Why Does the Packard Plant Have a Bridge Anyhow?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
why does the packard plant have a bridge anyhow

The Packard bridge today.

You may have seen the news that the developer who hopes to renovate the decrepit Packard plant site on Detroit’s east side has covered the factory’s signature bridge over East Grand Blvd in a scrim that reproduces the look of the bridge during the plant’s heyday in the 1930s. I’m sure that you’ve seen dozens of photos of one of Detroit’s more notorious landmarks, but have you ever wondered just why a car factory had a bridge?

That bridge was actually part of Packard’s assembly line.

The Packard bridge in the early 1950s

Even though the company is closely associated with Detroit and was named Packard, it was started in Ohio by the Packard brothers who had little to do with its ultimate success. The credit for that success, becoming America’s preeminent luxury automobile brand, goes instead to a man named Henry Bourne Joy.

The Packard bridge in the summer of 2014.

Henry Joy was born in Detroit in 1864 and, I suppose, today we’d say that he had connections. His father was the president of the Michigan Central Railroad and the Detroit Union Railroad Station and Depot Co. Before Henry was born, the senior Joy hired a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, experienced in railroad law, to work on his business mergers. After attending local schools in Michigan, Henry Joy was sent east to complete his education at elite schools including Andover and Yale. Starting out as an office boy in another company controlled by his father, Joy eventually worked his way up at the DURS&DC, becoming president after his father’s death. He was also an executive of the Peninsular Sugar Refining Company, part of the then new sugar beet industry in Michigan.

Joy’s resume included military service in two wars – in the U.S. Navy auxiliary during the Spanish-American War and in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I – leaving the service as a lieutenant colonel.

Henry B. Joy

Though a native Detroiter, Joy’s interest in automobiles started while on a 1902 trip to New York City. After watching two Packard automobiles start up and chase down a horse-drawn fire wagon, Joy bought the only Packard for sale in the city. He was so impressed by the car’s reliability that he traveled to Warren, Ohio to meet with James and William Packard of the Ohio Automobile Company. The Packards told him they needed capital and he readily put together a group of nine wealthy Grosse Pointers who took a majority ownership in the newly formed Packard Motor Car Company.

Packard plant on East Grand Blvd at Concord in Detroit in the Nineteen teens. Note that the bridge over East Grand Blvd hadn’t yet been built.

When the city council of Warren wouldn’t approve the factory’s expansion, Joy moved the company to Detroit, where a Packard factory was first established in 1903 on East Grand Boulevard. Two years later, Joy hired a young architect with some revolutionary ideas to design Building Hitherto, most American factories were built in what’s known as the “mill style”. Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue factory where the Model T was first made is an example. It has wooden post and beam construction with brick walls. The factory floors are long and narrow, with wood plank floors. The construction method also limited how many stories up they could build. All that wood was a fire hazard, and early Detroit factories of both Cadillac and Oldsmobile burned to the ground. That’s how Oldsmobile ended up making cars in Lansing.

Kahn had the novel idea of using steel reinforced concrete as a construction method for both the building’s framework and the flooring. That allowed him to build factory floors with much greater square footage than could be done with mill style construction, allowing for more efficient factory layout. It was also less of a fire hazard. To make factory work more bearable, Kahn put in large windows to let in light and ventilation. One distinguishing feature of Kahn’s industrial designs is that on the outside they weren’t plain buildings. Limestone and brick were combined aesthetically and decorative elements were also included.

As the first use of reinforced concrete for a factory building, Packard Building #10 is considered a significant location in industrial history. Kahn would go on to design other buildings for the site (as well as for other automakers like Henry Ford). By 1910, it was the biggest car factory in America. Eventually, the Packard campus grew to 35 acres, with 47 buildings enclosing 3.5 million square feet of space. At its peak, Packard employed over 40,000 of the world’s most skilled auto workers at the site.

As the factory expanded, bridges were built to connect the various buildings. Most of the spans were to transport people and parts but in time; bodies were assembled in the building on the south side of East Grand Blvd while matching chassis were put together across the street, necessitating the assembly line to traverse the Boulevard – hence the famous Packard bridge.

The Packard bridge on the inside. From the look of the cars, the date is either late 1930s or immediately postwar.

A conveyor chain pulled dollies carrying bodies up to the second floor and across the bridge over East Grand Blvd. They were then transported to the drop point on the second floor of Building Final assembly was on the first floor of Building further up Concord Street.

It’s been 60 years since the last Packard body was dropped at that factory in 1954. The last two years real Packards were made (to distinguish them from “Packardbakers”), 1955 and 1956, saw production moved to a plant on Conner Avenue. In recent years, the decaying industrial facility has become an editor’s cliche about Detroit’s decline – notwithstanding the fact the death of the Packard Motor Car Company is effectively ancient history. Developer Fernando Palazuelo and his Arte Express company have finally taken up the mantle to redevelop the site, starting with the four story administration building on the north side of East Grand Blvd and the bridge.

Exterior work on the bridge is said by Palazuelo to be done within the next year, at which point the drape will be removed.

Non-archival photo credit: Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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5 of 38 comments
  • Mikey Mikey on Jun 07, 2015

    Thank you Ronnie....I'll keep it in mind.

    • Lmike51b Lmike51b on Jun 07, 2015

      Please do mikey. Your hands on, been there perspective is always appreciated.

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jun 08, 2015

    I wonder what the wage differences were back in the 20s - between the skilled craftsmen building prestigious Packards, and the non-skilled laborers making a Ford. It's fun to think how Packards went in the garages (or carport, if you're living in a FLW-built house) of wealthy Americans of the time, next to their Pierce-Arrow or Rolls-Royce.

    • See 1 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jun 08, 2015

      @Ronnie Schreiber I think he thought the car bit was alright, just not the "storing" of a car. Many people had to plead with him to get a carport, a term which he claimed to coin himself. Very rarely would they get a garage. He said something like, "Garages collect clutter, and you cannot live life that way." He was also against other household storage like built-ins and closets, and pantries separate from the kitchen. The family who built Fallingwater had quite an ordeal getting him to add the 4-car carport, apparently. I visited there two weekends ago.

  • Alan I blame COVID, the chip shortage, container shortage and the war in Ukraine. This aggression is evident in normal daily driving of late.
  • Alan $10 000 is a bit rich for a vehicle that most likely been flogged all its life, plus it's a VW. Lots of electrical gremlins live in them.
  • Alan Mitsubishi, Hino and Izuzu trucks are quite common in Australia. Another factor that needs to be taken into account are the cheap Chinese trucks and vans that are entering the market in Australia and becoming more popular as reliability improves, with huge warranties. Businesses want the cheapest logistics. Plumbers, concreters, builders buy many of these in their lightest versions, around 2.5 tonne payload. Hino/Toyota could use the cheaper competitor in Mitsubishi as a competitor against the Chinese. You don't see too many of the Japanese/Asian trucks in the rural areas.
  • 2ACL I think it's a good choice. The E89 didn't get respect due to its all-around focus when new, but it's aged well, and the N52/6HP combo is probably more fun and capable than it's given credit for.
  • Wjtinfwb I can hear the ticking from here...