Gear Head Tuesday – The Late, Great Packard Plant Bridge

Gear Head

Portions of this post were adapted from The Truth About Cars

packard54

Above: The Packard plant bridge over East Grand Boulevard in the 1950s.
Below: the bridge under construction in 1939.

packard bridge under construction

packard bodies on bridge

Above: “Junior” series bodies being conveyed from the Body Build line and Paint Shop across the bridge to the “Junior” series assembly line on the other side of East Grand Boulevard. Below: the interior of the bridge as the once-grand plant on East Grand rotted away in neglect.

packard bridge-interior

packard assembly-48

Above: Post-war “bathtub” Packard bodies heading to the bridge.

1954 patrician in front of packard bridge

Above: 1954 Patrician Touring Sedan on display facing East Grand Boulevard with the bridge in the background. Below: photo taken in August, 1956. Packard had closed on 25 June, 1956.

packard plant bridge 1956

packard-plant-bridge-decay

Above & Below: Corrupt Detroit politics killed the use of the Packard plant as an industrial park setting the stage for the decay of the plant to symbolize the decay of Detroit.

Packard bridge

packard bridge w:wrap-arte express

Above & Below: Spanish-born Peru citizen Developer Fernando Palazuelo and his investment group acquired the rights to re-develop part of the plant beginning with the Administration Building. They put a wrap over the façade of the decaying bridge (below).

Packard Plant Bridge

packard plant bridge collapse

At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, 23 January 2019, the bridge collapsed onto East Grand Boulevard. Earlier in the day, workmen at the site had notice bricks falling from the bridge. No one was injured.

pedestrian_bridge_collapses_at_historic_packard plant

The creator of the Packard car was James Ward Packard, “whose New York and Ohio Company, in Warren, Ohio, was a maker of electrical equipment at the end of the 19th century. Like many engineers of his time, he was intrigued by the new-fangled motor vehicle and first had bought a French De Dion Bouton tricycle and then, in 1898, one of the first production cars made, in nearby Cleveland, Ohio, by the flamboyant Alexander Winton. Driving the fifty miles home to Warren, Packard suffered numerous troubles with his new car. When he sought satisfaction from Winton, the rebuff he received was enough to start him working on a car design of his own.”

“With the help of his brother, William Doud Packard, and two top-flight men he hired from Winton, he produced his first car in the next fourteen months. It ran for the first time on the streets of Warren on 6 November 1899. This first car, appropriately named the Model A, had the high wire wheels tiller steering and single-cylinder engine, mounted under the seat, that were typical of early American cars such as Ford, Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Unusual was its automatic spark advance, a Packard invention. Packard had no trouble selling this first car (for $1250), and set up an automobile division to start producing Packard cars.” (This car is still in existence and still runs.)

“Packard “exhibited three cars at the first New York Show, in 1900, and in 1901 began equipping his cars with steering wheels, among the first in America to do so. From the A, he progressed to the Models B, C and F by 1902, still of the simple single-cylinder design that Packard favoured. He felt that four-cylinder cars just had four times as many things to go wrong. Packard’s jump not only to four but soon to twelve cylinders was the inspiration of Henry B. Joy, a wealthy Detroit manufacturer who went to the New York Show in 1901, looking for a producer of horse less carriages to buy.”

“Stopping at several agencies, Joy, and his brother-in-law, T. H. Newberry, chanced on the Ohio-built Packard and liked it. Joy bought one and, after driving it in Detroit, he negotiated, with Newberry and seven other associates, to buy a controlling interest in The Packard Motor Car Company (as it had been reformed in 1900). Although James Packard remained president of the firm when the Joy group took control, he decided to remain in Warren when the company’s plant was moved to Detroit in 1903. He kept that post until 1909, staying as board chairman until 1912. He had kept his electrical equipment firm in existence separately and this ultimately became the Packard Electric Division of General Motors.”

With Joy in control, the Packard Detroit factory was first established in 1903 on East Grand Boulevard. Two years later, Joy hired a young architect, Albert Kahn, who had some revolutionary ideas to design Building #10. Prior to the construction of Packard’s Building #10, most American factories were built in what is known as the “mill style”. Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue factory where the Model T was first made is an example. It has wooden post and beam construction with brick walls. The factory floors are long and narrow, with wood plank floors. The construction method also limited how many stories high the buildings could be built. All that wood was a fire hazard, and early Detroit factories of both Cadillac and Oldsmobile burned to the ground.

Kahn was the first to use steel reinforced concrete construction in the U.S. – and it was at the Packard plant where he employed it. The method was devised in France. The use of steel reinforced concretefor both the building’s framework and the flooring allowed Kahn to build factory floors with much greater square footage than could be done with mill style construction, allowing for more efficient factory layout. It was also less of a fire hazard. To make factory work more bearable, Kahn put in large windows to let in light and ventilation. One distinguishing feature of Kahn’s industrial designs is that on the outside they weren’t plain buildings. Limestone and brick were combined aesthetically and decorative elements were also included.

By 1910, the Packard plant was the biggest car factory in America. Eventually, the Packard campus grew to 35 acres, with 47 buildings enclosing 3.5 million square feet of space. At its peak, Packard employed over 40,000 of the world’s most skilled auto workers at the site. Packard opened a supermarket and department store on the property for its employees’ shopping convenience.

As the factory expanded, bridges were built to connect the various buildings. Most of the spans were to transport people and parts but in time; bodies were assembled in the building on the south side of East Grand Boulevard while matching chassis were put together across the street, necessitating the conveyor line to traverse the Boulevard – hence the famous Packard bridge.

A conveyor chain pulled dollies carrying bodies up to the second floor and across the bridge over East Grand Boulevard. The bodies were then transported to the drop point on the second floor of Building #12. Final assembly was on the first floor of Building #16, further up Concord Street.

In the late 1930s, Packard farmed the production of its car bodies to Briggs who had low-balled the price to get the business. Briggs soon began increasing the prices of the bodies to a point that Packard would have been better off building the car bodies in-house. Briggs built the bodies across town on Conner Avenue and transported them in primer to East Grand for painting and final assembly.

In the early 1950s, just as James Nance had come on board and was scrambling to modernize Packard and undo the damage done to the company by its former President George Christopher, Briggs sold to Chrysler. Nance was faced with the difficult decision of how to obtain bodies for Packard cars. The decision, controversial to this day, was to lease the Briggs plant on Conner and move production from East Grand to Conner.

The last Packard built at East Grand came off the assembly line in 1954 and the changeover to the 1955 models at Conner began. The decline of the famous Albert Kahn-designed plant began right then.

last '54 senior packard built

Above & below: The last Packards assembled at East Grand in 1954: a Patrician (with the rare at-the-time air conditioning option) followed by a Clipper in the photo below. Immediately behind the Clipper, workmen are already ripping up the conveyor line which was moved to the former Briggs body plant across town on Conner Avenue.

last 54 packard at east grand

Spanish-born Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo, who now owns the 42-acre site, has spent more than $5 million to clear more than 17,000 yards of debris and is working toward converting part of the complex into commercial use, according to officials with his Arte Express development firm.

Palazuelo bought the site out of foreclosure for $405,000 in 2013, finally ending years of legal disputes over the plant with roots dating back more than 20 years, when Detroit police engaged in a long-running standoff at the plant with then-owner Dominic Cristini.

Under Cristini’s ownership, much of the plant was leased to small industrial businesses. Cristini and the city got into a protracted dispute that resulted in the city using Robert Mueller-like tactics against Cristini. Dispute with the city aside Cristini was no angel and served a prison sentence for drug dealing. That said, one has to wonder why the city put round-the-clock police surveillance on Cristini.

Palazuelo appears to have run into trouble with his plans to re-develop the Packard property. His investment group only controls the property on the north side of East Grand Boulevard. The City of Detroit still controls the property on the south side. Corrupt Detroit politics played a role in the demise of the bridge. Spanning as it did East Grand Boulevard, it was in something of a twilight zone and neither the City nor Palazuelo’s Arte Express had done anything (other than the wrap Palazuelo had installed on the outside) to preserve the bridge. Palazuelo is in a dispute with the city over property taxes and it is possible that he will lose the property to the city. The collapse of the bridge is symbolic not only of the collapse of Packard but of the City of Detroit.

There is a discussion of the collapse of the bridge and Detroit politics at PackardInfo.

Watch: Packard – The Last Shift

packard-the last shift

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Re the “Flare-O-Flame” in our “Spread Your Legs” post, George Hamlin wrote:

“Chap I knew in high school had a Flare-O-Flame on his 1950 Buick. The deal was, it restricted the exhaust and when you pushed a button, a spark plug located at the max pressure point would set off a flame of unburned hydrocarbons. The 1950 Buick eight had as many unburned hydrocarbons of any car EVER, so it worked fairly well. Problem was, the constant extra back pressure dropped his mileage into the single digits, so presently he took it off.”

flare0flame

4 Comments

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  1. that's jack 30/01/2019 — 08:01

    Fortunately we got to see the Packard plant a few years ago. In such terrible decay. You could tell it was once majestic, but now Ruins, just like Detroit. Amazing that it supplied life to 40,000 workers and SWEET old cars.
    SAD is the only word…BUT glad we did see history and the BRIDGE!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you got to see the Packard plant and bridge. I’ve never been to Detroit, so my opportunity to see the bridge is gone now.
      Driving by that plant must be somewhat akin to finding the wrecked and broken hull of Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic.

      Like

  2. QUE TRISTE!!!QUE SEMEJANTE COMPAÑIA DE AUTOMOBILES!!!LOS MAS BELLOS Y FINOS DE USA!!!!! TERMINE EN ESTA FORMA!!!como dueño de un Packard Clipper 1946!!! doy fe de su Calidad, Elegancia ,y suavidad!!!es la envidia de todos en esta ciudad!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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