What was it really like to be a test driver at the Packard Proving Grounds (PPG)?
When I saw this photo in the Vault database, the first thing I thought of was how much fun this test driver must have been having driving around the sand pit at the PPG. It reminded me of summer days when my father would tear around the beach as fast as he could go in our 1947 Willys Jeep with us children shrieking in terror and delight in the back seat, much to my mother’s dismay.
While I am sure that PPG drivers did have fun driving the test track and the badlands test roads, I also know that it was serious work; work that could be tedious, boring, exhausting, and often dangerous. The drivers tested cars in all kinds of weather while dealing with variable road conditions, day and night.
In the early years of testing at the PPG, the cars being tested did not have modern-day power assist steering and brakes. They did not have the smooth ride and effortless automatic transmissions that we are accustomed to today. It took considerable strength and stamina to maneuver these cars hour after hour through the rugged badlands of the PPG.
Conducting driving tests around the 2.5-mile oval test track must have been especially tiresome. Lap after lap of closed circuit driving could be sleep-inducing, especially at night. The drivers did not have today’s pod casts, satellite radio or audio books to keep the mind occupied during a long drive. It must have been quite an effort to stay awake and alert. Fortunately long test runs often included an engineer as passenger to monitor on-board test equipment and keep the driver company.
Test drivers had to be well versed in the latest testing equipment, so training was ongoing. Drivers also had to have considerable mechanical knowledge of Packard automobiles to help them spot problems during tests and provide detailed reports to the engineers.
While there were no government-mandated safety guidelines at the PPG, such as provided by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) which began in 1971, the Packard Motor Car Company, its engineers and test drivers were aware that a spotless safety record was important to the successful marketing of the Packard brand. The fact that there were no serious injuries or deaths during the years the PPG was in operation is a testament to this dedication to driver safety even under the most hazardous conditions at the PPG.
For an entertaining and informative discussion of a modern day automotive test driver’s job, check out this article in Jalopnik: https://jalopnik.com/all-the-crazy-ways-automakers-test-cars-so-they-can-han-1754833626
To get an idea of the driving conditions in the PPG badlands and on the test track in the early years, watch “How Packard Proves a Packard.”