the end come as it did??? It always boils down to Administration and A LEADER who no longer sees the future, me thinks.
    Very interesting post, some great pictures!!!

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    • George Christopher was the right leader to launch the “Junior” Packard series – he brought Packard production techniques up to GM standards, which at the time, were the best in the world for mass-produced autos. But Christopher hated Packard’s luxury cars and did all he could to salt the earth from which those cars were grown, and he did a day-um fine job of that! The worst of it is that Packard’s board of directors let him get away with it … I have long been of the opinion that if Nance had arrived at Packard in 1949 when the board first tried to bring him on to clean up the mess they had allowed Christopher to make, Packard’s story might have had a much happier ending. Nance got there too late – and was overwhelmed by events out of his control. In spite of all that Nance was hit with, he and his team almost pulled it off …

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