Time has a way of corrupting legends. Ford Motor Company’s story has always skirted the romantic: Henry Ford, the populist hero turning the tables on any who would stand in the way of his dream to park a car in every garage, writing his own classic American rags-to-riches story. Of course, Americana has long given way to the cold reality of Ford’s enigmatic personality, revealing a man of dubious merits and possible genius who redefined a state but didn’t care for the result. In doing so, he left behind a palpable legacy for anyone to touch and smell. The dead speak loudly in Detroit.
Besides the company that bears his name, Ford’s most lasting legacy is his greatest idea, the Model T. Unlike most emotional detritus from the early 20th century, the Model T has stuck to the American consciousness to the extent that many think it was the world’s first car. To legions of automobile enthusiasts, it is THE old car. Parts availability is a credit card away, over 100 years after its genesis. Its low price and attractive simplicity have rendered it a four-wheeled folk hero, one that has transcended its birthplace.
This particular T stands mere feet from that birthplace, a corner of the Piquette Avenue plant where the Model T was designed by men who were able to envision Ford’s abstract desire to create a People’s Car, decades before the Volkswagen that it inspired.
That such an automotive legend first drew breath in such a long forgotten spot seems incongruous, but it’s fairly commonplace Detroit lore; after all, Piquette wasn’t even Ford’s first factory.
The Ford Motor Company (which was Henry Ford’s third try at building cars commercially) began in this plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit. Greenfield Village in Dearborn has a one-third scale replica, but even the full-sized factory was not large enough for Ford’s growing production. Therefore, they abandoned it for Piquette in 1904.
Piquette was a short term residence for Ford, as well. By 1910, the Model T’s success demanded a much larger assembly plant: the Highland Park plant where so many million Model T’s were assembled, the home of the five-dollar day. Studebaker purchased and used the Piquette plant from 1911 (when Ford vacated it) until 1933; afterward, it passed through a number of corporate owners before gradually becoming another forgotten, decaying Detroit landmark. Fortunately, the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex purchased the building and transformed it into a museum, saving it from the wrecking ball and opening it to history buffs everywhere.
It’s a fascinating place to visit. The museum has preserved the “lost in time” feel of the building, updating only for the sake of safety and modern code. Detroit is filled with “assembly plant finds” in varying states of disrepair, and this one lived to see the light of day again.
Piquette is now open several times a month, and even displays early Fords (many on loan from owners who benefit from free storage) that would have been built within Piquette’s four walls. Competing makes and models offer a counterpoint, and often contribute to the Ford story; after all, an early Dodge Brothers touring speaks volumes about the tempestuous relationship between Henry Ford and the Dodge Brothers. Horace and John were able to produce their own automobile because of the fantastic success of their Ford stock.
I wonder how Henry would react to a Dodge sitting on his factory floor. According to legend, Henry took an axe to a prototype he didn’t like, so a vehicle manufactured by people he must have viewed as traitors would certainly be vulnerable to some kind of violence.
The Piquette plant is now open for weddings and other events, which may seem a little irreverent to people who view these old places as hallowed ground, but if it helps to keep the doors open, so be it.
In fact, couples are unified within talking distance of the corner where men like Joe Galamb, C. Harold Wills, and Charles Sorensen hammered out the details of the Model T. This is the “Experimental Room,” which isn’t much of a room at all. It’s more like a corner of the assembly plant. Ford seemed to enjoy depriving his engineers of basic amenities to get the best work from them. Similarly, the Ford V-8 was designed in one of Thomas Edison’s old buildings in Greenfield Village, even though a fully equipped design laboratory was within walking distance. A quirky guy, that Henry Ford.
Ford would often sit in this rocking chair and ruminate over new ideas for his revolutionary car. He was certainly a “cut-and-try” guy, as Smokey Yunick may say derogatively. One can’t, however, argue his success. And in a way, it all started here.
Of course, the Model T sold in such spectacular numbers that a new plant had to be built, the fabulous Highland Park plant. Highland Park still stands, in one of the most frightening of the Detroit suburbs, and there’s been talk of renovating portions of it, which would be a welcome development for automotive history fans.
Highland Park, like the Piquette before it, was eventually abandoned for the gigantic Rouge plant, which remains open today, in much modified form, building new F-150 trucks. The idea that all of that corporate tonnage originated in the corner of an old nearly abandoned building fires the imagination, and is one of the greatest of Michigan’s ghost stories.
Please see the above website for information about the history and operation of this fantastic old assembly plant.