Packard Proving Grounds
Home | Utica Bank Notes | Prestonville Cemetery | Nike Missle Base | Utica Community Schools History | Historic Library | Historic Posters | Map Archive | Shelby Road History | Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary | Lindbergh in Shelby | Hope Chapel | Packard Proving Grounds | Historic Photo Archive | Shelby Legend | Holland Ponds | Utica Cemetery | Prestonville Cemetery | Early Shelby Township | Shelby 1900-1929 | Shelby 1930-1959 | Shelby 1960-1989 | Shelby Historic Records | 1830 Shelby census | Shelby River Parks | The Beacon Tree | Lost Villages of Shelby | The Lost Village of Disco | Shelby Railroads | Shelby's Historic Train Display | Isaac Shelby | Andrews Schoolhouse | Early Utica | The 1904 Utica Fire | The Conner Family | The Joe Louis Farm | Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal | The Underground Railroad | Historic Marker Program | About Us | Getting Involved | Contact Us | The Shelby Community Foundation

Shelby Township Historical Committee





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.

    To prove 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.

    Ford handed 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.