Packard Proving Grounds

14 Dec

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Detroit’s rich automotive and manufacturing history spreads far beyond the city limits. Today we are in Macomb County, Shelby Township to be exact, visiting the Packard Proving Grounds Historic Site. In 1927 the Packard Motor Car Company began constructing a testing facility on 560 acres of farmland in Shelby Twp. Designed by (don’t you know it) Albert Kahn, the steel-framed buildings were state-of-the-art in their day. The Lodge was home to proving grounds manager Charles Vincent and his family, with the start of WWII, the family left the Lodge in 1942. Packard continued to use the property until 1958, it was then sold to Curtiss-Wright, who in turn sold it to Ford Motor Company in 1961. By 1998 Ford no longer had use for the property. After a long series of negotiations the acquisition of the total site was a combination of a gift from Ford Motor Land Development Corp. and purchase by the Packard Motor Car Foundation.

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It is a chilly late Autumn day, a combination open house and car show is being held on the property. A line of cars has formed gaining entrance to the event, rows of vehicles are parked on the front lawn, the familiar scent of exhaust fumes fill the air. Everywhere I look people are milling about, vintage Packards are parked along the garage area, they are beautiful, elegant, dazzling. Many have Art Deco style designs and trim, colors range from rich jewel tones to creamy neutrals, spare tires are mounted on the side like a decoration, hood ornaments are large and showy, and then there’s the chrome……..  Most models had a letter or a number for a name: Model K, N, the Dominant Six or Super Eight, later they used names like the Caribbean, Clipper and Hawk. The vehicles are a testament to the era they were designed and equally as attractive today.

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The Lodge is open for tours today. We enter through the kitchen, renovation is an ongoing process, the vintage sink, stove and refrigerator are from the 1920’s. Passing through the sitting room it is pointed out that the fireplace brick was laid in Kahn’s signature herringbone design, the foyer floor is original Pewabic tile. Upstairs we find a series of bedrooms, the Vincent’s had three daughters, the youngest, Roberta is living in Arizona today, but has been back to visit the house. Windows are leaded glass, photos, books and Packard advertisements are displayed, wet plaster is under repair, yellow caution tape abounds. The master bedroom overlooks the main gate and the Princeton Elms that line the boulevard. We come to a hallway leading past several dormitory-style rooms, these were used by visitors to the Proving Grounds. Most interesting is the Radio Room. Mr. Vincent was a ham radio enthusiast; he designed and built the equipment used in the first successful air-to-ground radio-phone communication which was done at the Proving Grounds in 1929. The tour ends back downstairs in the living room, currently used as a Board Room for meetings, the room is similar to its original appearance, complete with fireplace.

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Back outside we cross the courtyard to the Repair Garage, once used as an experimental and engineering laboratory, today  the Johnny Trudell Orchestra is playing big band favorites, Packard’s are randomly parked throughout the building garnering much deserved attention. On view are a number of engines complete with that signature Packard script, the 1956 showroom display chassis has drawn a crowd, Kris and I catch a glimpse of the stonework that surrounded the main entrance at the original Packard building in Detroit, safe at last. On loan for the day from the Algonac/Clay Twp Historical Society is the Miss America X. On September 20, 1932 Commodore Gar Wood set a speed record of 108.48 knots for a nautical mile and 124.71 knots for a statue mile. Powered by four 12 cylinder Packard engines, they are arranged as a two bank unit of two 24-cylinder engines creating  6,400 hp. A platform allows us to get an up-close view of Miss America X, she’s a beauty! Dials, gauges and levers cover the interior, the engine gleams in orange paint, the wooden hull is varnished to a high shine. We’ll have to visit the museum soon.

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Behind the building an elevated water storage tank stands high above the proving grounds, a sight familiar to me since I was a little girl. Just beyond sits a 4,000 sq ft hangar, now called the Lindbergh Hangar. In 1929 Col Charles Lindbergh visited the site to test-fly a Packard-powered airplane. At the back of the property the original timing stand and a 458 ft section of the test track remain. The second level of the timing stand provides a panoramic view of the proving grounds. Back in the day we would be overlooking a 2.5 mile oval track specifically built for high-speed testing. They say it was so well-engineered that drivers could travel around the banked curves in excess of 100 mph without holding the steering wheel. In 1928 Leon Duray set a World’s record for a closed course of 148 + mph, making the test oval the fastest in the World. Volunteers are taking visitors for a ride around the grounds in vintage Packards, we go for a spin, the drive ends and we are dropped off near the gate. Thanks to the support and donations by members of the old-car hobby, automotive historians and the local community, this site has been preserved and is now on the National Register of Historic Places; this is more than Detroit history, it is the history of our Nation.

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Bad Brad’s BBQ is located nearby on 23 Mile Rd, serving up delicious beef brisket and pork shoulder, the restaurant is a wonderful addition to the area. The interior is a combination of wood planks, brick and corrugated metal, the main dining room offers tables, booths and bar seating, they also have an awesome patio. Meats are steeped in fruit wood and hickory smoke for up to 14 hours, everything on the menu is made from scratch. Our Classic BBQ sandwich is piled high with sliced brisket, a wooden skewer stuck through the middle holds it together. House made sauces are on the table, I recommend trying each and every one. The kettle style BBQ chips go nicely with the sandwich, a side of cornbread is a must!

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Stony Creek Metropark is just a short drive from here, so we decide to extend the day with a walk and visit to the Nature Center. Much of Stony Creek was part of Valley Creek Farm, a weekend getaway for the Charles Hodges Sr family of Grosse Pointe from 1928 until the metroparks purchased the property in the mid 1950’s. Here we find prairies, woodlands and wetlands, trees like Norway Spruce and Norway Maple were planted by the family and are not native to the area. We begin our walk on the Reflection Trail, fallen leaves crunch under our feet, my face and hands are getting cold. A boardwalk leads to a lookout over a river, colorful leaves reflect off the water. The trail provides many places to stop and take in picturesque views. We keep our eyes open for wildlife such as birds, ducks, fish and turtles, something runs across the trail, we follow the sound and watch a cute little chipmunk have a bite to eat.We warm up a bit in the Nature Center, the building resembles a lodge, lovely wood beams make up the ceiling, large windows fill the walls, it has that “up north” feeling. Glass aquariums contain live frogs, snakes and turtles. Tall cabinets display examples of fox, ducks, hawks and owls, wow, some of them are huge! The view is tranquil, chairs are placed near windows overlooking bird feeders, I can feel myself relax as I watch the birds come and go. The scenery changes with every season. 

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