In 1925, The Packard Motor Car Company realized that
testing their products on the streets of Detroit had its limitations and that it was time to build a proper testing facility.
They began buying farmland in then rural Shelby Township, Michigan and retained renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn
to design and oversee construction of a grand showplace, befitting one of the most prestigious and successful auto companies
of the golden era of classic production.
Packard dedicated the million-dollar Proving Grounds in 1927 and began a rigorous testing program. The planted
area between two driveways was shaped like the famous Packard radiator grille and the driveways led to grand wrought-iron
gates that opened onto lavishly landscaped grounds, rich with flowering trees, roses, and other ornamental landscaping. On
the right were the Tudor-revival Lodge and Garage buildings, painted a warm cream color that contrasted nicely with the multi-colored
slate roof, red brickwork, and brown trim. The Lodge was home to the Proving Grounds manager and family and featured three
fireplaces, nine bedrooms, four bathrooms, hardwood floors, dormitories for test drivers, and garage space for eight cars.
A famous ad shows a new Packard passing through the entrance gates at the Proving Grounds after having been picked
at random from the assembly line to be tested on roads containing gravel, mud, water pits, bumps, curves, and railroad ties.
The weather extremes of Michigan's four seasons added to the already challenging testing conditions. In contrast to the rugged
test roads, an exceptionally smooth 2.5 mile oval track was built for high-speed testing and was so well engineered that drivers
could travel around the banked curves in excess of 100 mph without holding the steering wheel. In 1928 it was hailed as "
The worlds fastest speedway " when Leon Duray set a world speed record of 148.7 mph.
The Garage building across the driveway from the Lodge contained experimental
and engineering laboratories allowing the testing of engines, chassis, electrical components, fuels, and lubricants under
a variety of conditions.
Packard also used the Proving Grounds for the development and testing of aircraft
engines. In the 300-acre track infield the company constructed a runway that led to a 4,000 square-foot hangar. Famed aviator,
Col. Charles Lindbergh, visited the site to test-fly a Packard powered airplane in 1929. The first diesel engine for airplanes
was developed here in 1929. Captain Lionel Woolson, a test pilot for Packard, was killed in a plane crash near Attica, New
York and his ashes were scattered over the Proving Grounds.
A Division of General Motors rented the Proving Grounds in 1938 to test its products and even borrowed the Packard Towing
Dynamometer for certain tests. During World War II, Chrysler Defense Engineering leased the entire Proving Grounds to test
tanks and other armored vehicles and added a building next to the Garage building.
the reliability of the new Packard V-8 for 1955, a Patrician sedan was driven continuously around the track, 24 hours a day
for ten days, stopping only for fuel, tires, driver changes, and minor maintenance. When the run was over, the drivers had
taken the Patrician 25,000 miles (the distance around the earth) at an average speed of 104.7 mph. In 1958 the property was
sold to Curtiss-Wright who sold it to Ford Motor Company in 1961. Ford used portions of the property for a variety of uses
over the years, but the important buildings and artifacts were left untouched and have survived in surprisingly good condition.
Part of the survival story is due to the fact that Albert Kahn designed fireproof, steel-framed buildings that were state-of-the-art
in their day and built of the finest materials that were available.
The Packard Proving Grounds Historic Site
By the year 1998, Ford had determined that the best use of the property would be for development. The United
States Postal Service was interested in a portion of the land for a distribution center and plans were underway to clear whatever
was in the way of construction. It was unclear to local historians and Packard enthusiasts just what was in the way of progress,
but the aircraft hangar (called the Lindbergh Hangar by some) was scheduled for demolition. It was rumored that the Timing
Tower and Lodge would go as well. A swell of public opinion in the local and old-car community caused the local township to
withhold demolition permits and it was at this time that it was determined that the property was eligible for listing on the
National Register of Historic Places. Certain rules apply to governmental agencies and historic sites, so the Post Office
decided to look elsewhere for property.
A group of
interested historians from many walks of life including members of Shelby Township Historical Committee, Packard Clubs, the
Classic Car Club, and the Antique Automobile Club joined together with the elected officials of Shelby Township and citizens
to save a significant portion of the Proving Grounds. The Packard Motor Car Foundation offered to open negotiations with Ford.
Extensive negotiations and re-negotiations led to Ford's offer to gift the seven acres of land containing the grand entrance
gates, the Lodge building, the Garage building, the elevated water storage tank, and the Chrysler Defense building to the
Foundation for restoration and perpetual care. An additional seven acres was set aside for later acquisition that contains
the timing tower, a 458-foot section of the test track, and the relocated Lindbergh hangar.
over the keys in 2002 and the Foundation (through donor support) immediately made extensive landscaping improvements (removing
years of over-growth), painted the elevated-water-storage tank and restored the Packard script, moved the Lindbergh hangar
to a new foundation on the site, brought electricity to the property, and in the summer of 2004, re-roofed over 27,000 square
feet of the flat portion of the Garage and Chrysler Defense buildings. This included the repair and replacement of some trusses
and beams. Original copper vents, gutters, and downspouts were carefully removed, refurbished or replaced with exact duplicates
and returned to their original locations (all to National Park Service standards for historic preservation). This marked an
important milestone in the preservation of the property as the new roof insured that no further deterioration would take place
in any of the buildings.
Broad support and input from all collectors and historians (not just Packard owners) is still needed to
allow the Foundation to complete a master plan for the property. Current proposals include an "Arsenal of Democracy" museum
dedicated to the contributions of all automobile companies during wartime. The Garage building has been renovated for use
as an event center for business meetings and weddings.
So much of our American automotive heritage has been lost that we are indeed fortunate to have had the
opportunity to save this historic treasure that through a series of fortuitous circumstances has survived in almost perfect
original condition. This is not a new building dedicated to the past, but one of the last remaining sites that was built by
one of America's great companies during the golden era of classic car production.
The site has been accepted by the Automotive National Heritage Area which is implemented by the National
Park Service in southeast Michigan. Federal, state, and local grants are forthcoming and your participation is invited as
well. We will look back and be proud that we participated in the saving of this last remaining treasure from the golden era
of American automobile production.
SOURCE: Bud Juneau, Brentwood California
Vice-president, Packard Motor Car Foundation.
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