When image mattered!

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Building Packard’s Image

By Gerald PerschbacherLL.D.

 A 1938 Packard Six runs the Proving Grounds in tests. At times cars (selected at random off the assembly line) were literally destroyed in tests to uphold the quality goals of the venerated car maker.

A 1938 Packard Six runs the Proving Grounds in tests. At times cars (selected at random off the assembly line) were literally destroyed in tests to uphold the quality goals of the venerated car maker.

Image. Every car maker and major product devised and sold by humankind has relied to one degree or another on the image it conveyed. In the era of cavemen, there may have been a craftsman who devised the best spear for his time, slicing through the air to lower his wild-beast target with a single strike. In the era of the Middle Ages, armor improved and now as then, the war-time implements carried marks and insignias to show their pedigree by master craftsmen. In the age of carriage transportation, custom designs and special one-offs were proudly made with a provenance attached by name or by outright features indicative of the master behind the design.

In the era of automobiles — as early as the 1890s — masterful inventiveness was exhibited in the slow trickle of horseless carriages. They rolled from a smattering of production sites proud to say that their skilled workers were born of Old World techniques in quality, design and creativity exhibited in their self-propelled wheeled conveyances. Pride of product was in the car industry from its first day and has never subsided, although the waves of peaks and dips of valleys in that history gives pause for wonder.

What made the image of a car great?

Of course, first of all, it was based on reliability and desirability, an interesting blend of meeting the needs for personal transport without denying or negating the human crave for attractive appearance and comfort. Ease of operation soon was added as cars moved from the times of half-hour prepping to even start the car, to the era of push-button engine enlivening.

Among pioneer brands was Packard, established from the time of its first model in 1899 as a measure for others to follow. Standards were aborning in those pre-20th Century days and would continue to multiply when it came to standardization of parts, interchangeability for mass production (a keynote proved by early Cadillacs) and desirability of ownership. There were other factors, too, but that last factor mentioned seems to have been the most prominent in the blend.

Packard officials knew it. They realized early in the 1900s that desirability meant a support system, meant an advertising plan and meant quality in every car made — a quality that would hold up under years of operation. Packard was never alone in prompting future customers to “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” at times shifting that slogan to substitute “Woman.” This concept was of old. Indeed, the best “salesman” for a good make of automobile was the person who adored the invention, clung to it like it was a brother and trumpeted its virtues to friend and neighbor. Packard was not alone in thinking that if a good car was made and if it continued in delivering grand service, then there was no if that it would bear good tidings among hopeful buyers of the brand. Success in sales and image equated to total success in business.

There were many models over a multitude of years covering more than five decades by which Packard played out its theories along those lines. One that is quite memorable is its launch of the medium-priced Packard Six in the late 1930s. The model was aimed at the low-to-mid range of that pricing category, allowing the One-Twenty to take the top ground in that range as an entry-level step toward Super Eights and Twelves, the “senior” Packard models that were intended to better even the best.

When the Six debuted for 1937, Packard had turned a dark corner and was on the upswing thanks to its One-Twenty sporting Packard’s own smaller straight-eight, a powerplant formation of choice even the great Duesenberg and lesser Pontiac alike. Still, some folks preferred a “six” for its simplicity and economy in that era when high-speed travel on divided highways was merely a hope until 1956, when the federal government initiated the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act to create interstate highways.

Packard tested its new Six, not only before introduction but with successive versions. The Packard Proving Grounds in Utica, Mich., near Detroit, was the aggressive test site (of which a portion yet remains for history). Cars were nearly destroyed there in tests to gauge their abilities and to uphold the Packard image, even in the lowest-priced of its models.

Ultimately, when a person purchased a Packard, he or she gained a slice of that image in every aspect implied by the company and by others who joyfully also owned one.

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