(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #128, May 2015)
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Packard Proving Grounds at Utica, Mich., 20 miles north of the Packard factories in Detroit. From my vantage point up here on the water tower I see much to impress you in the thrilling action taking place over this 500-acre tract.” And so begins an interesting 20-page sales brochure from 1936 that does just what it promised, giving readers a tour of the facility where quality, engineering and craftsmanship are confirmed in Packard automobiles. By highlighting the abuse given to test vehicles, Packard buyers and owners could rest easy knowing that their personal cars would never endure the same abuse.
On the first page of this brochure sits an aerial photograph that shows off the $1,000,000 facility that consumed 504 acres of land. Here we learn that the Grounds are almost as large as New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Jackson Park. 20-car garages and lodging for permanent staff is briefly mentioned but our tour guide (an illustrated man) quickly teases readers about the “speedway, bad lands, hills, pits and specialized devices” before our tour begins in earnest.
Our first stop is on the speedway. This 2 ½ mile oval with banked turns puts Packard automobiles to the ultimate test. A photograph shows a Packard barreling down the straightaway and the car is blurry thanks to its speed or a little creativity from the photographer. The caption states “For 7 days and 7 nights this Packard Eight clicks off a mile every 40 seconds. In a single week it will total nearly 15,000 miles, more than the average car gets in a whole year.”
The ultimate aim of the proving ground is to weed out squeaks, rattles and design flaws while driving through “this man-made hell hole” and after the speedway our tour guide leads us to the badlands “that offer all the punishment man can devise to rack and tear motor car construction.” We learn that the 12-mile course includes twisting curves, hairpin turns, hills, ponds, pits and sand. “Everything is at hand to prove the whole stamina of Packard design.” One page shows a workman laying down 10-inch rocks on a roadway. Another shows a Packard trudging through axle-deep sand and mud. Cars are shown cresting hills with such speed that their front wheels are off the ground. It seems that no matter what obstacles are thrown at the Packard, the vehicle prevails.
Fuel economy wasn’t overlooked at the Proving Grounds. Our guide makes a special effort to show us testing equipment used and compares the 16.8 mpg’s obtainable at a steady 30 mph against a car traveling at 90mph. At this high speed our guide tells us that “tripling the speed practically doubles the gasoline consumption” and that because of speed differences and other variables, it is “impossible for anyone to set a fixed figure on gasoline mileage.”
The Proving Ground tour ends with a scene from the end of the assembly line, where a new Packard is “kidnapped” and taken directly to the Proving Grounds. There it endures a 25,000 mile test to “equal more than two years’ average car ownership”. The car goes through the badlands, speedway, sand pits and finally a section “where water filled holes and black clinging gumbo add a last fiendish touch.” The car is then disassembled and a quality report is sent to the factory. This random selection, our guide explains, puts enough fear into the factory workers so that every Packard that comes off the line is of the highest quality.
This Proving Ground brochure is a great behind the scenes tour of the Packard Motor Car Company. As a prospective buyer it would no doubt instill confidence in the automobile. Looking back nearly 80 years after the brochure was published makes me wish I had the chance to work at the Proving Grounds. What fun it would have been testing and abusing Packards for a living. The Proving Grounds were used by Packard until 1956 after which the property was sold to the Ford Motor Company. Ford then donated a small portion of the Grounds to a non-profit group that restored the original water tower, observation tower and several buildings. If, however, you want to enjoy the Proving Grounds in its glory days just find a copy of “Through Packard Proving-Land” and enjoy the tour.