Gear Head Tuesday – James Ward Packard; 1863 – 1928

Gear Head


Undated photo of James Ward Packard. In earlier photos, he had a mustache.

James Packard, co-founder of the Packard Motor Company, a pioneering American automaker, died at the age of 64 on 20 March 1928. The Packard brothers founded the company that produced some of the world’s finest automobiles. The brothers are probably spinning in their graves at the marque’s inglorious end. During Packard’s glory years, to drive a Packard was to say that one had truly arrived. Packard became one of the most prestigious marques in the world.  Packards were driven by movie stars, heads of state and business titans. In a move that enabled the company to survive the Depression, the marque was taken down market and the brand was cheapened. Modern Monday Morning Quarterbacks make the case that Packard likely could have saved itself by following the Mercedes-Benz model where both lesser and more noble cars are offered, while skillfully marketing the more upscale cars as the umbrella providing prestige to the lesser cars. But those what-ifs change nothing and the marque founded by the Packard brothers is gone. Attempts to revive Packard over the years have all failed.

James Ward Packard was born in Warren, Ohio, on 5 November 1863. He graduated from Lehigh University in 1884 with a mechanical engineering degree. In 1890, Packard and his older brother William Doud Packard (1861-1923) founded the Packard Electric Company in Warren where they manufactured electric light bulbs and other electrical equipment, including electric cables. As the auto industry grew, aside from the auto operations, Packard manufactured spark plug wire sets marketed under the brand Packard Cable. Packard Cable was later bought by General Motors. Until very recently, a look at the spark plug wires under the hood of any GM car revealed the name “Packard Cable”.

James Packard bought a Winton automobile. He wasn’t satisfied with it and suggested improvements to its builder, Alexander Winton. Winton didn’t take kindly to Packard’s suggestions and told him that if he thought he could build a better car, then, by all means, go do it. Packard took Winton up on his challenge and in 1899, the Packards built their first vehicle.

1899 Packard

James Ward Packard driving his first Packard car, 1899

Correction per Stuart Blond (Thank you, Stuart!): “The photo showing “James Ward Packard driving his first Packard car, 1899” is actually his brother, W.D. Packard driving his 1900 Packard model A-21, the first car completed in 1900 and the second Packard built. It was used as a test vehicle in April and May 1900 before W.D. took it over as his personal car. This information comes from Terry Martin’s book, ‘Packard – The Warren Years.’ “

The first Packard is single-cylinder, single-seat roadster. I used the present rather than past tense in the previous sentence because the first Packard still exists and runs! Packard went on to build four more examples of this first series of cars.

Packard Old No. 1

Above: Packard “Old Number One.” Below: “Old Number One” being driven on the campus of James Ward Packard’s alma mater, Lehigh University, in 1930.


In 1903, the Packard Motor Car Company moved its operations from Ohio to a 3.5 million-square-foot plant in Detroit, Michigan. The new plant was designed by Albert Kahn. At the same time engineer Charles Schmidt redesigned the new 1904 Packard after taking a trip to Europe that year to learn of the European automaker’s methods. He observed the more advanced and refined cars there and put into practice much of what he learned in the new car. His efforts resulted in the new Model L touring car, the first four-cylinder Packard and also the first with the tombstone-shaped and vertical style radiator that went on to become a Packard trademark.

1904 Packard Model L

1904 Packard Model L – the first use of what became Packard’s iconic grille shape.

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.


President Warren Harding in 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.

In both World Wars, Packard made airplane and boat engines for the U.S. military. The famous PT boats of World War II are powered by three Packard Marine V-12s.

In 1954, Packard merged with Studebaker to form the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. This was to be one phase of a grand scheme to merge Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard into the fourth full-line automaker, American Motors. As we’ve chronicled previously, the Studebaker-Packard half of the merger was never folded into the Nash-Hudson half. A perfect storm of events forced the closure of Packard. On 26 June 1956, the Packard plants were shuttered. Studebaker marketed the infamous “Packardbakers” of 1957-1958. The two very last vehicles to wear the Packard name were two Packard-badged Studebaker pickup trucks that were shipped to Argentina!

Studebaker built cars for another decade, before closing its operations in 1966.


James Ward Packard is probably spinning in his grave over the inglorious end of the company he and his brother founded.



From The Old Motor: It is not very often that we see an early photo of the founder of a famous car company behind the wheel of one of his creations. It is even more uncommon to see one on his honeymoon. James Ward Packard married Elizabeth Gilmer on 31 August 1904 in Warren, Ohio. Our photo shows  the bow-tied James Ward and elaborately-hatted Bess at Panama Rocks near Chautauqua Lake in New York on their wedding trip. The Packard in which they made the voyage is showing evidence of the primitive road conditions they encountered.

The following year, they would begin construction of an elaborate 32 room mansion in the lakeside village of Lakewood, New York. It would not be completed until 1912. A three car garage was added in 1914 and in a second floor machine shop, Packard would pursue his mechanical and electrical interests. He became a legal resident of Lakewood after 1913, was active in village life and a generous benefactor to the community.


Packards Motor Car Company “Firsts”

The H-pattern gear shift arrangement
Automatic ignition spark advance to give smoother and more efficient engine operation
The use of a steering wheel instead of a tiller for steering, on the 1901 Packard model C
Spiral bevel differential gears, for a quieter car
A mass-produced V-12 powered automobile, the Twin-Six

Packard Twin Six

A special Packard race car with a 905 cubic inch Packard Liberty aircraft engine, driven by Ralph DePalma, set a land speed record of 149.72 mph

First volume producer of automobiles to introduce 4-wheel brakes
Hypoid differential gears, which allowed a lower floor and lower vehicle height
First Neon signs in America – two “Packard” signs put up by Packard dealer Earle C. Anthony in Los Angeles. The signs stopped traffic.


The Packard neon at the Los Angeles Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership

Air Conditioning as an option, price $275.00
With the Air Conditioning option, customers could also get a bar that made ice cubes.
First Power Windows
The only independent automobile manufacturer to engineer and manufacture their own automatic transmission, Ultramatic Drive.
4-Wheel torsion bar suspension with automatic leveling
First limited-slip differential
First power door locks


Packards through the years:

34 Packard Twelve 1106 coupe

Above: 1934 Packard Twelve model 1106. The ’34s are generally considered to be the finest of the classic-era Packards. Below: 1942 Packard Clipper. Still a most handsome car. Most of the design of this car was done by “Dutch” Darrin.


Below: Henry Ford’s last ride was in a Packard-Henney hearse.



Above: 1954 Packard Patrician – the last of the “straight eight” engined Packards. Below: a 1956 Packard Caribbean, one of only 276 built. Powered by a mighty 374 cubic inch V-8, it was the most powerful car offered in 1956.



Above: 1956 Packard Patrician in Mojave Tan and Dover White. It is estimated that less than 150 ’56 Patricians survive. Below: This odd-looking creature is a 1958 “Packardbaker” station wagon. Only 159 of these were inflicted on the world.


UPDATE (See Comments section) – Just for you, Gordon! Below: 1958 Packard Hawk, one of 588 built.


More just for you, Gordon –
Separated at Birth: ’58 Packard Hawk and a catfish:

Separated at Birth-Packard Hawk_catfish

Below: One of the two very last “Packards” – a pair of 1958 Studebaker pickup trucks were ordered with Packard badges and sent to Argentina.



Add yours →

  1. Great historical article. It really is a shame the old Packard is gone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, GP! Indeed – Packard was called “the one car company we can’t afford to lose” – but we did lose them. The ’57s Packard had planned but couldn’t put into production because the banks and insurance companies wouldn’t finance the tooling would have been truly stellar cars that by far would have been the most advanced cars on the market.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Are those designs still available? Today’s market has most every car looking like the competition – a retro design would be terrific (IMO)!!

        Liked by 1 person

    • GP – In reply to your question about whether the designs are still available, I’m assuming you mean the designs for the unbuilt ’57 Packards. First a little related information – the car was ready to go into production. One very rough hand-built running and drivable engineering prototype had been built. Even some of the tooling had been ordered. That said, to the best of my knowledge, none of the engineering drawings survive. As Packard was closing, all the documents, drawings, blueprints, etc. were ordered destroyed. They were carted over to the power house for the plant and burned in the furnace. Stylist Richard Teague smuggled a lot of Styling drawings and documents past the guards at the plant’s gates in the trunk of his car. What we are able to see today of the ’57s is a result of Teague’s efforts to save what he could. Over at, there is a thread about a man who is building a 440 cubic inch Packard V-8, the engine that would have powered the ’57s. Someone else was building a full size and running re-creation of what the ’57s would have been – but that project stalled and has yet to be re-started. If it is completed, it should be a spectacular car. The ’57s would have been very handsome.

      The ’53-’54 Studebaker Commander Starliner has been re-created:

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hope one day these projects will succeed!! Thank you for taking the time to bring me this – maybe one day the generations coming up will see it!


  2. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 21/03/2017 — 12:55

    Paul, you missed the Ultra ugly Packard Hawk

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stuart R. Blond 21/03/2017 — 20:04

    The photo showing “James Ward Packard driving his first Packard car, 1899” is actually his brother, W.D. Packard driving his 1900 Packard model A-21, the first car completed in 1900 and the second Packard built. It was used as a test vehicle in April and May 1900 before W.D. took it over as his personal car. This information comes from Terry Martin’s book, “Packard – The Warren Years.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed the read. Interesting History. As I read the innovations I was remembering the ones I used over the years starting with the H design of shift levers.
    Loved the pictures…


  5. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 22/03/2017 — 05:36

    Paul, thanks for the update–The red car is far more appealing than the white “catfish comparison” vehicle. Keep up the good work. Gordon

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article and history of what was THE auto of the very rich and the royalty of the world. I had a ’41 that I bought from an undertaker in 1952 when I was 18. I beat the living crap out of it every Saturday evening running my buddies and me to N.Y. state, where we could legally drink. It was impossible to kill that car. ( but, I came close ).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello,
    I realize all this info was posted over 2 years ago, but I did just want to mention that the cemetery marker that has the Packard name shown here is not where JW Packard and his wife are buried. They are next to her parents in the same cemetery. JW’s father, brother and other family members are here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. M 66 now and i cant believe that Packard didn’t see the writing on the wall way before their demise. ’55 and ’56 Plymouth and Chevys looked alot like models of Packard. Many auto makers followed a lot of Packards designs but packards were the best quality from their chrome, upholstery, motors, suspension; every part was very good quality. ’56 was a beautiful car and their paint was excellent. i restored cars from the 70s and i still do so pass the words of history to some of the young people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stuart R. Blond 18/07/2020 — 20:39

      A minor update – the caption of the ’56 Caribbean notes that only 276 were built. Yes, there were 276 Caribbean convertibles built, but there were also 263 Caribbean 2-door hardtops built that year. Just being picky…

      Liked by 1 person

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