Blast from the Past: America’s Packard Museum: ‘I sometimes call it a time machine’

Downtown Dayton car collection is a story of fathers and sons

Close your eyes as you enter America’s Packard Museum — a shrine to the glamorous automobile of the past — and step back in time.

Shuttered for more than a year due to the pandemic, the world’s only restored Packard dealership operating as a museum has reopened in downtown Dayton.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The museum was founded in 1992 by Robert Signom II, an avid car collector who purchased the historic 1917 structure on Ludlow Street. The building was formerly the Citizens Motorcar Company, a distributorship moving Packards across the Midwest.

The original showroom and sales offices appear as if the museum is still in business selling cars and auto parts.

“The building itself is the biggest artifact,” said Robert Signom III, who took over as curator of the museum after his father died in 2019.

The green on green 1928 Packard Six convertible sedan stationed at the front of the showroom is a family heirloom with a sentimental story.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Signom II’s grandfather, Charles Signom, was a Middletown banker who lost his home, business and his Packard as the Great Depression rocked the country in 1929.

Robert E. Signom, the banker’s son, loved the forfeited automobile. “I think my grandfather’s greatest wish was to someday have a Packard back in the family,” said Signom III.

His wish came true decades later when Signom II spotted a classified ad for the same make and model Packard while on a business trip. He bought the automobile and he and his father lovingly restored it together.

“It was about family. It was about reclaiming what had been lost,” Signom III, said. “It was also about preserving history in a way that you could reach out and touch tangibly.”

The family’s long-held admiration for the Packard is on display today.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Signom II spent a year renovating the historic downtown building inside and out to resemble a mid-1920s Packard showroom.

“I sometimes call it a museum and I sometimes call it a time machine,” said Signom III. “We want people to get the experience that they might have had going into a dealership in the 1920s.”

There are more than 70 Packards in the museum’s collection with 50 on display at any one time.

The Packard was a luxury car often driven by movie stars and business owners during its heyday from the 1920s to early 1940s. National Cash Register kept a fleet of Packards to impress clients and visitors to Dayton.

Get behind the wheel and the Packard feels big and solid with a stiff suspension, Signom III said. Inside, burled walnut dashboards and grade-A leather surround the driver.

“You feel the road a little more than you would in a modern car and that’s an exhilarating feeling. It feels more like an adventure than a mode of transportation.”

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Wander around the museum and the vintage styles and colors will transport you.

Early models like the 1914 Model 4-48 Runabout with wood spoke wheels are on display as is the Packard Caribbean, a model from the 1950s with details in blue, pink, red and green.

A long, sleek 1934 Super Eight Sport Phaeton revolves in the showroom. Its paint job, called “Orello,” is a rare combination of orange and yellow that was never part of Packard’s color catalogue but used in advertisements in the 1930s.

A custom-built 1947 Super Clipper purchased by Chicago gangster Al Capone is on display. When he died, Capone left the car to his chauffeur and bodyguard, a man called “Motorcycle Mike.”

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The hearse used in the 1972 movie “The Godfather” is part of the collection. In the film, mob boss Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is taken to the cemetery in the museum’s 1948 Henney Landau vehicle.

All the automobiles in the collection run and it’s not uncommon to see mechanics servicing a car on the museum floor.

America’s Packard Museum counted between 12,000 and14,000 visitors in pre-pandemic years and hosted 80 to 100 events annually. Museum space is available to rent for weddings, lectures and corporate events.

During the pandemic shutdown, some changes were made to the museum. New cars have been added to the display and some not seen in years are back on the floor.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

There is also a new tribute to the museum’s founder. The exhibit space at the front of the building has been updated and dedicated as the Robert E. Signom II Showroom.

“The torch has been passed to the new generation,” said Signom III. “It’s now a symbol of my commitment to the automobile industry, to Packard history and to Dayton that we’re going to continue and sustain America’s Packard Museum for the next generation.”


What: America’s Packard Museum

Where: 420 S. Ludlow St., Dayton

Hours: Summer hours are Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and will end Labor Day. Keep an eye on the museum’s website and social media for updates on added hours. Wednesdays are reserved for groups of 10 or more. Group reservations can be made at (937) 226-1710.

Admission: $10 for adults ($8 with AAA card), $5 for seniors (60+) and free for children and students.

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