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Living History

Annual show opens doors to historic Packard Proving Ground

Barry Kluczyk - August 29, 2013 10:00 AM

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Packard Motor Cars was one of the great successes of Detroit’s golden age and one of the victims of the post-war auto industry realignment.

Founded in 1899, it lasted through 1958, when its last cars were basically rebadged Studebakers, a company also on the ropes.

In its heyday, Packard was a premier luxury marque renowned for refinement and performance. Those attributes were forged and put to the test at the company’s proving ground, located near Utica, Michigan, about 25 miles north of the Packard assembly plant in Detroit. The 300-acre site passed between the hands of a few owners after Packard’s demise, but Ford’s real estate company became the longstanding owner before the decision was made in 1998 to develop most of it. Fourteen acres of the proving ground, including historic buildings and a small stretch of a test track, were set aside as a historic site.

Property highlights include an Albert Kahn-designed lodge, garages, a water tower still emblazoned with the Packard logo, a timing tower at the edge of the test track and even a hangar that served Packard’s aviation interests. Charles Lindbergh often flew Packard-powered planes from the hangar. A tree-lined "boulevard" at the center of the property is shaped like the brand’s distinctive grilles.

The proving ground’s preservation is overseen by the Packard Motor Car Foundation, which hosts a number of fundraising events at the site, including the Cars R Stars show. Formerly known as the Carnival of Cars, dating back about 50 years, the event has become one of our "must attend" shows each June. The historic setting makes it a show unlike any other, while the diversity of cars makes it a joy for anyone who likes cars – be they from the brass era, pre-war period, muscle cars years and even the 1970s and ’80s. The icing on the cake for this year’s show was a display of vintage travel trailers from the Tin Can Tourists, a club dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of classic Airstreams and the like.

There are plenty of car shows held in hot, flat parking lots, but the Cars R Stars event transcends that. Along with the cars and a modest swap meet, the doors to the garages and lodge are thrown open and the overpowering sense of history spills out. It’s bittersweet history, too, with the realization the once iconic brand has been gone for more than half a century. The site’s preservation also stands in stark contrast to the apocalyptic condition of the Packard assembly plant in Detroit, which is a hulking, gutted shell of former glory.

In a city that hasn’t always revered the sites that represent its history, it’s encouraging that the Packard Proving Ground has found new life as a historic place. The foundation’s website
(www.packardmotorfdn.org) has upcoming events and open houses. If you’re visiting the Detroit area, it’s definitely worth the visit – especially in early June for Cars R Stars.

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