PACKARD ERA OVERVIEW
The Stock Market Crash of 1929, and subsequent Great Depression, would have a resounding effect on many business during this era; Packard’s branches would not be left unaffected. Packard’s automobile company had positioned itself properly during the 'Series' streamlining of their production operations. This allowed the company to make the switch to volume based production of vehicles that were more attainable to the working class, while still maintaining the ability to cater to the premium market. Advances in engine technology set new standards for speed and performance, and innovations like electronic overdrive and suspension enhancements kept Packard ahead of the competition.
Packard Electric, also affected by a changing marketplace, was bought by General Motors in 1932, a move that would allow Packard to weather the storm well into the future and continue its development with advancements in aircraft cable and automotive engine wiring harnesses. Shielding from radio transmission, wiring sub-assemblies, and ring terminals continued to push Packard Electric forward. Each advancement would set the stage for Packard's future, with war in Europe looming on the horizon.
A CURVE IN THE ROAD - THE DEPRESSION AND OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
The 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression drove Packard to rethink its business strategy. In the period of two days, the market had lost over 30 billion dollars and would not recover to its pre-crash closing value until November 23, 1954; twenty five years later. Packard had previously been enjoying the Roaring Twenties; a time of great wealth, growth, and affluence about the United States. The high end luxury automobile market had been thriving, but Packard, along with the rest of the exclusive auto marquees were about to suffer a heavy blow to their sales and their customer base. While Packard Automotive struggled to rethink its image, Packard Electric continued to innovate. Wire drawing equipment was added, and Packard Electric was able to bring every cable make process into one plant - another industry first. This meant for lower overhead, greater profits, and more sustainability.
In 1930, the development of Ring Terminals enabled faster installation, easier service and greater reliability for high current applications. These terminals allowed the installer to attach the wire via bolt or stud to quickly secure the wire and maintain a strong mechanical connection.
For Packard Automotive, a strong focus on engine development continued. In 1931, a Packard IM-2500 powered ‘Miss America IX’ boat set a World Water Speed Record of 102.256 mph; the first boat to exceed 100mph. This World Speed Record was set by millionaire Gar Wood in a custom built wooden open canopy speed boat styled after the Chriscraft racers of yesteryear. It was powered by a pair of Packard V-12 IM-2500 engines that paved the way for later Merlin engine development. Gar Wood continued to set records to come using as many as four of the modified v-12 engines in his boats.
In an effort to expand distribution and lower costs, Packard Automobiles began production in Windsor Canada in 1931, just a stone’s throw from Detroit. By 1935, the plant had expanded and a larger building was sourced. This four story Packard Automotive Plant facility was kept in use until just before WWII; circa 1939. Packards built from the Canadian facility were mostly sold to European customers or any out of country (US) buyers as a way to avoid increasing export tariffs. The Canadian built Packards used Canadian made or sourced parts very heavily including all of the body panels, upholstery, wheels and tires. Most driveline parts were also made in Canada with the exception of the engine blocks, cylinder heads, and general rotating assemblies; those being the crankshaft, rods, pistons, and various other components.
In 1932, another Packard IM-2500 powered Miss America X set the World Water Speed Record of 124.86mph. The record stood until 1937. Gar Wood, millionaire power boat racer, decided to build a new boat to be the successor to the twin engine Miss America IX; the previous record holder. While the IX featured a pair of the Packard aero based IM-2500 engines; the Miss America X went one step further and doubled the power and the amount of engines to no less than four IM-2500s which would go on to hold the World Water Speed Record for the next 5 years.
In 1932, Packard built the Light Eight as an early attempt to reach back into the standard vehicle marketplace. The Light Eight was originally intended to drive sales volume after the Great Depression, and while the model was a success in its own right, it was discontinued in 1933 as it hurt the mainline sales of Packard’s Standard Eight model vehicle. Cost difference was significant for the time as the Light Eight was priced at $1,750.00 versus the $2,485.00 Standard Eight for a four door 5 passenger model. The Light Eight also used the same engine as the Standard, but was built on a slightly smaller chassis and the car was lighter in weight than the Standard vehicle. This gave the Light Eight more performance for the money which cut drastically into the Standard Eight sales. In 1933 Packard simply sold vehicles as the ‘Eight’ and no sub model vehicles were offered.
1932 was also the year that Peerless, one of Packard's early high-end automotive rivals ceased production from their Cleveland plant due to lack of sales. Peerless produced the very same high end ultra-luxury vehicles as Packard, Stutz, and Pierce. These high end coachworks facilities produced only the best-of-the-best of handmade vehicles using exotic materials and processes. Peerless had been a fierce competitor for sales with Packard; but unlike Packard, Peerless had not restructured into selling volume based vehicles to combat the upset marketplace. Although straying from the luxury market would prove to hurt Packard in the long run; it allowed them to stay alive in a time when its peers could not.
Packard Automotive was not the only Packard Company forced into transformation by a changing marketplace. In 1932, Packard Electric was sold to General Motors for approximately $665,000. The division would become part of GM’s Automotive Components Group (ACG) and would continue to be owned by GM through the 1990s. During the early 1930s, Packard provided cable and wiring equipment for more than half of all vehicles built in the world. Other goods they provided wiring components for included fractional horsepower motors for washing machines, drinking fountains, air conditioners, and Frigidaire brand refrigerators.
In 1933, Basil N MacGregor, an inventor with several U.S. Patents, became President and General Manager of Packard. Upon his 1958 retirement, the 25 year span marked the longest serving chief executive in company history. Basil had served as a U.S. Army Captain during WWI, and joined Packard in 1919 as a sales correspondent for the company. By 1924, Basil had attained the rank of cable sales manager, and in 1928 was promoted yet again to general sales manager. Upon the acceptance of his General Manager position in 1933, there were less than 350 employees still with the company, with an annual payroll of approximately $350,000.
1933 also marked a noteworthy event in world history with strong ties to the Packard name. An Assasination Attempt on Greek parliament leader Eleftherios K. Venizelos is thwarted by the 1929 Packard he was traveling in. Despite the tens of shots fired, he was not struck, and accredited his life to the Packard car he was riding in, as the thicker steel of the Packard kept most of the bullets from fully penetrating the cabin. The bullet hole ridden body of his original vehicle is still on display today; a testament to the quality of the Packard vehicle.
As a newly formed division of GM, Packard Electric continued the trend of Packard quality and innovation with the 1934 invention of Shielded cable, which prevented radio interference on aircraft applications. By shielding the cable on aircraft ignition wiring, Packard was able to prevent any loss, interruption, or distortion of the pilot’s radio while the plane was operating. This technology would later find its way into automobile ignition cables where interference could still occur.
1935 Packard Automotive finally unveiled its first sub $1000 car in order to battle depression sales; the One Twenty Coupe. Following the release, sales tripled for the company, and took Packard from what many described as an engine company and coachworks operation into a full-scale auto manufacturer. The One Twenty model was spun off of Packard’s new single assembly line process that was implemented at their Grand Avenue facility. This allowed for a low cost, volume based vehicle that could be built in multiple configurations at the same time on the same line. The initial thee passenger business coupe started at just $980. A Packard ‘first’ for the time included the use of an independent front suspension versus a harsh riding and poor handling straight axle design. This allowed better road manners, increased handling, and control. The One Twenty models were powered by an eight cylinder inline engine featuring an aluminum cylinder head; something not common on older vehicles outside of high performance models. Power ranged from 110 to 120 horsepower over its two year production cycle; During the two year production run, the One Twenty outsold all other Packard vehicles at a rate of over 3 to 1, with a production figure of almost 25,000 One Twenties produced compared to just seven thousand standard Packard vehicles.
In 1937 Packard released the successor to the 120; the 115C. The 115C was much like the One Twenty vehicle in that it was a low cost option for entry into a Packard vehicle. The 115 however, used a six cylinder variant of the inline eight cylinder engine of the 120, which displaced 237 cubic inches and produced 100 horsepower. Production of the 115 roughly doubled that of the One Twenty, with approximately 60,000 units produced total. Priced to sell at around $800, they were paramount in keeping Packard alive during financial hardship.
For Packard Electric, 1937 marked the year that Plants 2 and 4 were built, buildings that would prove their worth by 1939 at the beginning of WWII. Additionally, automotive wiring Harnesses were divided to ease assembly and installation. By separating the automotive wiring harness at the vehicle firewall; the main bulkhead between the engine and the passenger portions of the vehicle, workers streamlined their installation process by wiring the engine bay and interiors separately allowing the engines to be added or wired at later stages. This practice is still common today, as the vehicle body is still readied separately in many cases.
In 1938, the remaining luxury automotive brands of Frankin, Marmon, Ruxton, Stearns-Knight, Stutz, Duesenberg, and Pierce-Arrow had also closed. The Recession of 1938 would mark the end for the long hood, sweeping fender, and chrome over leather flamboyance of the elite brands of the Roaring 20s era.
In 1939, Max Gilman took over as head of Packard Automotive. Gilman, a Brooklyn, New York native, was originally brought on board by Alvan Macauley. Gilman had spent time formerly as president of Packard’s New York Distribution. Gilman had been McCauley’s ‘right hand man’ through the massive downscaling of the Packard brand and the push for high volume, lower cost vehicles. Gilman and McCauley had targeted the likes of mid-range vehicles such as Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile. Marques normally not associated with the esteemed likes of Packard. The success of the Packard 120 and 115 models had earned Gilman the seat as the president of Packard in 1939. Gilman would remain in charge through 1942 keeping the costs of vehicles low, while trying to keep production volumes high.
Also in 1939, Econodrive; an early form of an Overdrive Transmission was released. Econo-drive was an electronic overdrive transmission sourced from Borg Warner. This transmission used an electronic solenoid to engage or disengage a separate gear set inside the transmission that allowed the wheels to turn at a reduced rate from the engine crankshaft; promoting fuel mileage. 1939 also saw the release of a fifth shock absorber. The addition of the fifth shock absorber, mounted mid chassis, kept the rear axle of the vehicle more solidly dampened and controlled over unstable road conditions. Additional fore and aft mounted absorbers would become a feature used on vehicles throughout the 1990s. Column shifting was also added in 1939, which allowed the driver to operate a manual gear box through the movement of a stalk/column based lever versus a floor mounted shifter. This configuration would become popular with many vehicles through the early 1960s. As innovation continued for both Packard Automotive and Packard Electric, war in Europe loomed on the horizon.