Tour Detroit’s Legendary Packard Plant

Pure Detroit In Association With The Packard Plant Project Offers Tours

There are many buildings in Metro Detroit that allow you visualize what the Automotive Industry was like at its peak. From the Rouge Plant to the Renaissance Center, from the Fisher Building to the Tech Center, these structures allow us to see the strength behind the country’s largest car manufacturers, the brands that hold permanent space in our lives. But there are also buildings scattered amongst the vast Detroit landscape that take you back to a time when the automotive industry was in its infancy, when independent car companies and brands whose cars no longer line our highways were building massive factories and were seemingly on the verge of dominance. Perhaps no sets of buildings do this better than the Packard Plant.

Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour
The author leading a Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour.

Today, a narrative surrounds the facility that paints it as a symbol of decline. A decline of a city, the decline of an industry, the decline of infrastructure. But when looking at the history of the Packard Plant one can see that it’s true story is one of growth and success.

Packard Plant pre-assembly line work stations.
Packard Plant interior showing the Kahn System of steel reinforced concrete, wide open floor
plan and large windows. Note also the craftsman-style work stations rather than an
assembly line. –Photo courtesy of the Walter Reuther Archive

The 4 million square foot Albert Kahn designed factory was one of the world’s first to be built using steel reinforced concrete. This style of design, which would become known as the Kahn System, would revolutionize industrial design. The construction allowed for factory floors to sustain massive amounts of industrial weight. Factory floors grew larger and brick walls were replaced with large windows that allowed natural light and fresh air to pour into the factory. The designs cut down on lighting and cooling costs and created an environment that was profitable to bosses and comfortable for workers.

Packard Plant Bridge
The famed Packard Plant bridge and City of Detroit flag during
a spring 2018 Pure Detroit tour.

Kahn’s version of steel reinforced concrete would become the industry standard for nearly half a decade. The large open floors allowed for the entire automobile to be built on site. Everything from the frame to the seats were built in a series of buildings. The Packard Plant’s size allowed for them to avoid mass production longer than most of their competitors. The company continued to build in a sort-of craftsman style of production. Rather than having a car move down an assembly line, multiple workers would surround the frame, putting together what would become America’s finest luxury cars. As each part of the body was finished, it would move from one building to another, until the final product was finished.

packard plant frame assembly
Packard Plant interior showing frame assembly. Notice the overhead lights
appear to be off as workers work in the natural light from the large windows
on the right – one of the many benefits of the Kahn System.
-Photo courtesy of the Packard Plant Project

This style of production was a major marketing tool for Packard. Their factory was amongst the most modern in the world but their products were built in a way that called back to the days of artisans. When they began building airplane engines in the First World War, Packard introduced a slogan which claimed that “Men Bet Their Lives on Packard” and as the car brand continued togrow, they marketed their models as exclusive items whose value and uniqueness became clear the moment you drove one out of their hundreds of high end dealerships. Packard pleaded with the car driving public to “Ask the Man that Owns One.”

Western portion of the Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour.
Tour guests along the western portion of the Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour.

Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin, Al Capone, and Bugsy Siegel were amongst the men who could testify to the beauty, comfort, and reliability of a Packard. Packard’s were marketed towards people with means. As America was struggling with its great depression, Packard cars were still being sold at a price point of $3200 (over $67,000 today), nearly five times the price of a Ford Model B.

Packard Plant Detroit circa 1910
Nearly completed Packards being driven between buildings at the Packard
Plant, circa 1910. -Photo Courtesy of the Walter Reuther Archive

But as the economic situation worsened, Packard began to ponder ways to improve their market share. In 1935, the company made their first attempt at producing median priced cars with the introduction of their Model 120. The car was sold for under $1000. Its introduction to the market was wildly successful. Packard sales tripled in 1936 and then doubled in 1937. This success convinced Packard that an overhaul of their company may be necessary.

Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour Administration Building
Pure Detroit tour guests making their way to the second floor of the
Packard Plant Administration Building.

From 1936 until 1939, Packard undertook a major redesign of their factory. The company would finally install an assembly line. The line would run through a total of four floors, making it the tallest assembly on the planet. The focus of production would move out of Packard’s dozens of buildings and would instead be focused in the hallways that ran through one of Packard’s oldest structures. The eastern most part of the facility that ran parallel with Concord Street. The culmination of this project was the bridge that would finally connect the two sides of Packard’s operation. From a practical standpoint the bridge made it possible for Packard to connect its factory for the first time, allowing cars to be built on one single line. Perhaps more importantly to the owners of Packard, the massive bridge served as a new marker of their dominance over the east side town. The bridge would make Packard’s presence known to anyone who drove their cars down the city’s Grand Boulevard. Two decades earlier, when Ford called on Kahn to build their massive facility on the city’s premier avenue, Woodward, they immediately changed the landscape of the city’s layout. Packard was hoping to do the same thing on what was, arguably, the city’s second most important stretch of paved concrete, Grand Boulevard.

Packard Plant Administration Building Construction
Third and fourth floors being added to the Packard Plant Administration Building.
-Photo courtesy of the Packard Plant Project

The assembly line, and the bridge that held it together, did provide some success for Packard. More mass produced Packard’s brought some success to the company but its true usefulness came during the Second World War when Packard was tasked with building airplane engines for Rolls Royce. With over 40,000 employees working on their factory floor Packard proved their industrial might to the world while proving to themselves that mass production would not lead to a total drop in quality

Packard Plant Administration Building and Pure Detroit Tour Outpost
The Pure Detroit Tour Outpost with the Packard Plant Administration
Building in the background.

But the shift to war time production would hurt Packard. Like other brands, they left the market during the war, but unlike their competitors, Packard would be attempting to introduce a complete rebrand to the automotive market. The company that was known for its high end models on the eve of Pearl Harbor would now attempt to enter the crowded and competitive economically priced car market. The post war Packard’s were not popular; their designs did not keep pace with the changing car industry. At the time, automotive journalists panned the newly produced Packard’s calling them bathtub cars or pregnant elephants, a description that didn’t necessarily inspire the public to switch their alliances from Ford or General Motors. These design issues, when combined with a number of other problems, would eventually lead to the collapse of this once proud automotive manufacturer.

Pacardk Plant Workers
At it’s peak, the Packard Plant employed more than 40,000 workers.
-Photo Courtesy of the Walter Reuther Archive

In the decades since, the Packard Plant had fallen into tough shape. But the bones of the facility, born from the brain of Albert Kahn, are built in a way that allow them to still support the building to this very day. Under the direction of Arte Express, the owners of a large part of the facility, a massive renovation project is underway. Known as the Packard Plant Project, construction crews work to bring the facility back to life and Pure Detroit is helping to preserve its history. Throughout the Spring and Summer, Pure Detroit and their expert guides will lead you through the facility, on a guided tour that will stop in different parts of the plant that allow you to visualize what this once proud car maker was capable of creating.

Follow this link to learn more or to sign up for a Pure Detroit Packard Plant Tour.

3 thoughts on “Tour Detroit’s Legendary Packard Plant

  • April 10, 2019 at 10:00 pm
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    As much as I would have been interested in doing a tour of the Packard plant, I would really prefer to have a couple days or so advance notice, as opposed to being informed of the April 10, 2019 tour on April 10, 2019.

    Reply
  • April 11, 2019 at 3:53 am
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    The Packard Plant tour is truly an enjoyable event. I’ve been to plant several times on my own and last year, along with my brother, took the guided tour.

    The guide made the tour both interesting, informative and enjoyable. It was easy to imagine what the plant was like in its heyday, not only with its physical appearance today, but also with the insights provided by the guide- the amount of acreage it covered, the number of skilled trades, the number of employees and the little city that grew up around the plant.

    My grandfather worked at the plant, and he always wanted a Packard. One day he was able to afford one- a used 1948. He was very proud to drive what he built.

    Reply

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