Drive into history

Drive into history

At Dayton’s Packard Museum 

By: Mark Luedtke

Photo: 1930 745 Brewster Convertible Sedan Photo Credit: Andrew Thompson

Daytonians take it as an article of faith that Dayton was a big time car town a century ago. Everybody says so. Visitors can view an historic automobile exhibit at Carillon Park to validate this claim, but few really know that part of Dayton history.

Robert Signom II is one of those few. Signom owns America’s Packard Museum, located at the northeast corner of Ludlow and Franklin Streets. The museum is housed in the original building of the Citizens Motorcar Company Packard dealership that opened in Dayton in 1917. Dayton’s dealership was a branch office of the Cincinnati company, the fourth Packard dealership in the country, owned by – among others – the Procter family of Procter & Gamble.

Packard History

Signom could talk for days about Packard’s history and why it matters today. Packard was founded in 1899 in Warren, Ohio by brothers and mechanical engineers James Ward Packard and William Doud Packard. Signom related that the brothers founded the company in response to a challenge from the Winton Motor Carriage Company: “The brothers went to Cleveland because they thought the Winton seemed to be a pretty good car. They went with much fanfare. Several hours later they were back in their Winton, but it was being pulled by a horse because it had broken down on the way back to Warren. So they went back to see the people at Winton to tell them they sold them a bum car, and the guy told them if they thought they could do better job, they should build a better car themselves. So they did.”

Winton regretted that challenge – it ceased production in 1924 – because Packard quickly became the most popular luxury car in America. Signom explained why: “The brothers made sure it was only made of the highest quality materials, that it was well engineered and that it was tested. It very quickly became popular because those traits were self-evident when you drove or rode in a Packard.”

Signom described Packard’s success: “Most people considered Rolls-Royce and Packard to be just about equal. Brits called the Packard an American Rolls. Americans called the Rolls the British Packard. They were very high quality. They were both completely hand built. They were both very prestigious.”

While there were many high quality cars in the U.S., Packard outsold all of them combined, up to the Great Depression. Signom explained how the Great Depression wiped out auto manufacturers right and left: “Most of the other automakers went by the wayside between November 1929 and December 1941. Cadillac survived because it was supported by General Motors. Chrysler survived because it was supported by Chrysler. Lincoln survived because it was supported by Ford Motor Company. None of the other luxury cars survived.”

Packard, too, found itself in a death spiral. In 1934, Packard sold fewer than 5,000 cars. At that time, all Packards were still handmade and engineered to extreme tolerances, but it had to change or it would go bankrupt. For the first time, Packard created an assembly line and produced what it called “Junior” cars which it could sell at medium prices. While still excellently engineered, the Junior cars were not up to the standards of the original Packards.

Signom revealed the secret of why this move succeeded: “Whether they admitted it or not, people wanted Packards. People who drove Oldsmobiles wanted Packards. People who drove Cadillacs wanted Packards. They may not say that in public, but all aspired to own Packards.”

Packard sold over 55,000 cars in 1935, but it produced a downside. The Junior cars watered down the Packard brand. Many consider this short-term success to be the first in a series of decisions that would ultimately lead to Packard’s demise.

But Packard wasn’t just a car company. Signom called Packard an engineering company that happened to make cars. This was illustrated with Packard’s contribution to fighting World War II.

Packard produced V-12 marine engines for Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats, and it also produced the Merlin engines for Britain’s Spitfire and U.S. P-51 Mustang fighters. Rolls-Royce designed the engine, which Signom called “the finest internal combustion driven engine ever built,” but Rolls couldn’t produce enough to defeat the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Rolls first asked Henry Ford to produce the Merlin, but Ford didn’t have the capability. He recommended the Brits take their engineering drawings to Packard, which they had been reluctant to do since Packard was a competitor. At that time and during most of Packard’s history, Packard was run by James Alvan Macauley, who had learned his craft working for National Cash Register in Dayton under John Patterson. He served as general manager, president, then CEO.

Signom told the story: “Packard didn’t need to look at engineering drawings. Macauley said to the Brit, ‘My God, man, don’t you think we’ve had two or three of those apart already to see what you’re building?’ The deal was struck that day for Packard to build the Merlin aircraft engine with one caveat: Packard was free to make any engineering changes that it felt was needed to improve manufacturability or longevity. As it turned out, Packard made over 1,600 such engineering changes and the result was that while Rolls-Royce produced about 15,000 to 18,000 engines during the war, in the same time frame, Packard produced 55,000. So Packard is really the reason we aren’t all speaking German today.”

After the war, Packard was slow to introduce new models. That was another in a series of management blunders that culminated with Packard purchasing Studebaker. As Studebaker was hemorrhaging money, it quickly ate through Packard’s cash, and Packard was gone. Packard’s tremendous success followed by its rapid failure is why Sigmon believes Packard is an object lesson in business everybody should study.

America’s Packard Museum

Signom developed his love of Packards from his father and his grandfather. His family lost four of five Packards, along with everything else, in the Great Depression. Signom didn’t take to Packards as a teen, but as he puts it, “As Mark Twain once said, ‘the older I got the smarter my father got.’”

As an adult, Signom hunted for a 1928 Packard like the one his father drove to Middletown High School. Signom described the Packard he found on Long Island: “While looking at it, I discovered it was probably my father’s car. He told me to look for a secret pocket he’d put in the back of the seat, and sure enough it was there. I bought the car, and between 1973 until 1992, my dad and I restored that car and a couple of others as a father and son enterprise.”

In 1991, Signom acquired the original Citizens Motorcar Company building at 420 S. Ludlow St. and launched America’s Packard Museum. Signom is so driven to present an accurate representation of history, he adopted the name Citizens Motorcar Company as the official name of the museum.

Signom described why America’s Packard Museum, winner of the 2004 James Bradley Award of the Society of Automotive Historians and one of Car Collector Magazine’s “Top Ten” automotive museums, is not like other museums: “Most museums are in purpose-built buildings that are designed to maximize the museum experience but don’t necessarily have anything to do with the origin of whatever the museum is about. The building is not necessarily important to what is being displayed within it. But with an antique automobile museum – all antique automobiles were sold new in a dealership, serviced in a dealership, perhaps resold in a dealership – so the look, feel and smell of the automobile dealership is an important part of the context of the automobile.”

Signom’s mission is to recreate the historic dealership experience for his customers. He meticulously restored his building to meet that goal.

He described the customer experience: “When they walk in the front door, they should expect to walk into a time warp someplace between the late 1920’s and early 1930’s because they’re going to be standing in the showroom that is dead bang original to what it was then and which will have in it anywhere from three to six Packards, each of which is worth around a million bucks. They will then be able to see an unprecedented collection of Packard automobiles and Packard artifacts. People from other automobile museums have described America’s Packard Museum as the most complete and comprehensive collection of artifacts of any single marque in any museum anywhere. We’re very proud of that.” Even the original lifts and elevator in the service department work.

Signom has up to 50 Packards today, though not all are on display. The collection includes exceptionally rare cars like a 1914 Model 48 Runabout and a 1930 Model 734 Boattail Speedster, but Signom described his most rare car: “Probably the most rare is the car that was never offered for sale by Packard called the Jesse Vincent speedster. Vincent, Packard’s Chief Engineer, was a bit of a hotrodder and always wanted to have his own toy.” In 1927, Packard had no car fast enough to show off its new test track, so Vincent built the Jesse Vincent speedster. Signom continued: “It has no fenders. It has no windshield. It’s all made out of aluminum. It doesn’t even have headlights.” In 1929, Charles Lindbergh drove the car because he’d never traveled that fast on the ground before.

The museum also includes cars like the 1903 Model K Grey Wolf racer, the 1942 Clipper United States Army staff car used by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the 1932 Standard 8 Club Sedan used in the Brad Pitt movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It also includes a Merlin aircraft engine, a V-12 PT boat engine and other engines. The museum is also filled with Packard artifacts. Signom described one of the museum’s prized possessions: “We have the original articles of incorporation that the Packard brothers signed along with three other people in 1900 to incorporate the Ohio Automobile Company. It’s like the Magna Carta of Packardum.”

Operation

America’s Packard Museum is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s, Monday through Friday noon-5 p.m. and 1-5 p.m. on weekends. Tickets are $6, with discounts for seniors and students. The museum is a 501(c)3, and it recently won its long-running dispute over local property taxes, erasing a $300,000 lien. The museum also makes money by leasing itself out for special events.

The museum houses a tremendous collection of Packard parts. Signom hosts an event for Packard enthusiasts in February so they can purchase parts. He also occasionally sells parts for income, including traveling to the annual Hershey, Penn. swap meet.

Signom reported the museum operates mostly on the generosity of others: “We rely a great deal on donations from people who care about the museum and want to see it continue. The one bad thing about doing things in context is the building built in 1917 is leaky. We spend more money on heating and cooling than we otherwise would. Through the generosity of people in Dayton and Packard people throughout the world and through some of the rental activities we have, we manage to keep getting by. We have wonderful people who give us wonderful cars and other artifacts.”

America’s Packard Museum offers a unique experience for all museum goers.

America’s Packard Museum is located at 420 S. Ludlow St. For more information regarding hours, admission and more, call 937.226.1710 or visit americaspackardmuseum.org.

Mark Luedtke is an electrical engineer with a degree from the University of Cincinnati and currently works for a Dayton attorney. He can be reached at
MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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