Final Inspection

Packard Plant: Mother of Motor City Ruins


An abandoned Detroit factory that stopped making cars 58 years ago has long overstayed its welcome.

Rome has its ruins, we have ours in Detroit.

People may debate about which Roman ruin is the best. Some say it’s the Coliseum. Others vote for the Forum or the Baths of Caracalla. They’re all amazing.

By consensus, the mother of Motor City ruins is the Packard plant. It doesn’t amaze, it dismays as a titanic industrial wreck: 35 acres (14-ha) of decay near the city center.   

What’s baffling is that the factory stopped making cars in 1954. Yet it uselessly sticks around, long ago crossing the line of overstayed welcomes.

It looks like a bombed-out Berlin factory after an Allied air raid. Post-World War II Germany razed such sites long ago. But in Detroit, which during the war served as America’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” the decrepit Packard plant stays put.

It has become a freak show.

Photojournalists from around the world come to shoot it as an ugly and eerie representation of a troubled town. 

Urban explorers poke around the premises with the zeal of hikers climbing a mountain. It is the Everest of abandoned buildings.

Underground rave parties have been held there. Imagine the chit-chat at those: “Look out for falling concrete on the dance floor.” “This place is a dive.” “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a dump like this?”

Now, it’s a tour attraction. An item (“Journalists Explore Detroit With Bill McGraw”) on a Society of Professional Journalists website tells of a local historian conducting a guided city tour. Stops included the Motown Museum and Packard plant. As Marvin Gaye said: “Ain’t that peculiar.”  

The Detroit Free Press recently ran a 10-page special section bannered “Why It Has To Go.” The newspaper says it's time to stop talking and start swinging the wrecking ball on East Grand Blvd.

It’s bad when an auto factory closes. It is mindboggling when one shuts down and sits for 57 years, idle except for a few minor tenants occasionally staking out a spot here and there.

Once upon a time, the plant stood proud, making cars for an upscale market.     

Packard started in 1900 in Warren, OH. It moved to Detroit two years later. At its peak, the Detroit plant employed more than 30,000 workers. By 1952, it lingered at 50% capacity.

The complex closed after Packard merged with another teetering auto company, Studebaker. They looked like two drunks trying to help each other across the street. Neither made it. The Packard name fell in 1959. Studebaker stumbled along for a few more years, then collapsed.

Ironically, although the Packard plant is one big mess, the old Packard proving grounds is a tenderly preserved historic site 22 miles (35 km) to the north.

Suburban development long ago gobbled up the track itself. But the old facility’s Tudor-style buildings remain. Those include an engineering structure, a repair garage and a lodge with dormitory-style rooms. A utilitarian timing tower and ornate grand-entrance gate also survive.

A foundation maintains the place. Stored in one building are pillars and a stone slab with “Packard Motor Car Co.” chiseled into it. The foundation salvaged those artifacts from the doorway of the plant’s administration building. They are the only things worth saving.


Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Dec 11, 2012

Who owns it now?

on Dec 12, 2012

Dominic Cristini's Bioresource eventually ended up as the private owner of record after years of legal disputes. Cristini once talked of developing the property into a casino and Grand Prix race track. He was busted for drug-dealing near the plant, served time and was released last year. Court records indicate the city legally blew an earlier foreclosure attempt. As long as the plant is privately owned, there's no hope for a demolition. If it defaults to public ownership, the state and financially strapped city would be hard-pressed to come up with the estimated $20 million to raze it.

on Nov 27, 2013

So it looks like Detroit is stuck with this ugly scenery for probably another 50 odd years unless something drastic happens. We have something similar in Sydney and it has been there for years. Looking at it positively, it will eventually be overgrown with shrubs and nature will do its own job of making it less of an eyesore than it is, although all that will take time of course. It is quite a sad story too, first the demise of a huge business and all the job losses that must have come with that decision, and then the life of Cristini himself who lost his girlfriend to suicide and himself became a heavy drug user, all said to be due to stress from law suits connected to the Packard plant.

on Jan 19, 2014

Well, the relevant authorities could actually help to transform this eyesore into something more useful. A simple idea is to refurbish the entire building and use it for other purposes like a storage facility which is a rising culture everywhere, especially in developing cities. Another alternative is to touch up the place and retain the historical elements of it for tourists to appreciate the humble beginnings and eventual progress of motor city. 

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.


David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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