My mother is one of those sharp-eyed collectors who haunt antique shops. She is forever rooting through musty bins in search of ancient bits of crystal or old buttons and whatever is vogue with pop antiquarians these days. and every once in a while she salvages a hunk of automotive memorabilia for me. My office is loaded with old radiator caps, car emblems, auto club badges and road maps from long-forgottem times when the automobile was a giddy, innocent engine of the American dream.
She recently gave me a birthday present gleaned from her travels. It is a large thermometer-a three-foot slab of sheet metal emblazoned with the Packard logo and surely intended as a promotion piece for some dealer's showroom. At the bottom is the famed Packard slogan, "Ask a man who owns one," capped by the official name of the company, the Packard Motor Car Company, Detroit, Michigan.
The Packard Motor Car Company...I am looking at that old thermometer sign, wondering where it came from and in what dealership it once offered a small affirmation of faith in one of America's most honored brands. I am wondering why that marque, like so many, fell victim to the dreaded law of Gresham-the bad replaces the good.
It was long and celebrated history, that of the Packard Motor Car Co. Its tombstone, if car companies had tombstones, would read 1899-1958, qualifying it as one of the longest lived auto manufacturers in U.S. history. (Oldsmobile, operating since 1896, is the oldest of American carmakers still in business). The founder, James Ward Packard, backed into the car business as a disgruntled customer. He had purchased an automobile from industry pioneer Alexander Winton of Cleveland in 1898 and encountered so many problems that he decided to convert his Warren, Ohio, lamp and transformer factory to build a machine of his own.
By 1900, Packard was on his way, having sold a number of his excellent 12-horsepower Model Cs to the likes of the Rockefellers. A year later, the company began challenging prospective customers to "ask the man who owns one," and success came quickly. In 1903, Packard, now in the hands of successful Detroit entrepreneur Henry B. Joy, was moved to the Motor City. There, architect Albert Kahn designed an immense, reinforced concrete factory with skylit roofs and vast, open, pillared work galleries. The first truly modern automobile manufacturing facility, it still stands today-a deserted milestone in industrial architecture.
Packard rose to the top echelons of automotive quality and technology in the years to follow. It distinguished itself in World War I as the maker of the gritty Liberty aircraft engine and then created a series of world-class 8-cylinder and 12-cylinder thoroughbreds during the '20s and '30s. When James Ward Packard died in 1929, the well-known red hexagonal hubcap trademark was joined by the Packard family coat of arms, which then appeared on everything Packard-including my thermometer.
Packard, unlike its dintinguished brethren, including Duesenberg, Stutz, Marmon, Pierce-Arrow and Franklin, narrowly escaped oblivion in the Great Depression, and during World War II went on to once again produce aircraft engines-this time Rolls-Royce power plants, first for the Royal Air Force (after isolationist Henry Ford refused to build them) and then for the fabled North American P51 Mustang.
But the glory days were over. After the war, Packard was unable to convert from handcrafted, high-quality products to the mass-built luxury cars that the public demanded in the 1950s. In the giddy postwar years, people went wild with conspicuous consumption and were willing to substitute perceived luxury for the real thing. Cadillac, Lincoln and Chrysler were able to make the leap into the glitzy volume-car business, but Packard lacked the financial resources to bridge the gap. A stodgy management did not recognize the changing tastes of the American public and blundered badly, turning to overblown styling and failing to develop a powerful, overheadvalve V8 engine or an effective automatic transmission.
In 1955, Packard aligned itself with another ailing giant, Studebaker, and its final descent into oblivion began. The wondrous marque ended its days in 1958 as a clone of a variety of mediocre Studebaker models-its magnificent Super Eights and Twin Sixes of the '30s but a feeble memory.
Today, the Packard has made something of a recovery-not as a new car, but as one the most desirable of the classics now being collected like fine art. A 12-cylinder model with an open touring body from such great custom coach-builders as Dietrich, Murphy or Rollston will command prices in excess of $500,000. Any Packard of pre-World War II vintage is considered a high-value automobile."
So, I look at the old thermometer-pristine, painted blue, white and yellow-and I wonder...How it it that so much quality, grace and integrity has been erased from our culture? How many mediocrities have been permitted to survive simply because they were cheaper to build and cheaper to buy?
Sometime, probably 30 years ago, that Packard thermometer was hauled off the wall of a silent, near-vacant dealership and stowed away, perhaps in the benign hope that a revival would someday bring it forth again. That is not to be.
A machine built with integrity and care disappeared during a time when American industry was making a massive shift from quality to short-term profitability. The blame lay mostly with an American public willing to give up custom-built quality for affordable status. Everybody wanted a Cadillac, provided it didn't cost too much more than a Chevrolet. Great cars like the Packard were crushed in the stampede and are now remembered only by trinkets like my thermometer and a few flawlessly restored relics.