packard
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1953 Packard Patrician at Packard factory site.

Crumbling Packard complex gives up secrets

THE Sydney Cricket Ground is a sizeable piece of real estate, covering all of 1.86 hectares. Multiply that by nine and you get an idea of the premises of the Packard Motor Company, in Detroit.

It comprised 40 parcels of and and it stands today as the world’s largest abandoned factory.

The company, founded in 1903, went bust in 1954, and its many vast buildings were vacated.

Several attempts were made in ensuing years to occupy or remodel the land, but all failed, and the once-proud home of what was regarded by many as the world’s finest cars has for years been a serious headache for the city.

Last week the Wayne County Circuit Court ruled it had to be demolished, but its current owner, Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo does not have the ‘north of US $10 million’ needed for the mammoth task — and  the city is in the same boat.

A similar court ruling was issued a year ago, with the same outcome. 

 

The Packard story in toto is much like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not saga.

It started at the turn of the century, when the horseless carriage was widely considered to be just another passing fad. 

But James W Packard, co-owner with his brother William of an electrical supply company in Warren, Ohio, really wanted one, so he went  to Cleveland in June of 1898 to take delivery of a new car from the highly regarded Winton Motor Carriage Company. 

On the return trip the engine overheated, the radiator leaked and the chain drive broke.

It took 11 hours to travel the 100km from Cleveland to Warren and for the last three miles it was pulled by a team of horses.

However, Mr Packard analysed the problems himself and went back to Cleveland to share his solutions with Alexander Winton. 

“If you’re so smart, why don’t you build a better machine yourself,” Winton sneered.

After a moment of silence, J W Packard replied: “Why Mr Winton, I guess I’ll do just that.” 

And that’s what he did. Just six months later the first Packard was driven out of a shed in Warren.

That was the start of the Packard Motor Car company, which would shape the course of the motor industry and forever change the city of Detroit.

Packard would be a luxury car, built to the highest specifications and after one early model had problems, the company bought back all 25 that had been sold and scrapped them.

It was an expensive lesson and the brothers became fanatical about perfection of the products bearing their name.

Packard quickly outgrew its plant in Warren the plant was moved to Detroit, where many of the products needed – wheels, carriages, engines, tyres, paint and wiring were already being produced. 

In March, 1903, the company bought land along a railway on East Grand Boulevard and hired architect Albert Kahn to design a modern factory. 

Construction was completed in 90 days and the Detroit Free Press called it “one of the most modern and best arranged factory plants in Detroit.”  

It was the largest car plant built in Detroit, marking the start of the city’s boom years.

Parts suppliers and other car  manufacturers quickly followed and by 1904 there were 17 manufacturers of cars in the city, producing 12,000 cars a year. 

As demand increased the plant grew, and Building 10, which featured the first reinforced concrete factory building in Detroit, became the template by which all other factories in the city were constructed.

Early production was very different from today’s methods. Each car was built by hand by highly trained craftsmen specialised in specific tasks. 

The partially completed car would move from station to station inside the plant, where work was checked and rechecked for quality. 

The 1912 Model “Six” took two months to produce.

Wood used in the construction of bodies and wheels was cured in the open air for up to a year before being used.

Painting was complex and time-consuming, with dozens of coats of varnish, primer, and colour that had to be sanded between coats. 

The quality was reflected in the price: At a time when the cost of an average car produced in Michigan was $1140, a Packard clocked in at over $3500. 

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The keenly-priced 1935 Packard One-Twenty caused a sensation.

 

Packards became the favoured cars of Hollywood stars, politicians and the wealthy.

Construction of truck shops, storage facilities, stamping mills, a foundry, administrative offices and a power plant covering both sides of Grand Boulevard meant that by 1910 the last original plant building had been torn down. 

During WWI the company built and shipped thousands of cars and trucks overseas.

Packard’s biggest contribution was the Liberty aircraft engine, a standardised design that could be used across multiple platforms.

Nearly 7000 engines were built at the Detroit plant during the war, more than any other manufacturer.

The plant was modernised in 1920 and by 1922 it was producing 65 cars a day and employed over 4000 workers.

Then came the Great Depression in 1929 and to survive, Packard had to enter the low-cost market.

The entire plant was remodelled in the early 1930s, with production flow rerouted through different floors of the buildings.

The northern half of the plant continued building high-end luxury cars, while the southern end was converted into an assembly line for the new 120. 

When it debuted in January of 1935 with a price tag of less than $1000, the 120 was a sensation. Before the first car could roll off the assembly line over 10,000 orders had been placed, and by May the line was running at full capacity, at a rate of 6100 cars a month.

By 1939 the company’s model lines had started to grow stale, so a major facelift of all its cars was called for.

Once again, the plant was completely gutted and retooled, creating one large assembly line that snaked through the entire length of the plant.

More than 6km of conveyor systems were installed on the north side, with different floors performing sub-assembly of components.

In April, 1941, the Packard Clipper was introduced, a radically redesigned car that brought the brand back to the forefront of modern styling. Though well received by the public, production had barely started before America entered WWII.

Packard, and the other major motor companies stopped producing cars and retooled for the war effort. Packard focused on building aircraft and marine engines.

In the next four years the plant grew substantially and employed 41,000 workers, making some 55,000 Merlin V12 aircraft engines for Rolls Royce, to be used in Spitfires and P51 Mustang fighter planes. 

But despite receiving over US $1 billion in government contracts, Packard made a mere $17.5 million in profits over five years because of price controls set in place by the government to prevent war profiteering. 

The rapid shift from defence production back to cars was costly.

Between the end of the war and 1949, Packard invested US $25 million in a new double assembly line but when production finally resumed, the Korean War brought more restrictions on materials and the number of cars that could be sold — and a national rail strike slowed production further.

By 1952 the independent carmakers were all struggling to hang on to market share and a price war between the big three was squeezing out the smaller companies, forcing them to merge and consolidate to survive. 

Packard began building a new V8 engine plant and began an automatic transmission called Ultramatic. 

To fund the projects, Packard was relying heavily on defence contracts for jet engines and other products. But when the Korean War ended the contracts were cancelled, leaving Packard on the hook for the cost of the new plants.

By 1954, Packard was running out of options. Most of the independent carmakers had already merged to form American Motors, including Nash, Kelvinator, Willys and Hudson. 

The only remaining uncoupled companies were Studebaker and Packard, which soon merged, but the marriage was brief. 

Studebaker was saddled with high labour costs and an outdated factory and Packard’s military contracts had all but evaporated. 

Production in Detroit was halted in 1956 and the massive Grand Boulevard plant was virtually deserted.

Studebaker continued the Packard name for a few years before dropping it in 1958.

 

By 1957 most of the buildings had been stripped of wiring, machinery, and plumbing. Furniture was auctioned off.

The plant was sold in 1958 to Edward Land, who began leasing out individual buildings to companies. 

By 1960 over half the plant had been leased to 39 companies and by the late 1990s there were 87 companies leasing space, mostly small businesses, some of which were dumping chemicals and tyres. 

The City of Detroit foreclosed on the property for non-payment of taxes in 1993 and 1997. 

But the then owner of the plant suddenly died of a heart attack and a man named Dominic Cristini bought the plant from the estate — and began a lengthy legal battle with the City of Detroit.

What followed was an ongoing nightmare involving armed standoffs, a tiger loose on the property, drugs, fires, tourists, film crews, even a huge barney over art.

In November of 1998, the city council voted to remove Cristini from the plant, but he refused to leave, barricaded himself in an office and, armed to the teeth, declared: “The cops want to take me out. If they come busting in here, I’m taking some of them out with me.” 

Cristini remained in his office with the police outside – in a standoff that lasted eight months.

He was eventually turfed out and in January, 1999, the city began demolishing part of the north side of the plant. 

Then a court order halted the demolition and the Michigan State Supreme Court ruled that the city had improperly seized the property and returned legal ownership to Dominic Cristini.

However, he was soon arrested for selling drugs. He pleaded guilty and spent the next five years in the clink.

By the time he got out in 2010, the city had pulled its guards from the plant, leaving it wide open to scrap merchants and vandals, but it also became a destination for urban explorers, filmmakers and curiosity-seekers. 

Reclusive graffiti artists Banksy painted a mural in the plant in 2010, which was promptly cut out and carted off by a local art gallery. More of that in a minute.

Cristini lost possession again in 2013 when most of the property was seized for non-payment of taxes and auctioned off. The plant finally sold to Fernando Palazuelo for $405,000.

Palazuelo had planned a four-phase 15-year $500 million development, but that too, failed to materialise.

During a photoshoot on the property in 2015, a photographer lost his tiger in the building.

While the tiger was safely returned to its cage, the photographer and his other animals — two wolves and one bobcat — were ordered to leave the premises. 

 

Lots of people love building ruins and some enterprising chaps charged tourists $40 to walk through the maze of the old factory in hard hats and shoe covers.

The mysterious and renowned graffiti artist Banksy painted at least one mural on the walls of the Packard Plant in 2010. 

The 2.4m-tall painting of a boy next to a can of paint depicted the words: “I remember when all this was trees.” 

Then the crew at 555 Gallery, a Detroit arts group whose members had never heard of  Banksy or his work, were alerted to the mural.

Stirred by stories of a valuable artwork at the Packard Plant, they spent two days removing part of a wall weighing a tonne, and announced they had saved the Banksy.

And then all hell broke loose.

Removing a Banksy without authorisation is something street artists universally frown upon.

Ten years ago, a work by Banksy would have been seen as vandalism, but these days, when a world-renowned street artist like Banksy paints a wall at the Packard, it can be worth more than the entire Packard Plant itself.

Had the 555 crew known more about the artist’s work, there might have been a happier outcome, but the owner of there building was furious and took the 555 Gallery to court, eventually settling for $2500.

But the criticism 555 was to endure from Detroit’s opinionated and vocal arts community was much worse.

T-shirts and postcards with ‘Free Banksy’ messages were selling well and 555 backed off, announcing that the artwork would not be sold, and would be on view for all comers.

Next a duo of Detroit artists, Carl Oxley and Matt Naimi, announced that it was they, in fact, who painted the artwork.

But the artwork appeared on Banksy’s website, so could they claim to have painted it?

Easy.

Nobody knows Banksy, there is no Banksy, was an explanation.

Hmm. Millions would disagree.

Back to the Packard premises: The city of Detroit last week won a default judgment  against Palazuelo after he missed a March 24 trial date.

The latest order gave Palazuelo 21 days to apply for a demolition permit, 42 days to start the demo work and 90 days to finish the work.

It also stipulates the city could hire contractors to proceed with the demolition — with Palazuelo responsible for settling the account.  

But, as he’s said before, he does not have the ‘north of US $10 million’ . . . 

 

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