Why Packard Froze Cars In The Old Tank Building

When I give tours at the Packard Proving Grounds (PPG), people often ask why the walls in the northwest corner of the Tank Building are shiny.  I tell them that was where Packard did cold testing on cars.  Recently, while entering photos into the PPG database, I found this one (above) that shows an ice-encrusted 1952 Packard 200 just released from the cold room at the back of the Tank Building.  It got me to wondering, what else did Packard do to cars in this building besides freeze them?

In the PPG library, I found architectural drawings for the Packard Engineering Test Laboratory commissioned in 1950.  The cold room was just one of many test rooms that Packard built into the former Tank Building when automobile testing resumed at the PPG after WWII.

Along with the -40 degree Fahrenheit cold room in the northwest corner, Packard installed six additional enclosed rooms along the north wall.  Most were labelled “test cell” on the drawings.  One cell was designated as the DC motor generator room.  Another was the radiator flow test area.  An enclosed “durability test” room was built in the southwest corner of the building.  Benches labelled “endurance testing” were placed along the south wall.  Other work included the reinforcement of the original wood and concrete construction with metal supports and the installation of exhaust stacks on the roof over the test cells.  Some of the test cells had heavy-duty, explosion-proof metal doors, one of which remains in the building today.

Why was all this done by Packard in 1950?  After WWII, several new technologies, some invented before the war, became widely available to car buyers.  Technologies such as automatic transmissions, power windows, suspension improvements, air conditioning, power steering, and power-assist brakes, to name a few.  And as car systems got more complex, so did testing requirements.  The post-war car buyer expected a higher level of comfort, performance, and reliability.  To meet these demands, automobile companies had to develop new testing procedures with advanced equipment in engineering test laboratories.

For example, with a cold room on site, test engineers did not have to wait for winter to test cars. Performance-specific testing could be done more quickly and efficiently year round to keep up with car production at the factory.  The cold room was used to gauge the effects of sub-zero temperatures on the viscosity ranges of various engine oils and fluids.  The effects of cold on brake lines, starters and batteries were also tested.  To ensure driving comfort and safety, there were tests for passenger cabin heat-up time and windshield de-icing.  And by encasing a car in ice, a test engineer could note adverse effects on the various air intakes.  

Today, very little of the PPG Engineering Test Laboratory interior remains as it was in the 1950s.  Ford Motor Company gutted the building after purchasing the site to make room for presses and other equipment for its automotive trim operations.  One Packard test cell room still remains and it currently houses the PPG car maintenance garage.

For a close look at modern-day testing of automobiles, including cold testing, check out this website:



  • Hilary Davis

    I have a passion for history and architecture, which sometimes gets me into situations that are at first way over my head but often end up having rewarding and satisfying outcomes.