‘You really want to get out of the car?’ asked the vast, genial off-duty police officer. His concern was both touching and worrying and had nothing to do with the temperature which, with a little wind-chill factored was comfortably the uncomfortable side of minus 20deg C. ‘I’ll follow you, just in case.’ In case I presumed, someone leapt out of the shadows keen to relieve an oddly-attired Brit of the iPhone with which he was photographing acre after acre of ruined buildings.
Be advised that what you’re looking at was once the most advanced car production facility in the world. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But this is where to the east of Detroit and from 1903, the Packard Motor Car Company built a reputation that at its peak was second to none in the US, a company where innovation thrived and the highest quality given. This is the company that pioneered the use of the steering wheel and four wheel brakes and in 1916 became the very first to put a V12 engine into series production, fully twenty years before Rolls-Royce got around to putting one in the Phantom III. And while we’re on the subject of V12 Rolls Royce engines, it was here that Packard built under licence over 55,000 Merlin engines for use most famously in the P-51 Mustang fighter. And now there is nothing.
Actually that’s not true: there is 40 acres, 47 buildings and 3.5 million square feet of dereliction, claimed by some to be largest industrial ruin the United States. It survives today because it was the first car plant to be built using reinforced concrete, so while scavengers have long since picked it clean of all its fittings and, I am told, once wonderful art deco fixtures, the bare bones remain on this vast and freezing site.
The story of Packard is one of struggle, struggle against rapidly changing economic conditions, two world wars and, above all, the inexorable rise of The Big Three, the single largest factor in the demise of the company and desertion of the factory in 1956. In particular a 1950s price war between General Motors and Ford had a catastrophic effect on America’s few remaining independents whose pockets were not nearly deep enough to ride it out. Packard’s last act was to merge with Studebaker in an attempt to create The Big Four. But while Studebaker was far larger than Packard, so too was it in even greater financial strife. The results were Packards that weren’t Packards at all, but Indiana-built Studebakers wearing Packard badges. They fooled no-one and by 1958, Packard was dead.
Walking around you can still make out the production halls, the offices and the railroad that used to bring supplies to the factory, but not much more. In its ability to give some sense of it former glories, the wreck of the Titanic that has lain under the Atlantic Ocean for over a century, is in far better condition.
The site was sold last year and after bids of $6 million and $2 million failed to materialise, it went for $400,000 to a property developer. Imagine that: all that land and all that history for a lot less than the price of a single Goodwood-built Rolls-Royce Phantom. But I still don’t think it was cheap.
There are grand plans for the site redevelopment over the next decade or more and I guess that if Detroit’s long slow walk back towards its former eminence continues, it’s possible that it too will be resurrected. But I lack the imagination to see how. There’s no real character left in these buildings and the site is so vast, its redevelopment using the existing structures seems inconceivable to me. Far more likely is that a bunch of contractors wielding wrecking balls will turn up and within a few weeks the Packard factory will be obliterated from the face of the earth. It saddens me to think of it, but really it seems the only sensible option.
All that will then be left are the cars and engines produced there. And where might you go to see one of those in action? Nowhere better than Goodwood itself, the Festival of Speed in fact where for many years the Land Speed Record breaking Higham-Thomas Special better known as Babs has been seen in action. Powering it up the hill as it did along Pendine Sands in 1927 is its 26.9-litre Liberty V12 aero engine, designed and engineered by Packard.