By on June 6, 2015

 

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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

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.

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.

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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

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.

 

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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 #10. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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 #12. Final assembly was on the first floor of Building #16, further up Concord Street.

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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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38 Comments on “Why Does the Packard Plant Have a Bridge Anyhow?...”


  • avatar
    brn

    I always assumed that it was an enclosed walkway, which are plentiful where I live. It’s kind of interesting that it’s actually part of the assembly line.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

    A great slogan, today’s “brand managers” would be hard pressed to beat it.

    • 0 avatar

      The only way that could work today is if they’d do “Ask the woman who owns one” simultaneously. Come to think of it, ads aimed at men and at women might be more successful than something gender neutral. “Ask someone who owns one” just doesn’t have the same authority as “the man” or “the woman”.

      • 0 avatar
        smokingclutch

        Duesenberg did this. All their ads were simple pictures of clearly wealthy people, with the tag, “He drives a Duesenberg,” or “She drives a Duesenberg.”

        • 0 avatar
          RideHeight

          She Drives a Tesla! Briefly.

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          The Piece-Arrow ads that had little or no copy were great also.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Oh oh! This one.

            https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/77/fc/05/77fc05cea962c682aad15505e043b02f.jpg

            The sophisticated and commanding business tycoon knows the Pierce-Arrow.

            https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/c9/a1/9a/c9a19a5aa315f8241298417bdb8165aa.jpg

            And so does the woman of leisure. It awaits patiently, for the driver to take them wherever they wish to go.

            https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/a5/f0/0e/a5f00e29d1cae8b5f1c2f2e4eb95f4da.jpg

            And it’s a suitable conveyance to take your child to their private school.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        “Ask a human being who owns one.”

        Mehh.

  • avatar
    64andahalf

    I am very familiar with Warren, OH and shuddered at the line “When the city council of Warren wouldn’t approve the factory’s expansion, Joy moved the company to Detroit”. I imagine the benefit that having the plant could have provided to Warren for decades…and the shortsightedness of officials that blocked it.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    I think the Porsche factory in Stuttgart also has a bridge as part of the production line.
    Nice bit of history.

  • avatar
    ScarecrowRepair

    Was the inside ever converted into a walkway, or does it still have remnants of the old transport system?

  • avatar
    El Hombre

    35 acre campus; that’s why almost all new factories were built in Macomb county after 1940. Detroit was built out and they could buy a couple of hundred acres of Macomb farmland for what 5 acres would cost in Detroit. Cheap land and a railroad track running right thru your land; cars and car parts tend to be big, heavy, and bulky. Trains are the best way to move them.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      The multi-story plant with drop points like the Kahn design were pretty much made obsolete by sprawling new plants built during WW2. Look west-northwest of the old Packard plant, and you’ll see the GM Hamtramck plant – all on one floor, formerly the Dodge Main complex, originally very much like the Kahn layout. The move of many plants out of Detroit by all of the Big Three was partly taxes, partly lack of open space, and partly new methods of assembly requiring that open space.

  • avatar
    haroldingpatrick

    Cool, thanks for explaining the bridge – I figured it was so folks high on the totem pole didn’t have to go out in the weather to get from one building to the other.

    I’ll be in the area in a couple of weeks for the Motor Muster at The Henry Ford, sounds like it might be fun to take a ride through. I’m guessing the plant is posted for trespassing – no self guided tours. I’m flying on this trip so I won’t have my bear repellant anyway. It’s quite an effective deterrent / repellant for bears, dogs, panhandlers, meth heads, and other assorted varmits.

    • 0 avatar

      Are you bringing a car to the Motor Muster? If not and you’re looking for something else to do that Sunday, the annual Eyes On Design show is held at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford estate over in St Clair Shores.

      I wonder if there is any other place where there are two major car shows of the caliber of those two shows on the same weekend.

      • 0 avatar
        haroldingpatrick

        I wish I had a car to bring! Due to my daughter going away to camp on Sunday, I have to get back in time to see her off – I live 700 miles away in SC. The nice folks at American promise to get me home late Saturday evening.

        I’ve never been to the Motor Muster, but experienced the Old Car Festival last fall for the first time, so I’m sure it will be fantastic. Thanks for the heads up on the event at Edsel’s house, maybe next year when I can stay all weekend.

        I drove up last September and knew things were going to be great when I pulled into the parking lot at The Henry Ford on the Thursday afternoon before and parked my Honda behind two model T’s representing the beginning and end of the era. Having literally just come from a tour of the Piquette Ave factory where I learned how to identify a Piquette T by the different Ford script on the radiator and a late wire wheel T, it was surreal to find these two sitting next to each other in the parking lot.

        lot.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Bring back pince nez like Mr. Joy’s. With today’s featherweight lenses and twisty-tough frame materials they’d really rock.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    Albert Kahn also designed the Pierce Arrow factory still in existence in Buffalo and the nearby GM Tonawanda engine plant…still producing engines, including the Corvette engine and the Cadillac ATS 2.0 T

  • avatar
    mikeg216

    Just walk right and take a tour there’s no fences

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I certainly would ensure that you go on a bright, sunny day.

      And even then, I’m sure that having a large dog (or failing that, some sort of other countermeasures) along might not hurt!

      I believe you have to cross I-94 into the New Center area for safety’s sake, and even there, you have to be careful! Please correct me if I’m wrong!

      Didn’t realize “the Boulevard,” as Detroiters call it, started there — I thought the Packard plant was northwest of where it is.

      Basically next to the NB I-75 ramp to EB I-94! Learn something new every day!

      • 0 avatar

        New Center’s being gentrified. I see white women riding bikes or walking dogs by themselves in places they haven’t been seen for generations.

        Grand Blvd runs from the foot of the Belle Isle bridge uptown to the New Center area, then west and then back towards the river near the Ambassador Bridge.

        Outer Drive is another street that goes all over the place.

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          That’s right, I forgot that the Blvd. is the entrance to the B/I Bridge!

          I was 14 when I moved to the Toledo area, so I suppose I’m allowed a slip or two!

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        And when you return to your car, you’ll have no wheels left or perhaps be a window or two short.

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    Great article, Ronnie. I really appreciate these bits of history and especially the old photos from inside the plant.

    I sincerely wish this fellow luck with his plans to make something out of that old site, but I just don’t see a path to success. That surrounding area is a disaster even by Detroit standards.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Nice article about the Packard plant Ronnie. In Dayton, OH they have a private Packard museum which looks like an old dealer with a showroom displaying old Packards and the Packard sign on the outside. I enjoy reading your articles from the historical perspective of automobiles.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I hope I can explain this. The auto bodys run on a truck, with steel castor wheels, the wheels run on a rail, The truck is connected to the drag chain, by a spring loaded “tooth” called a “dog”

    So if you “on dog” the body truck, it will free flow within the confines of the track.

    So..if you have a break down, in say “Trim and Hardware” They can work on the stoppage, by simply un doging one vehicle, while the “body drop, can feed off of the fifty or so cars, that are still dogged.

    The downside ? You create a bubble in the line. So if your the shift manager in Chassis at the pay point {price sticker install}. the solution is to take every spare pair of hands you have , including your own, undog the vehicles, and manually push them across the bridge.

    The hope is that minor break downs, or contractual breaks, will shrink the bubble. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    You have not really lived, until you have pushed bodies across the bridge on a July evening with about a 95 percent humidex rating.

    Back in the 80s we would work towards a” build out” time. As the last car went by your work station, you went home with pay, for the rest of the week.

    Their was never any shortage of folks willing to push bodys across the bridge. I was a production groupleader, I pushed bodys with shift managers, foreman, skilled tradesman {we needed them to undog} I’ve seen Commitee men push bodys. Ive seen assembly line workers, come up to the bridge on their break, to push bodys. Amazing, how working toward a common goal, brings everybody together

    Oh yes I know only too well , the function of the bridge

    • 0 avatar

      Mikey, you should write down some of your experiences. You have a perspective on the industry that’s rarely seen and you’re articulate enough to express it well.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      Damn. In some paint shops we have a single chain Operation that’s on the floor. I think we call it power lift and free/clear. We normally utilize two chains for skids. The Single chain is for when we have to have multi story facilities which are uncommon due to shut downs from lifts.

      What blows me away is our new Paint shop we are building is two stories. It also has two very long bridges that feed and output from the top floor. He we are, 100 years past the mill style construction and we are circling back around to it due to short sighted capital restrictions.

      I watched two upstate SC textile mills from the turn of the 19th century get town down in the year I was away from Ford. And now I’m going to work on a brand new facility that mimics their floor layout and its brand new.

      Life is funny that way. Man I would love to have a beer and hear your stories, Mikey.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Thank you Ronnie….I’ll keep it in mind.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      Just coincidentally, the other day I was riding my bike past a FLW house on Seven Mile in Detroit. It has no carport. Wright was a bit of a car enthusiast, he had a Duesenberg J and a Crosley roadster. I’m surprised he didn’t like garages.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        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.

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