March 20

This Day in History

Automotive

Mar 20, 1928:

Auto pioneer James Packard dies

James Packard, co-founder of the Packard Motor Company, a pioneering American automaker, dies at the age of 64 on this day in 1928. During Packard's heyday in the 1930s, its vehicles were driven by movie stars and business titans.

Packard was born in Warren, Ohio, on November 5, 1863, and graduated from Lehigh University in 1884 with a mechanical engineering degree. In 1890, Packard and his older brother William (1861-1923) founded the Packard Electric Company in their hometown and manufactured electric light bulbs and other electrical equipment. In 1899, the Packards built their first vehicle, a single-cylinder, single-seat roadster. In 1903, the Packard Motor Car Company moved its operations from Ohio to a 3.5 million-square-foot plant in Detroit, Michigan. James Packard served as the company's president until 1909 and was chairman of the board until 1915. By the mid-1920s, his initial investment of several thousand dollars in the company was reportedly worth millions and the Packard brand had come to represent quality and style. In March 1921, Warren G. Harding, reportedly the first U.S. president who knew how to drive before taking office, became the first commander-in-chief ever to ride to his inauguration in an automobile--a Packard Twin Six.

In 1937, next to the Ford Motor Company, Packard was considered by Fortune magazine "the most valuable name in the auto industry," according to "Packard: The Pride" by J.M. Fenster. Fortune wrote of Packard: "For a generation its luxurious cars had never carried lesser folk than rich invalids to their airings, diplomats to embassies, gangsters to funerals, stars to the studios, war lords through Chinese dust, heroes through ticker tape, heiresses across Long Island and Grosse Pointe." Among the luminaries who owned Packards was W.F.R. Murie, head of the Hershey Chocolate Company, who purchased 45 new Packards in 35 years and even had one painted to match the color of a chocolate bar.

During World War II, Packard made airplane and boat engines for the U.S. military. In 1954, the company merged with fellow automaker Studebaker to form the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. However, the company struggled financially and in 1956, the Packard plants were shuttered. (Studebaker would remain in business for another decade, before closing its operations in 1966.) In the mid-1990s, two American entrepreneurs purchased the rights to the Packard name and attempted, unsuccessfully, to revive the brand with a new luxury sedan.

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