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Packard packs a punch

A Packard model on display as part of a vintage car rally in Mumbai in 2019.

A Packard model on display as part of a vintage car rally in Mumbai in 2019.

When it comes to cars, you might have noticed that a lot of weightage is given to brands. Packard was one such name that made people stop and take notice, as owning the American luxury automobile was considered prestigious during its heyday.

Even though Packards are no longer in production, surviving examples of these cars are now found in museums, and also find their way into car shows and automobile collections. American mechanical engineer and industrialist James Ward Packard was responsible for the brand gaining such a reputation.

A clever contraption

Born on November 5, 1863 in Warren, Ohio, Packard was intelligent, inquisitive, and interested in all things mechanical from a very young age. His fascination in engineering probably came through his father, a prominent businessman who owned and operated hardware stores, mills, and machine shops.

Packard entered Lehigh University in 1880 and it soon became obvious to everyone around him that he was gifted when it came to handling mechanical and electrical systems. During his time here, it is said that he rigged telegraph lines to friends’ rooms and wired the doors and windows of his dorm room and an alarm clock.

The latter demonstrated his aptitude for invention and mechanical devices as the switching mechanism allowed him to open or close the doors and windows without getting up. Packard’s senior thesis was titled “Design of a Dynamo Electric Machine”, and he was involved with the Lehigh University Bicycle Club, serving as a signpost of how his industrial career was going to pan out.

Over 40 patents

Packard obtained the first of over 40 patents that he earned through his lifetime for the Packard electric lamp in 1889. He returned to his home town of Warren, Ohio the next year and along with his elder brother William Doud Packard, set up the Packard Electric Company in 1890. The company succeeded in making electric bulbs, transformers, and cables, playing a direct role in Warren becoming the first U.S. city with incandescent bulb street lamps in 1911.

It was in 1898 that James bought his first automobile, a single-cylinder Winton for $1,000. The drive home from nearby Cleveland, where the machine was built, was far from comfortable as the Winton broke down and the car had to be towed into Warren using horses.

Winton’s challenge

As the Scottish-American inventor Alexander Winton resided nearby, James was able to express his displeasure directly to the car’s maker. Legend has it that Winton, tired of listening to James’ complaints about his car’s numerous flaws, told James that if he was so smart and knew so much, he should try building a better car himself.

James, who was up for the challenge, convinced his brother and an investor and entered the automobile industry. Packard Electric’s New York and Ohio lamp plant was where the first Packard automobile – the Ohio Model A – was built, and on November 6, 1899, the first car from Packard’s stable was tested on the roads.

Rise and fall

The Packards began manufacturing cars in 1900 as a subsidiary of their electronics firm, but set up the Packard Motor Car Company soon enough, in 1903. Unlike many others in the industry, the Packard brothers focussed on research and development and were hence able to make important advances to automobile engines, transmissions, chassis construction, ignition systems, and brakes.

Building cars for an exclusive clientele, it wasn’t long before the Packard line earned the reputation of being the finest luxury cars in America. Thirteen years after retiring as chairman of his hugely successful car company, James Packard died in 1928.

Packard Motors moved from strength to strength for nearly half-a-century, merged with Studebaker Corporation in the 1950s, before eventually going off the market later in the same decade. There’s news doing the rounds that the company is planning a comeback into cars.

For now, the company has produced a new luxury timepiece, another of James’ interests, called the 1899 Model A. Priced at $1,899, a quarter of the proceeds is being donated to the National Packard Museum, a place that recognises Packard’s influence in transportation and preserves the Packard legacy.

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 6:44:47 am |