Packard museum displays a different made-in-Warren car

WARREN — The Packard Motor Company started the city’s automotive history. Its move to Detroit didn’t end it.

Opening Tuesday at the National Packard Museum is a display devoted to the Sterling Knight Company, which manufactured automobiles in the city from 1923 to 1926 at its factory on Dietz Road.

Only three of the 700 vehicles the company made still exist, including a 1925 Sterling Knight passenger sedan that is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The car has been in its possession longer than the museum has existed — it was acquired from a collector in Long Beach, Calif., two years before the museum’s 1999 grand opening. It has been shown on occasion, but this will be the first time it’s been displayed with additional information that puts the car in historical context, Executive Director Mary Ann Porinchak said.

“We’ve been focused on the Packard-specific collection,” Porinchak said. “We’re at the point where we can expand that a little bit and decided to show off something else made in Warren. This vehicle, at the time, represented Warren’s re-entry into the manufacturing world.”

According to the research done by the museum, the Sterling Knight Company was started by Pete Sterling and originally planned on Cleveland’s east side, but the post-World War I recession delayed production of the vehicle.

Several Warren-area investors, including Packard Electric Company President and co-owner Newton A. Wolcott, provided an additional $1.5 million in capital, and the company was incorporated in Warren in 1923.

What made the vehicle unique was its engine — a six-cylinder internal combustion Knight engine that used sleeve valves instead of the more common poppet valves. The design allowed for larger valves, which could generate more power, and it made less noise.

“You don’t see on the engine what you normally think of,” Porinchak said. “It was the car that Jay Leno really zeroed in on when he was here (in 2016). That was cool to see his reaction to it.”

Only the engines were built at the Dietz Road factory. Sterling Knight Company sourced the rest of the parts from other suppliers and assembled the vehicles locally. The vehicles’ bodies were made by Warren’s Philips Custom Body Co.

Another unique feature of the sedan the museum has is a rear heater in the floor by the back seat.

“It looks like a floor heater in a home,” Porinchak said. “It has a cast iron grate on it.”

Sterling Knight models ranged in price from $1,985 to $2,800, and the company had a showroom in the Hippodrome building on High Street NE, one of 13 dealerships nationwide. Sales didn’t meet expectations, though, and debts started to mount within a year of opening. The company went bankrupt in December 1926, and the Van Huffel Tube Co. bought its factory.

“One of the cool things about having a permanent collection is you never run out of stories to tell,” Porinchak said. “Back in 1997, the Sterling Knight didn’t rank as high as the Packard among the stories we wanted to tell, but it is an important story. Warren really was on the cutting edge of the auto industry.”


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