Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant is an antidote to Detroit’s “ruin porn”
Henry Ford’s most successful creation was the Model T Ford automobile, introduced in 1908, but it was the earlier success of the Ford Motor Company that made the Model T possible. In fact, FoMoCo was pretty much an overnight success, almost instantly outgrowing the wagon manufacturing shop on Detroit’s Mack Avenue that Henry and his investors rented to make the original Ford Model A.
In April 1904, the Ford company purchased a plot of land on Piquette Avenue at Beaubien, a few blocks east of Woodward, in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction region, so named because of a nearby railroad junction that served the industrial neighborhood. It would become ground zero for the explosive growth of the American automobile industry.
A railroad overpass crosses Beaubien just behind the site. It was there that Henry Ford built the factory that would see his company become the biggest automaker in the United States and give birth the Model T.
Today, the Piquette Avenue Model T factory is a museum dedicated to that car, the early history of Ford Motor Company, and to the history of the American automobile industry. It is the world’s oldest purpose-built car factory open to the public. Unlike Detroit’s infamous “ruin porn,” like the old Packard plant on the east side, the building on Piquette is still in commercial use, with the first floor being occupied by the linen service company headquartered in the former EMF/Studebaker factory just next door. If your visit to Detroit must include industrial ruins, however, the decaying hulk of Fisher Body #21 is down the street.
More than 31,000 people visited the Piquette Plant last year, and it regularly hosts special events, including about one wedding a week. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a Michigan State Historic Site. A non-profit organization, staffed by volunteers and a handful of professionals, owns and operates the facility, which it has been restoring and developing over the past few years. The museum is a work in progress, and exhibits are regularly added, so even if you’ve seen it, it’s always worth a return visit.
Compared to the truly massive Rouge Complex, which Ford began building in 1916, or even what remains of Ford’s Highland Park plant, which was the company’s third factory, the Piquette Avenue plant seems tiny, almost quaint.
The factory was built in what was called mill style, similar to the construction of factories in New England. It is a long, narrow building, 56 feet wide and just over 400 feet long, with 67,000 square feet of space on its three floors. Construction is by load-bearing exterior brick walls, along with interior oak beams and posts. The floors are hard maple, and the building has 355 windows to provide natural lighting. Spinning overhead shafts provided power for tools and machinery via leather belts.
With so much wood in the building’s construction, as well as the extensive use of wood in making the cars’ body frames and spoked wheels, fire safety was a serious concern back then, particularly since Ransom Olds had lost an almost brand new Detroit factory and a considerable number of newly built Oldsmobiles to flames just three years before, in 1901. As a result, the Piquette Avenue Ford factory was one of the earliest American factories to be designed with fire sprinklers (fed by a very large water tank on the roof), along with brick fire walls, sliding metal fire doors between factory sections, and fire escapes for workers.
The factory was the first automotive assembly plant in the U.S. to build more than 100 cars a day, using the station assembly method. It was also where Henry Ford and his associates first experimented with the moving assembly line process that it famously implemented at Ford’s Highland Park plant. Ford’s first “assembly line” was a Model T chassis pulled past Piquette’s workstations with a rope. Of course, the factory’s most significant historical fact is that it is where Ford’s team designed, developed, and built the first Model Ts.
The T, in almost every variety and model year from 1909–27, is represented by vehicles loaned to the museum by local collectors, including a Model T club based at the Piquette factory itself. There are also Model TT trucks and some interesting Model T conversions, including a track-equipped Model T snowmobile, a Model T tractor, a couple of stripped down racers, and a very early four-wheel drive conversion, owned by a Ford Motor Company engine development engineer.
In addition to a plethora of Ts, Piquette is also the only place in the world where you can see a complete collection of the early Ford “alphabet” cars that preceded the Model T, starting with the 1903 Model A, through the very successful Model N and the T’s immediate ancestor, the Model S. The newest car in the building is the 2003 Ford GT, built a century later, that set a high speed record of over 200 mph at the Nardo, Italy, test track and was donated to the facility by Ford Motor Company. There are also examples of Ford’s second Model A, the car that replaced the Model T in 1927. That model designation may have been resurrected to represent a new beginning at Ford, rather than continue on with Models U through Z.
Ford isn’t the only brand of vehicles at the Piquette plant. There are also a variety of cars from other factories that were located in Milwaukee Junction, including a Brush Runabout, perhaps the Model T’s major competitor in the early days, and a Studebaker, which was built just down Piquette. There is also an early Volkswagen Type I Beetle, a tribute to the car that superseded the Model T as the most produced automobile ever.
Of particular interest are some of the more luxurious cars that Ford built before the T, like the Model K, the sort of automobile that Ford’s biggest financial backer, coal dealer Alexander Malcolmson, wanted to make. Henry famously planned to build an inexpensive car for the masses, resulting in him eventually buying out Malcolmson so Ford could pursue his goals unhindered.
The museum isn’t just a bunch of cars, however. One section is devoted to the station assembly method, how cars were built before the moving assembly line. A recent addition is an accurate replica of a Model T-era Ford dealership. That new construction followed the recreation of Henry Ford’s personal corner office, complete with a telescope—not for spying on nearby competitors though; Henry was a bird watcher—and a very large walk-in safe in one wall, since Henry preferred to pay his workers in cash.
Edward “Spider” Huff, who was Henry’s ride-along mechanic and movable ballast on his pre-FoMoCo race cars, as well as being an electrical wizard, is honored with a display devoted to the Model T’s magneto generator, which Huff developed. Young women were hired to wind the magneto coils at the Piquette facility, chosen because Ford thought them more suited than men to do the finely detailed work satisfactorily. The display includes a Help Wanted – Female classified advertisement for “Girls for magneto room; light work; good wages.” As a side note, Henry Ford respected Huff’s technical abilities so much that Ford, who abstained from many things he considered vices, tolerated Huff’s tobacco smoking and chewing habit, as well as his philandering. Later, in 1925, after Huff sued Ford for $11 million in back royalties for his magneto design, Henry had personal assistant Ernest Liebold give the penniless Huff $200 and an offer of a secure job in Ford’s engineering lab, in exchange for dropping the lawsuit. He accepted.
Another recreation at the museum, way back at the other end of the factory from Ford’s office, is the Secret Experimental Room where the Model T was developed away from prying eyes by a quartet of Hungarian immigrants, József Galamb, Jenő “Eugene” Farkas, Jules Hartenberger, and Charles Balough, along with input from metal casting expert Charles Sorensen, and metallurgist C. Harold Wills, who is said to have persuaded Henry Ford to use what was then advanced, higher-strength vanadium steel alloy in critical Model T components, ensuring their reliability.
The men worked in secret at Henry Ford’s direction. Ford would often sit in a rocking chair in the Secret Room, approving or rejecting parts based on wooden prototypes. Ford, who may have been dyslexic, preferred wooden models to blueprints.
The Piquette Avenue factory was so successful that Ford Motor Company outgrew it in just six years. While the Piquette Plant gave birth to the Model T, that car was only made there for barely more than a year. Production of the T at Piquette began on October 1, 1908, and assembly was moved to the much larger Highland Park plant in early 1910.
You can find out more by visiting the Ford Piquette Plant website. If you’d like to visit the museum in person, it is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., with optional guided tours at 10, noon, and 2. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and over, and $5 for students with a school ID. Kids under 12 are admitted free.