Packard Proving Grounds: Fulfilling the Need for Regulating Testing and Testers
As the auto industry was proving to become a viable market, competition within the developing auto industry was thickening.
When we think of the auto industry today we think of “The Big Three”. Let’s go back to over one hundred years ago. Before the 1920s it seemed everyone wanted to get into the game. In 1908 there were 253 manufacturers manufacturing different types of automobiles, each claiming to be better than the other.
The White Company from Cleveland, Ohio was manufacturing “White Steamers”. Their marketing campaign claimed that their automobile was superior due to being noiseless, odorless, and free of vibration. It also claimed to have perfect flexibility and reliability, to be easy on tires, and the easiest to drive.
Detroit Electric claimed to render other electric types of vehicles obsolete by making theirs faster and able to drive a consistent average of 85 miles of continuous everyday service.
Packard’s advertising set out to prove it to be the most luxurious automobile on the market. Its campaign used “Ask the Man Who Owns One” to prove its point.
The competition as to who was best and whose automobile was the best for the money whittled the number of manufacturers down to only 44 by the year of 1929.
Proving that your vehicle was better than others took a lot of testing and that testing first started out on open roads. Consider how much control the auto manufacturer had when testing was done outside of their gates.
Regulating Testing and Testers
Automobile manufacturers soon found out that they needed to not only regulate the testing of vehicles but also needed to regulate the test drivers.
In 1910 Packard Motor Car Company created a small 5” x 3” pamphlet that stipulated eleven regulations for their test drivers. Take a look at the pamphlet shown below that is archived in the Packard Proving Grounds collection.
There are the usual things to consider such as when the cars were to be returned to the factory and what tools they must carry with them while out on the road. But, there are other control measures that enliven the mind to what it must have been like in the “hay-day” of being a test driver when no one was looking over your shoulder. Consider the temptation to stop at a saloon for a shell of beer, or simply make many stops to have a smoke or do some shopping along the way. It’s interesting to read that they did not specify a speed limit on public roads other than on the Boulevard. Surely they must have been interested in how fast their vehicle could drive, but placing the risk upon the test driver alleviated any repercussions to the company.
The regulations also kept their test drivers confined to the Detroit city roads within the roads marked in green on the map shown below.
Relocating Testing from the Streets of Detroit to the Proving Grounds
Unfortunately, the crowded, twisting, and patrolled roads that the test drivers were confined to offered a limited variety of conditions to prove their vehicle upon. There was also concern about competition seeing their future product developments. It became clear that to become the best automobile out there the car must be tested in every conceivable condition which could keep the public safe and their progress out of view. A proving ground could also provide a place to race a vehicle any time they wished without worrying about any interferences or obstacles. Test drivers and testing could be controlled and supervised within such an environment.
Originally, Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company from 1909 to 1916, wanted the now site of Selfridge Airfield in Harrison Township to be the site for Packard’s Proving Grounds. The Board of Packard did not think that his property offered enough variety of conditions for their vehicles to be tested upon. When the U.S. declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917, he decided, that same month, to do his bit by donating his “Joy Aviation Field” to the U.S. Army to establish a flying school for military aviators.
Nine years later suitable property was found just a little more than 20 miles north of the Packard factory in Detroit.
The New Packard Proving Grounds
In 1926 Packard purchased 320.68 acres in Shelby Township, Michigan. The following year they purchased 107.32 additional acres, and lastly, in 1928 they purchased another 76.18 acres. In total, they purchased 504.18 acres, at a total cost of $175,845.95, to build their new testing facility and track upon.
A two-and-a-half-mile concrete oval race track with a timing tower was built. The oval track’s sides were built at an angle described in the graphic above. This allowed a test driver to let go of the steering wheel without losing control. Miles of twisting test roads were also created that offered a variety of difficult driving conditions. An airplane hangar, repair garage with engineering laboratories, and a lodge built for the superintendant were also built upon the site. The lodge had a garage attached that had dormitory rooms built above for onsite workers and visitors to stay in. The beautiful Tudor Revival lodge building and garage were designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn.
Opening Day at the Packard Proving Grounds: June 14th, 1928
When Packard’s Proving Ground opened on June 14, 1928, the day was inaugurated with a race upon the newly paved oval track. George Stewart, the Detroit cab driver who became renowned Leon Duray, Indy race-car driver, raced the 91-cubic inch, front drive, Miller Special #4 and set a world record for a closed course of 148.17 miles per hour. This declared Packard’s oval test track as the fastest track in the world. Packard’s track remained the fastest track in the world for more than 24 years and held this title until it was handed over to the Monza in Italy after WWII.
Join Us to Celebrate the Packard Proving Grounds' 95th Birthday
This June 14, 2023 marks the 95th anniversary of the inauguration of the Packard Proving Grounds. It will be a day we celebrate with a car show and a celebration cake and ice cream social. We hope you will join us in celebrating the preservation of this historical site and look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in just five years.
Click here for more information on this exciting event and make sure to RSVP to email@example.com.