Yesterday television and media sources reported a sad tale about the city of Detroit facing bankruptcy. The news made me reflect on a visit, and specifically to a place in Detroit that profoundly impressed me. The Piquette Plant continues to stand out as one of those magical ah-ha moments.
So, to honor the Motor City, I offer a revised story, similar to the one I wrote for Automotive Traveler back in 2011. I sincerely hope the Piquette Plant will continue to thrive as a museum, even as the city around it struggles.
My Visit to the Piquette Plant
Experiencing emotional consciousness from global wonders should come as no surprise for me, a seasoned traveler. Places like the Tower of London are so steeped in history, you cannot help but literally feel the presence of the past. But, I was caught quite off guard by the tingling sensations that overwhelmed me as I stepped in to the historic Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit. You see, I wasn’t expecting the place to be much more than just another old brick building packed with vintage cars.
As I entered the factory from a secured rear parking lot, the original wooden stairs suddenly came alive—they creaked and groaned and I swear I could hear the footsteps of America’s automotive pioneers. Henry Ford, John and Horace Dodge, Harvey Firestone, Earl and George Holley, William Durant and Walter Flanders trod here. Mr. Ford’s gossamer ingenuity hung in the air making me wonder if perhaps he is a ghost.
The three-story wood and brick factory resides in a semi-abandoned section of Detroit. Still, 411 Piquette Avenue is National Historic Landmark and home of the Experimental Room where Henry Ford and his team designed the Model T. The corner lot remains one of the 100th most significant industrial sites in the 20th century.
In 1904, Henry Ford began his third attempt at automobile production here –his first Ford Motor Company factory. By early January 1907, Mr. Ford had the corner of the third floor walled-off for use as his dream-team’s brain storming emporium. Here, R&D projects thrived, like race-car driver Spyder Huff’s work on the fly wheel magneto. This important innovation delivered high voltage energy to fire spark plugs. Ford was unrelenting toward his goal of producing a simple, affordable “universal car” that could be easily mass produced.
The “T” was jointly designed in 1908 by Henry Ford, C. Harold Wills and Joseph Galamb at the Piquette Plant. The early black painted models were assembled at stations, with workers and parts moving around the factory as the car came together. Completed vehicles were taken down from the second floor by elevator, test driven on the streets around the Plant and parked in the courtyard where engines were fine-tuned. After passing final inspection the “T’s” were driven to the shipping room at the rear of the building, cleaned and provided with tags and then placed on the railroad freight platform to await shipment.
Inside the Piquette Plant
Prior to 1907 all parts used at Piquette were out-sourced, such as the Dodge Brothers’ (original shareholders) engines and transmissions, while Earl and George Holley supplied carburetors and Harvey Firestone delivered the tires. Eight different models were produced between 1904 and 1920: the B, C, F, K, N, R, S, but it was the1908 Model T that put everyday drivers around the world behind the wheel.
Of the 15 million Model T’s eventually made, the first 12,000, produced at the astounding rate of 175 vehicles per day were built at the Piquette plant. In the factory’s early years, cars took eight to twelve hours to assemble—prompting experimentation with faster assembly lines. Instead of having workers move from car to car to do their work, Ford used a rope to pull the car frame on wheels past the workers as they attached their assigned parts.
Move to Highland Park
This process continued until 1910 when the company moved out of the overcrowded Piquette Palant to the Highland Park Plant and began the more sophisticated moving assembly line work. By 1913, this innovative approach dropped the time needed to construct a Model T down to twelve minutes. Wow, four cars produced in under an hour!
The Studebaker Corporation bought ownership of the Piquette property in 1911 and over the years multiple owners used the building. Amazingly, little changed from the landmark 1904-1910 Ford production days, which is itself a marvel. Visitors can easily slip back in time to envision sweating workers riveting parts, men contorting into awkward positions to screw bolts and others inhaling fumes while painting the vehicles.
They meander displays of vintage cars arranged within the naturally sunlight space, some in restored condition and others well-used. The building includes 355 towering windows—most with original glass. Thick wooden columns and beams graced with the patina of peeling paint and exposed pipes adds to the authenticity of old work arena.
Imagine riding in “Miss Elizabeth,” a 1909 Ford Victorian red beauty or as the chaperone in the whimsical 1911 “Mother-in-law’s T” with a rear seat to observe the dating couple. Take in the intriguing cleverness—such as a 1922 Model T’s snowmobile adaption–a chassis with skis replacing the front wheels and chains on the rear tires. Best part, the car could be converted back to regular use in non-snowy months.
If you are even slightly interested in America’s automotive history, then the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant–Detroit’s only pioneer automobile factory–is a definite must for your bucket list.
If you go:
A visit to the birthplace of the Model T begins with a short video to familiarize visitors with Detroit in the early 1900’s. The worthwhile film explains the creation of the Ford automobile company. Tour guides are extremely knowledgeable.
UPDATE 6/16/2011 PIQUETTE AVENUE PLANT JOINS NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE PASSPORT STAMP PROGRAM
The Piquette Avenue plant is pleased to announce that it has joined with 20 other automotive related sites as partners, working with and through the MotorCities Automotive Heritage Area, in the National Parks Service Passport Stamp program.
The Passport Stamp program is a national program to feature historic sites that define the American heritage, including the National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and other related venues. Proceeds from the passport stamp program are donated to help protect, interpret, and preserve these historic landmarks. The MotorCities coordinated effort in south and southeast Michigan is promoting automotive related tourism and other visitation to the participating partners agencies, including the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant.