Look At What I Found!: Packards Return to the Packard Proving Grounds Test Track – W/ Video

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
Start the video, then pause. Click on the “3D” icon on the YouTube menu bar to select your choice of 3D formats or 2D. Video and original photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

We’ve all seen too many pictures and videos of the magnificent ruin that was once the Packard plant on Detroit’s east side. It turns out that there’s a Packard site in the Detroit area that’s not a ruin, the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Twp. about 15 miles north of Eight Mile Road. Like the Packard plant on East Grand Blvd, Albert Kahn designed all the original Packard buildings on the proving grounds site, including a tudorish looking lodge where the facility’s manager and his family lived. It may be the only place where Kahn designed both residential and industrial buildings. It was built in 1927 at a cost of over a million dollars. Packard used the facility to develop and test their cars, aviation engines (there was a small airfield inside the big oval track – Charles Lindbergh visited the site), and also for publicity and marketing. The proving grounds even had a role in the Arsenal of Democracy. Chrysler used the facility during WWII to test Sherman tanks, erecting a building used to service the tanks that were tested inside the paved oval.

Additional video after the jump.

After Packard folded, the property passed into the hands of Ford. Packard had operated an engine and transmission factory on the north side of the facility, on 23 Mile Rd, where they developed and built the Ultramatic. That site became a Ford facility which now belongs to Visteon. Ford used the proving grounds buildings for storage. Eventually Ford Land started to develop the proving grounds site. There is a condo complex just south of the proving grounds buildings, that sits over part of the test track’s path but for the most part the site was unmolested, though slightly decaying.

A view from inside the restored timing shed at the remains of the test track.

Most of the 2.5 mile high speed oval was still intact until a few years ago when a trespassing hot rodder put his car off the track. Out of liability concerns, Ford Land tore up most of the track. Just the 458 feet immediately adjacent to the timing shed and Packard’s original tree lined driveways remains. That part of the track’s metal safety barrier also remains. The driveways lead from the entrance of the site past the lodge and other buildings out to the track.

The site’s original block and stone walls, stone gate posts, and ornamental iron gates and arches are intact, as is the proving ground’s period perfect water tower with its Packard script logo.

Fortunately for the marque, Packards have always been owned by wealthy folks. The Packard community got mobilized when they found out about Ford wanting to develop the site, kept up enough pressure and eventually the Packard Motor Car Foundation paid $7 million for the site. Ford Land then donated about the same amount of land for a total of about 14 acres. The foundation has started restoring the site, spending about $1 million on new slate roofs for the lodge & repair garage.

The trees have been replanted along the driveways and they have full time employees managing the site. The original timing shed has been mostly restored too. Essentially all the original buildings remain and are in restorable condition, including the “Lindbergh” airplane hanger which was moved to the foundation’s property from elsewhere on the site. The foundation also bought one of the Packard plant’s facades that the building’s owner had put up for auction and it will be on display when the foundation’s planned museum, to be constructed in the repair garage and engineering buildings, is completed. The lodge houses a nascent Packard research center and archive. The Packard Motor Car Foundation appears to be doing this right.

The facility has a few events every year, open houses in the spring and fall and a big car show in the summer. The spring open house was on Sunday, May 1, 2011 and I was able to hitch a ride out there in a ’48 Packard. There were about 3 dozen Packards including an absolutely spectacular red 1933 dual cowl phaeton. There were two postwar woody wagons, and a nice ’48 convertible owned by a Detroit area Chrysler-Fiat dealer. His store was one of the event sponsors so he also had a new Chrysler 300, 200 convertible (not a bad looking car with the top down but no Packard), and a Fiat 500 on display, away from the Packards.

Among the Packards that stood out.. wait, any Packard stands out, but the ones that most impressed me besides the ’33 were a beautiful blue prewar convertible coupe, a cream colored ’42 convertible and a black ’47 limo that was very long. There were also a couple of very clean woody wagons.

How long was the limo? Well, I shoot everything in 3D now and when you are doing stereo photography, there is one rule that you must obey if you don’t want people to complain about their eyes bleeding (just kidding, but it’s the most important rule). That’s the 1 to 30 rule. You can’t be closer to the subject that you are shooting than 30 times the distance between the two camera lenses. Put your arm out and hold up a finger. Now bring it towards you and touch your nose. At some point, you can’t cross your eyes enough to keep a single 3D image in your brain. Because current 3D camera rigs are not yet as adjustable as the human vision system it’s an important rule to follow. You can move the lenses in closer together, but that reduces the stereo quality. So when I’m framing a photo or video, I’m used to stepping back. One time while stepping back, at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, I ended up (or down) falling into an exhibit holding a 1915 Dodge Brothers’ touring car. Shooting the 1947 Packard limousine in one of the proving grounds buildings I first stepped back. Then when I saw that it wasn’t in the frame of both cameras, I went back another step or two. Still not enough. The ’47 limo, with a body made by Henney on one of Packard’s professional car (ambulance, hearse) chassis, has a 148″ wheelbase.

The Johnny Trudell big band played jazz in the repair garage and in addition to the cars outside there were cars and displays inside the garage and engineering building, and the Chrysler building. The lodge’s garage houses the facility’s gift shop and there were also other vendors and displays located there and elsewhere on the site. You could take a self guided tour through the lodge.

Some of the Packards were in show condition, others original. As a writer, I could get an article out of just the hood ornaments. I don’t know how big the crowd was, but the event was well attended.

One cool thing loaned to the site is a Packard chassis & drivetrain used as a showroom display in 1956. Also there is the original “towing dynamometer” that Packard built into a sedan so they could measure power out on the road. Allegedly General Motors once borrowed it, and it’s an important piece of automotive history. It’s in rough shape but a sign said that it’s “ready for restoration”.

Oh, and there was a boat. A big and fast boat. Gar Wood’s famous racer, the Miss America X, with four supercharged Packard V12s.

Photo:Packard Motor Car Foundation – 2009 Spring Open House

There were Packard engines on display, including marine and military applications.

In addition to the Packard stuff there were 100-200 other special interest cars most of which were pretty nice. Someone brought a Mercury Comet GT – a Maverick clone in Grabber Blue with a 302 V8. It was sitting next to a Dodge SRT10 pickup.

What the Packard foundation is doing is a great thing. People should know about it. When I got access to the GM Heritage Center back in February to shoot 3D for Cars In Depth, since I was already not far from the facility, I drove up to the proving grounds to get some pictures of the site in the snow.

A few weeks ago, I was walking out of Durst Lumber in Berkley and there was a ’48 Packard in the lot. The guy who owns it is a retired guy, Art Kirsh, who lives a half mile from me. He asked me if I was a “landsman”, and we started to talk, resulting in the Look At What I Found! about his car. I asked if he was going to the spring open house at the proving grounds and he graciously offered me a lift to the event in his car. Art is active in the Packard community, driving to most events in the midwest. Most of the other Packards there were also driven to the event. Art said that only a couple of them were trailered in. In this case, though, the trailer queens were true automotive royalty. Art’s ’48 is a fairly nice riding vehicle for a 63 year old car. He was able to keep up with traffic on the freeways, though Art kept it in the right lane. He said that he’s gotten it up to 85 before with no problems. It had a very smooth ride, but then it weighs almost two and a half tons. Not as steady as a modern car for sure but smoother than most modern cars today that are not luxury models. There was a noise in the dash when the car braked, with Art said was new and jokingly said must be a mouse in the heater. He also might want to get something checked in the front right suspension, because there was also a noise when making left turns. Back then you had to lubricate the suspension and chassis on a regular basis or bad things would happen.

A couple of owners were giving folks rides out on the test track in their Packards. There was a sign that said “Packard Taxi Stand”. I don’t know how many Packards were used for taxis, but as mentioned above, they did sell professional cars. I think one car giving rides was a ’39, not that much different from Clemenza’s Super Eight where Rocco Lampone made his bones by clipping Paulie Gatto. The other Packard on the test track was late 20s. I had my 3D video rig and it would have been stupid for me to not get video of the old Packards returning to the test track.

The word return might be historically accurate. In addition to using the test track and the mostly unpaved “torture track” on the site’s southwest side to develop Packard products, the facility was also used for quality control, with production models being taken off the line at random and being subjected to 25,000 miles of testing at the proving grounds. Packard promoted that QC testing in a brochure you can see in the photo gallery. According to that brochure, every V12 powered production Packard was tested at the proving grounds. That means that it’s very possible that this wasn’t the first time these particular Packards were on the test track. In any case, I was fortunate to get video of both vintage Packards on the Packard Proving Grounds test track, or on what remains of it. The track is wide enough that both drivers were able to enter the track near the timing shed, drive to the far end of what remains, make a U-turn and come back and exit via the drive on the other side of the timing shed.

Leon Duray and Norm Batton on the banking getting ready to exit the fourth turn of the 2.5 mile oval track in 1928. The view is looking towards the east northeast. You can see the water tower in the distance behind the track’s banking. The water tower is still there but there’s a condominium complex where this part of the track stood.

The guy driving the ’39, named Marvin, knew I was there to shoot 3D. I guess Marvin’s a bit of a showman. To celebrate his Godfather looking car, there’s a fake human arm, caught in the trunk lid. For all I know it might be the car from the movie. After all, Clemenza told Rocco to take the canoli and leave the car. Marvin started to show off for the cameras, taking an extra loop around the timing shed and then returning to the track for a figure eight, finally accelerating as he turned past me off the track and up the driveway. It was nice of him to put on a show like that because after the processing, the 3D was as good as I’ve been able to get so far with video. If you don’t have 3D, don’t worry, the YouTube 3D player will display 2D with a few clicks, and that’s plenty cool, but it’s worth scrounging up even some cheap red/blue glasses to watch in 3D.

I took about 70 still shots of the Packards, the buildings and the assorted Packard memorabilia. You can see the full gallery in 2D or 3D at Cars In Depth. I would have been able to get more but when you’re shooting 3D, all the photographers come up and ask you questions about shooting in stereo. That’s how you know they’re photographers, regular folks say 3D. That and the fact that they have three different cameras hanging off their necks.

I’ve also uploaded a gallery of historic black and white photographs of the construction and use of the Packard Proving Grounds. The photos are from the collection at the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library, the world’s largest public automotive archive. There are also a couple of shots of Gar Wood at the wheel of Miss America X and the aforementioned Packard brochure about the proving grounds. You can find them in the gallery below the second video.

The Packard foundation and club people are great car people. Friendly, willing to share whatever they know about their cars and justifiably proud of the marque and what they are accomplishing in preserving its history. If you’re in the Detroit area, pay the proving grounds a visit. Their next public event is Sunday, June 12, 2011, the Cars ‘R’ Stars Concours and swap meet.

Start the video, then pause. Click on the “3D” icon on the YouTube menu bar to select your choice of 3D formats or 2D. Video courtesy of Cars In Depth

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Robert.Walter Robert.Walter on May 06, 2011

    I've driven that track... Mustang/Shelby Club used to sponsor a track-day every Memorial Day weekend. If you had a M/S, or any other old Ford you could take high-speed laps on the track. Got my '69 351-2V A/T XR-7 H.T. up to 121 (or was it 111 mph - so long ago, I don't remember anymore.) Saw a lot of interesting cars, recall a '69 GT500 conv. gold w/ white top and white interior ... a bit tired as well ... throw a rod in it's 429 SCJ (that kid took it in stride), saw an original AC Cobra lose a rear wheel and put new contours into the RR 1/4 aluminum sheet metal (boy was that guy crushed...) In those days, maybe 25 years ago, Ford had all kinds of metal shipping cages stacked nearly 2 stories high on both sides of the track with a lane and a half clearance to pass thru (at 100+ mph, it was like flying into those tight enclosed spaces in the Imperial Death Star), and this path had a little jiggy-jag in the middle, so there was real danger someone would clip a cage and bring the whole pile down... The track was in rough shape, with so much gravel from the crumbling expansion joints (they were not filled with rubber as in the pictures Ronnie took), and as one was crusing at high speed, one could hear the gravel pinging off of the bodywork... There was also a (guess) 67 Fairlane, who blew his engine and coated the track in oil ... and this with a little drizzle one year conspired to severely limit track time... The timing booth was nearly a wreck then, and looks better now, as does the entire property and buildings... gates look good too, the iron work was rough all those years ago and the lanterns were kind of tipping to the sides with broken glass in them... it is amazing all that stuff survived... Fun times, good memories...

  • Marisman Marisman on May 07, 2011

    Great story and pictures, but that is without a doubt THE most Booorrrring car video I have ever seen.ZZZZZZ.... 3D ain't gonna help it.

  • Bd2 Probably too late to do anything about it for the launch, but Kia should plan on doing an extensive refresh of the front fascia (the earlier, the better) as the design looks really ungainly.
  • Namesakeone Since I include SUVs and minivans as trucks, I really cannot think of a brand that is truly truckless. MG maybe?
  • Sobhuza Trooper Subaru, they were almost there with the BRAT. --On a lighter note, where the hell is my Cooper Works Mini truck?
  • Mike Evs do suck, though. I mean, they really do.
  • Steve Biro I don’t care what brand but it needs to be a compact two-door with an ICE, traditional parallel hybrid or both. A manual transmission option would be nice but I don’t expect it - especially with a hybrid. Don’t show me an EV.