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Packard was a premier nameplate in the United States, mentioned in the same breath as Duesenberg, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, and Lincoln. The crown jewel for Packard was the Packard Factory, a 3.5 million square-foot complex sprawling across 35 acres.

In the years following World War II, the Packard Motor Car Company struggled to keep pace with the larger automakers that had been buying-up the smaller companies to form “the Big Three.” Those not part of the Big Three had to merge to stay competitive: Kaiser and Willys formed Kaiser-Willys, Nash and Hudson formed American Motors, and Packard joined forces with Studebaker. The experiment was short-lived, however, and Packard plunged into bankruptcy soon after.

Packard factory entrance
Packard factory entrance

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During the 1950’s Packard endured an economic rollercoaster, from being a premier auto manufacturer outselling Cadillac – to complete bankruptcy.

(click to enlarge)

Packard factory entrance circa 1940s
Packard factory entrance circa 1940s
Packard factory entrance circa 2009
Packard factory entrance circa 2009

  Entrance to the Packard factory: then and today

By 1957 Packards were no longer assembled at the Detroit plant. For the next two years a handful of Studebaker models continued to wear the Packard badge, but by the turn of the decade Studebaker began to pull the Packard nameplate from its models.

In the early 1960s, Studebaker dropped the Packard name altogether.

Studebaker would also meet its demise several years later, believed to have survived longer due to the lower-price/higher-volume sales model.

Upon liquidation, the remaining pre-war Packard designs and tooling were sold to buyers around the world. For decades Packards would continue to be built in Russia under the ZIL and ZIM nameplates, catering to the Communist elite.

Post-war Packard designs in the Soviet Union lasted well into the 1970s.

The Packard name would survive. General Motors’ electrics division – later known as Delphi – was originally Packard Electric when the auto manufacturer purchased it in 1932. The company was later renamed Delphi Packard Electric Systems, and coincidentally would be the only profitable division within parent company Delphi during the late-2000’s.

Packard advertisement circa 1956
Packard advertisement circa 1956

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The Factory

Designed by Albert Kahn and opened in 1903, the factory was world-class in its day. The Packard factory occupied 3.5 million square feet of interior space across 47 buildings. It employed over 40,000 skilled workers on a campus that spanned 35 acres.

The facility was the most modern plant of its time, and the first to use reinforced concrete in industrial construction.

(Click for larger version)

Vintage aerial view of Packard Factory
Vintage aerial view of Packard Factory

 Packard Factory*

After Packard

The plant was closed in 1956, leaving the factory vacant. The city lacked options; finding another tenant for the 3.5 million square-feet of space would be a difficult task.

[ Below: lobby vandalism over time. 2001 (top), 2010 (middle), 2014 (bottom) ]

Packard factory lobby circa 2001Administrators considered parceling the factory into multiple lots, but a lack of interest stalled the proposal.

One tenant other than Packard has occupied the factory long-term: Chemical Processing Company moved into a small part of the factory in 1958.

Packard factory lobby circa 2010How small?  Chemical Processing’s operations required 57,000 square feet – less than 1% of the factory complex.

Chemical Processing would move operations in 2007, and ironically occupied the factory longer than Packard itself.

Packard Factory lobby circa 2014
courtesy Tabula Rasa

The owner of the business admitted part of the reason for his move in 2007 was due to vandals and break-ins around the factory.

Not realizing a business is still in operation, scavengers would often break-in to scavenge scrap materials; vandals damage buildings and accelerate the plant’s deterioration.

Packard factory panoramic shot circa 2010
Packard factory panoramic shot circa 2010

 
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The Future

Several investor groups have proposed ideas for the plant, but to date none have been able to come to the table with money and get approval from the city to execute plans.

For decades the city offered the land for sale but there were no suitors. The ownership group that expressed interest and purchased the land hadn’t paid property taxes since 1987.

Packard Factory then & now

As of 2011, the Packard Factory stands as the largest abandoned industrial complex in the world.

The façade from the main entrance (pictured below) sold at auction in 2008 for $161,000

Packard factory façade
Packard factory façade

Packard Factory entry door  *

Packard factory
Not a Packard, but an appropriate resting place nonetheless.

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Packard factory aerial view 2011
Packard factory aerial view 2011 (courtesy Google)

Explore on map: click here

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Packard Factory
Not a Packard, but they got the era correct.

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Packard Winter Wonderland
Packard Winter Wonderland

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Packard Factory
Also not a Packard. Also not the correct era. Who knows why.

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Packard factory hallway
Packard factory hallway

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Below: Packard “Crushathon” in late 70’s decimated remaining Packard population.

Fire Breaks out:

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Below: In better times.

Packard factory circa 1910s
Packard factory circa 1910s

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Aerial view of the Packard factory, circa 2011
Aerial view of the Packard factory, circa 2011

Video Tours:

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83 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting post with some real nice pictures. I do find something really intriguing about how hubs of commercial activity can just be left to rot, great background info provided too. Nice one!

  2. one would think it would be in the gov’ and private interest to recycle some of that old concrete. the whole old factory structure and i’m sure many more structures would have provided a great base for the monstrous parking lots across the freeway

  3. Packard, like many other car companies died when they did not sell enough cars to be profitable. It is all down hill from that point. This factor could be “condoned”, out to several tenants to be again a productive property. First the tenants would need to be protected from vandals. The city will strive to get taxes and alike and not protect the property owners in a decaying social environment. Build new and have the wrecking ball remove the old is the rule now days. Salvage value could restore this property to a parking lot type thing with the right minds set to do it. It can be done, why not? To many restrictions?

  4. sad to see such a great plant in such a state I was a production engineer the body plant of a truck plant in scotland which was closed and flattened I work in a bank now ha ha. All manufacturing is going to only one place china

  5. There are a number of errors in the article and photos that are incorrectly captioned. The “merger” of Studebaker and Packard was more of an outright purchase. Packard paid 54 million dollars for Studebaker stock. It was part of an overall plan to merge Studebaker, Packard, Nash and Hudson together. The new Corporation would have displaced Chrysler from their position as a member of the big three. Packard ceased production of automobiles in the Packard factory (The Grand Avenue plant) at the end of the 1954 model year. Production was moved to the Conner avenue plant for the model years 1955 and 1956. Those were the last of the “true” Packards. Operations were consolidated in South Bend (the Studebaker plant) for the 1957 and 1958 model years. These cars were merely redesigned Studebakers. 1958 was the last year of production for automobiles that carried the Packard name. In 1959 Studebaker sold some trucks to South America that were labeled as Packard trucks to circumvent certain import and contractual restrictions on Studebaker. The Packard name was dropped from the corporate name in 1963; Studebaker Packard Corporation became Studebaker Corporation.

    • Mike,

      Thanks for the input. I’m curious – none of what you say appears to conflict with anything in the article. What conflicts did you see? Again, thanks for your input and feel free to share more information here about Packard and Studebaker.

      • Sorry to take so long to get back to you. Its extremely difficult to sum up what went wrong at Packard but the following statement gives a somewhat inaccurate  impression.  Unfortunately forPackard, Studebaker was of lower prestige and quality. The effects of the merger quickly manifested themselves on Packard cars: poor build quality, less-innovative design, and horrendous planning. Studebaker’s influence had Packard building the wrong car at the wrong time. The 1950’s were not kind to Packard; they went from being one of the premier car builders – outselling Cadillac up until 1950 – to complete bankruptcy.  Packard was very much aware that Studebaker was a car of a lesser name. The point of purchasing Studebaker was to enter the lower medium price field without diluting the Packard name. It was all part of a larger plan to combine Packard, Studebaker, Nash and Hudson together into a corporation that would displace Chrysler from its number three position in the big three. The plan was hatched by James Nance (new president of Packard) and George Mason (president of Nash) Both Packard and Nash were in very strong cash positions. At this point Packard stock was the second most widely held automotive stock after General Motors.  Unfortunately halfway through the process Mason had a heart attack. His successor, Romney was totally in the dark about the plan and was not interested when informed about it. So Packard continued on with Studebaker and Nash with Hudson. Packard still planned to consolidate production and maximize interchangeability to lower costs and increase efficiency. To this end Packard built a new engine plant, new assembly plant (computer punch card controlled) and also took on government contracts for jet engines and navel engines. Packards quality problems were primarily in the early 55 models due to the move to the Connor ave. plant. They were mostly resolved by midyear except for a problem with the rear axles supplied by Dana, cars were recalled and replacement axles furnished, unfortunately the replacement axles were no better and also had to be replaced. As to innovation, Packard was more innovative in this period than at almost any other time in their history. The 55s featured a new V8 engine, the largest, most powerful in the industry, a new transmission, a revolutionary new self leveling suspension system that had everyone else playing catch-up (air suspension wouldn’t appear for a couple of years and was a dismal failure) safety side marker lights. 1956 saw a pushbutton electronic transmission, reversible upholstery, a bigger engine, aluminum case transmission and offered seat belts and a thicker padded dash and a positive traction rear axle that was within the price range of most car buyers. Packard engines and transmissions appeared in Studebakers, Nashs and Hudsons.  The primary problem was the massive capital outlays that Packard was making, 54 million for Studebaker,  the costs of building a brand new engine plant and new assembly plant (Conner ave) ,the total revamp of the cars for 1955, and a totally new car planned for the 57 model year which would have utilized a common platform for Studebaker Packard cars (cost estimates 57million)  and the cancellation of jet engine contracts (the B 47 was replaced by the B52) Packard was forced to shop for loans which they seldom had to do because of their strong cash position in the past They were quite surprised to find that there were few  people willing to loan to a car company that wasn’t one of the big three. The one source that they had counted on had already committed huge amounts of cash to a risky project, apparently some movie producer wanted to build an amusement park out in the orange groves of southern California. Studebaker Packard fell victim to corporate raiding through a loan, management agreement with Curtis Wright Corporation.  Curtis Wright sold off all of the Packard assets of any value and Studebaker Packard was left to carry on in South Bend. When Studebaker automobiles went under in the 64-66 period it didn’t go bankrupt, they simply closed the automotive division of the corporation but continued on in various incarnations, Studebaker Worthington makers of stationary commercial compressors, Schafer appliances and STP (Studebaker total performance) ultimately various parts were sold or absorbed but they didn’t just go bankrupt.   Several pictures of the interior of the Packard factory are of the Connor ave. plant interior, not the Grand boulevard plant. Again production of automobiles ceased at the Grand blvd. facility in 1954. There were a number of tenants in the Packard property on Grand Blvd. that I am aware of occupying the property for a number of years; a wholesale grocery, a number of small businesses as well as the welfare office located for a time in the administrative building. A Packard’s grave is also its birthplace The car in the picture in not a Packard, I think it’s a Chrysler product.   I certainly enjoyed seeing your article and pictures, I realize that it is no small thing to write a history or even a synopsis of a complex situation like Studebaker Packard in the postwar era. There are a lot of personal opinions and versions of history. I have talked to some of the original participants (James Nance, Richard Teague etc.) and even their versions contradict each other so I doubt we will ever actually know exactly what happened. If I can get to them up in the attic I will see if I can send you pictures (if you’re interested) of the Packard plant in 1974 and 86 at the Packard national meets (I think the years are correct) I also have an article that I wrote for someone (I forgot who and I don’t remember if it was published) called “Packard, what if” if you’re interested I’ll see if I can find it too.   Thanks again  Mike

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  6. I own a 1949 Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe. It has the standard 170 cubic inch inline 6, with a 3 speed on the column, with overdrive. (A Studebaker innovation) My great great uncle bought it new in 1949. He gave it to my grandfather in the 80s, and it sat in his garage for years, until I finally convinced him to get it repainted and get the exterior cleaned up. The wheels were cleaned up, he put some white walls on, the dent in the rear fender was fixed, and it was repainted the original dark blue color. About a year later he passed away and left this triumph of American craftsmanship to me…. Im 16 years old. But I grew up in a muscle car museum, and while it doesnt have cowl induction, a 4 barrel carburator, an 8 track, or a 426 Hemi, this car is of better build quality than anything ive ever seen. Studebaker started as a wagon company in 1852, they entered the auto industry in 1902 with electric cars, and started making gasoline cars in 1904. The gas mileage of my Champion blows anything of the time out of the water, with an incredible combined mileage of 23 mpg! Studebaker was also the first company to use foam in their seats, and from someone who has ridden in about any Rolls Royce, Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac that you can name, that Studebaker is the most comfortable car ive ever been in. Rose colored glasses in the trash. They also revolutionized the overdrive system, the automatic transmission and the independent suspension system. (As shown in one of their Tv commercials, driving across a rough desert at funny speed. Now, some people thought that Studebakers were not good cars because of a greedy, cutthroats company called E-M-F who tried to put them out of business so they could take it for themself. They decided to build cars and have Studebaker put their name on it so Studebaker could have some of the profit. But emf purposely made horrendously unreliable cars for Studebaker to put their name on. The folks at emf figured that they could make the Studebaker name mud so no one would buy them, then emf could take all their money and business. But the Studebaker people were smart and started selling the emf cars as emf’s instead of Studebakers. So emf’s plan backfired on them and led to their own destruction. But Studebaker went on to make dozens of great models including the Lark, Hawk, Land Cruiser, and the famous Avanti, to name a few. My Champion is all original all the way to the 6 volt system. Even has the original wiring. Not a single thing has been replaced on this car. Original engine would idle all day if I let it, and purrs down the road like a Persian cat in a rich mans lap. 3 speed manual transmission shifts smoother than any manual transmission ive ever felt, which is a lot, because of the muscle car museum. All mechanical components of the car are 63 years old and never seen any kind of problem. It also has an in cabin hood release, a retractable antenna, and a vent on the side that lets cool air in at your feet. Good on a hot night in Alabama. These were all unheard of features at the time. The wrap around rear glass was the secondary big trademark of Studebaker, (the first being the bullet nose, which came a year after mine) and it is amazing to see. And it completely eliminates the blind spot.

    All of that to say that Studebaker and shoddy craftsmanship don’t belong in the same sentence. They, much like Chrysler, (with Diamler) got screwed by another company and got a mark on their name. Studebaker and Packard are both true American heroes, but their quality and innovation are forgotten by so many. It is nice to see car guys like y’all who remember these kings of the road, and I encourage you to keep on Packin/Bakin! And who knows what the future will hold, if Datsun can return from the dead, so can Studebaker and Packard.

    God bless

    • Got any pictures of your ’49 Starlight Coupe? My Mom and Dad bought one new. It was our family car when I was a kid. It was yellow with a bunch of extra chrome (don’t doubt my dad borrowed some of the chrome as it made it’s way home in his lunch pail). My Dad, Grandpa’s and uncles worked there for years. Thanks, Rick

  7. I have allways been a fan of Packard since I was 7 years old and helping my dad restore a 1934 Packard 8. Wonderfull pics and sad that the PMCC of today made an super ugly prototype and is now trying to sell not only the car but the company for 1.5 mil.Shamefull..I love old Packards even some of the 50’s packards

  8. This is one interesting article. The great “what if” is if Mason and Nance had been able to complete the merger process that stopped when Mason died. I read in some of these postings that it came to the point where Packard had to opportunity to merge with American Motors or merge with Studebaker and chose to go with Studebaker. Who knows how things would have gone if Packard had chosen to merge into AMC. They would have been able to be the Cadillac of the company with Hudson and Nash covering the other two areas like Mercury and Ford did for Ford Motor Company. Maybe then Studebaker would have joined them seeing that they would have been alone in the business and having to compete with four automotive giants.

  9. Its a shame that some part of this proud piece of history couldnt be saved as a museum to the Packard line of automobiles.

  10. Times may well change and the plant can get a new life. There is a train station in Manchester England closed since the 1960’s (and since only ever used as a film set for post apopolyptic movies & tv shows and such like). Anyway there is talk/plans to re open it as there are major rail expansion plans afoot and all the other suitable stations are full to capacity. So detroit you never know,,,,

  11. Impressive buildings – and equally impressive story about this automobile factory. Interesting reading – both for a Dane (with an old Volvo!) far from the spot – and for many others, when you read all the interesting comments above.

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