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Packard   Part 1: 1893-1916

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

“If you’re so smart, Mr. Packard,” a car manufacturer asked, “why don’t you build a car yourself?”
And a new car was born.

Way back in 1893, two progressive young men con­sidered building an automobile of their own design. They made ready the blueprints and even negotiated with a gasoline engine manufacturer for the power-plant that would replace the horse. But the business depression of that epoch put an end to their plans and each went back to his respective occupation--the one to operate an electric plant and the other to run a telegraph office. The names of these two men were James Ward and William Dowd Packard, brothers by birth as well as in adventure, and the sons of Warren Packard, a Warren, Ohio, pioneer, for whom the town was named. The Packard family owned sawmills, a hardware store, and a summer hotel, so JW and WD, as their friends called them, knew no hardships.

Though the Packard brothers shelved their plan to become automobile builders, the idea remained very much alive in their minds and was rekindled when James Ward returned from a vacation in Europe, bringing with him a French De Dion Bouton gasoline-powered tricycle. It was a crude machine, but certain basic features in its design offered possibilities that had aroused his keen interest. He was a grad­uate in mechanical engineering at Lehigh University.

Again, on August 13, 1898, James Ward purchased the 12th car built by the suc­cessful Alexander Winton, and this proved to be the turning point. Attempting to drive the car from the Cleveland factory to his home in Warren, a mere fifty miles, he was frustrated and angered by repeated break­downs and finally reached his destination late at night behind a team of horses.

JW returned to Cleveland, confronted Winton in his office and told him exactly what he thought of the car. Alexander Winton, a quick-tempered man with a large dark mustache, was more annoyed than sympathetic. The interview ended abruptly when Winton burst forth: “If you’re so smart, Mr. Packard, why don’t you build a car yourself?”

JW’s reaction was provocative. He con­sidered the challenge for a moment, then said quietly: “You know, Mr. Winton, I think I will.”

Though he never even dreamed it at the time, Winton had provoked James Ward into being a competitor who was to out­strip him with ease and grow to far greater stature. Long after the Winton car was for­gotten, the Packard would be traveling the highways of America.

For months the Packard brothers studied construction details of European cars and engines. Then they equipped a workshop at the back of the electrical plant which supplied their Lakewood hotel. To help build their car, they enlisted the services of George L. Weiss, Cleveland’s first car owner and garage proprietor, and W. A. Hatcher, formerly a shop superintendent at the Winton plant.

Some 15 months after Winton’s challenge, November 6, 1899, the first Packard emerged under its own power into the quiet streets of Warren. It caused a sensation. Conceived as an auto-buggy in the true sense of the word, it had only one seat, wire wheels and tiller steering; but the engine was something the Packard brothers could be proud of. Consisting of a single cylinder located horizontally under the driving seat, it nevertheless put out 12 hp, transmitted to the rear wheels by means of three forward speeds and a reverse gear. One feature well ahead of its time was the automatic spark advance, functioning with the same purpose as it does today.

The original Packard amply fulfilled the expectations of its builders by lugging tenaciously up hills and hauling its weight un­aided through sand and mud, thereby earning the respect and admira­tion of neighbors. So encouraged were JW and WD that the following month, December 30, 1899, they formed a partnership with George Weiss and started work on the second car, a two-seater.

Meantime, on January 3, 1900, one George D. Kirkham gladly purchased the prototype for the sum of $1,250, and the Packard brothers were in business. Packard Number Two was completed in the spring, and on May 21, 1900, JW and Weiss drove it from Warren to Cleveland by way of Ashtabula--a distance of better than 100 miles, which they covered in eight hours, 55 minutes on the same day, main­taining an impressive average of 11.21 mph. The successful run inspired another.

Five days later, the same crew completed an adventurous run from Warren to Buffalo, in only 43 hours. At Westfield, the bottom dropped out of the large box of tools and spare parts carried in the car, and sundry pieces fell into the trans­mission gears which scattered them in all directions. On several other occasions, either driver or mechanic undertook to get down and hold some nervous horses while the car was driven gingerly by. But the great thing was that they made it, and no doubt Winton heard the news.

Following incorporation of the Company, James Ward Packard was elected presi­dent and general manager on October 24, 1900; George Weiss became vice-president and William Dowd Packard was named secretary-treasurer. That same day, a special Packard with a copper-jacketed cylinder found a ready buyer at $1,750 in the person of a Mr. W. D. Sargent from Chicago, Illinois.

It was at the New York Automobile Show (Madison Square Garden, November 5-10, 1900), the first ever held in this country, that the Packard exhibit caught the public eye in a big way. A board track, studded with obstacles, coursed around the big arena, and manufacturers demon­strated the handling qualities of their vehicles by driving them on this track. Demonstrations of the Packard sold three cars in five days. Two of these were bought by William Rockefeller, brother of John D. Sr., and the third by Mr. Hollis Honey­well, a prominent Bostonian.

Of all the American manufacturers who exhibited at the show, Packard is the only builder of private cars that survived through the second world war. The Autocar became a truck, while the Peerless somehow was transformed into a beer company.

It was during this automobile show that the famous Packard slogan was acciden­tally coined by James Ward. Receiving among his voluminous mail a request for “literature” on the car, Packard, who had none, instructed his secretary: “Tell him we don’t have any sales literature. Tell him--just tell him to ask the man who owns one!”

Early automobiles were in serious danger of overturning if they hit a large bump, because if one wheel was raised much higher than the other, the whole car tended to swing over. This caused many of them to end up in ditches. To JW and William Hatcher went the credit for developing the radius rod which counteracts this tendency. The pair also developed and patented the H-type of gear slot, besides introduc­ing the first steering wheel on a production automobile. This was in 1901.

Despite its single cylinder, the 1901 Model C Packard had plenty of speed; too much, in fact. A Mr. Alden S. McMurtry, for instance, was arrested early that year for driving along a Warren street at 40 mph. This was sensational news that found its way into the world’s press.

During the summer of that year also, five Packards entered the New York to Buffalo endurance run and all five finished, though less than half of the 89 entrants completed the course.

Tires lagged far behind technical improvements in cars and J. W. Packard racked his brains to overcome this bug­bear. One expedient he tried consisted of a double inner tube stuffed with glue and chicken feathers. This was effective in plugging a small puncture, but a blow-out resulted in driver and passenger being showered with this concoction, to look as though they had been tarred and feathered.

Prizing dependability above all else, JW made capital out of the fact that his cars had only one cylinder. His claim was that with a four- or six-cylinder engine you multiplied your chances of trouble by that much more. This was not without founda­tion at the time. The 1903 epic drive by Tom Fetch (Packard’s plant foreman) and a companion named Marius Krarup--dur­ing which they covered 3,500 appalling miles from San Francisco to New York in 61 days--vindicated the single-cylinder engine installed in their Packard, which was called “Old Pacific.”

Yet James Ward Packard was no die­hard. While Fetch made his record run, a four-cylinder, 26 hp Packard was being announced to the public. Known as the Model K, it had a front-mounted engine and sold in a variety of body styles--in­cluding the limousine. Some of these styles were priced as high as $7,500. The standards of quality built into Packards found a ready customer response, even at such prices and despite certain rear axle de­fects, later corrected. The company did much better than this, however, when the once-jailed speed demon of Warren, Mr. McMurtry, opened a Packard showroom in New York.

Henry Bourne Joy, a wealthy Detroit car enthusiast, bought the first Packard offered for sale by McMurtry and paid $100 bonus for immediate delivery. He was so pleased with it that he immediately in­vested $25,000 in the company. Soon he persuaded 10 other Detroiters that Packard was one of the best of 128 makes of cars then on the market and got them to invest $250,000 in the venture.

By 1902, the company was reorganized as a West Virginia corporation. Its capital then was $525,000. A year later, the factory with its 160 employees was moved to Detroit. In 1904, some 500 Packards were sold--at a loss. This was the Model L. But in 1905, sales pulled the company out of the red.

The original Thirty Packard (powered by a 30 hp engine) appeared in 1907, with a $4,200 price tag. The price included a beautifully printed booklet, costing $35 per copy to produce!

The Packard 38 of 1912, a big six-cylinder car and the first of this type produced by the company, had one of the most elaborate production touring bodies of all times; while the three-ton Packard truck that travelled from New York to San Francisco that summer was the pioneer heavy vehicle to cross the American continent under its own power.

In 1913, Packard factory inspectors hit on the idea of the red hexagon as a symbol that cars had passed their tests and were ready for delivery. The notion stuck and was adopted as a distinctive Packard trade-mark.

On New Year’s Day, 1915, Jesse G. Vincent, Packard’s chief engineer, began drafting plans for the famous Packard Twin Six which went into production a few months later and was the first V-12 offered by an American company. So suc­cessful was this car that 10,000 were sold in 1916 and the design led Packard into the aviation field and the production of the renowned Liberty engine of World War I.
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