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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 07 Where It All Began Page 1

Opinion: Where It All Began

Debi Lander walks among the ghosts of automotive history at the Ford Piquette Plant in Detroit.

The Tower of London, the Roman Coliseum, the U.S. Capitol building,... and the site of an old manufacturing plant in Detroit? 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 historical drama your every movement seems to disturb a spirit of the past. I was caught quite off guard, however, by the spine-tingling sense of entrepreneurial genius that overwhelmed me on my recent visit to Detroit.

At 411 Piquette Avenue in a somewhat abandoned section of Motor City sits a three-story wood and brick building. Its modest façade and humble surroundings belie its significance. This corner lot is one of the 100 most significant industrial sites of the 20th century. A National Historic Landmark, the building at 411 Piquette Avenue is Henry Ford's original manufacturing plant--and the home of the Experimental Room where he and his team designed the Model T.

Almost as soon as I arrived, the legendary site stimulated such strong vibes that I could literally feel the presence of a bygone age. I had to pinch myself, as I knew I had entered hallowed ground.

You see, I had not expected the place to be much more than just another old brick building packed with vintage cars.

Yet when I entered the Ford Piquette Plant from a secured rear parking lot, even the original wooden stairs beneath my feet seemed to come alive. As they creaked and groaned, 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 all trod these floors. Mr. Ford's gossamer ingenuity was so palpable I wondered if perhaps he is a ghost.

For it was here, in 1903, that Henry Ford began his third attempt at automobile production, his first Ford Motor Co. factory.

Workers assembled the early models by moving from station to station around the second-floor room. Completed vehicles were taken down by elevator and test driven on surrounding streets, before they were parked in the courtyard for mechanics to fine-tune the engines.

After the vehicles passed final inspection, Ford's people drove them to the shipping room at the rear of the building. There they were cleaned and tagged, then placed on the railroad freight platform to await shipment.

The Ford Motor Co. outsourced all parts for the first several years. The Dodge brothers, original shareholders in the company, supplied engines and transmissions. Earl and George Holley provided the carburetors. Harvey Firestone delivered the tires.

By early January 1907, Mr. Ford had the corner of the third floor walled off for use as his dream team's brainstorming enclave. Among the R&D projects to emerge from the Experimental Room was racecar driver Spyder Huff's work on improvements to the flywheel magneto to deliver high voltage energy efficiently enough to fire spark plugs.

Henry Ford continued to pursue his goal of a simple, affordable "universal car" that could be easily mass produced. That day came when the first Model T rolled off the assembly floor in 1908. Ford produced nine different models between 1904 and 1920, but it was the "T" that put everyday drivers worldwide behind the wheel.

Designed in 1908 by Ford, C. Harold Wills, and Joseph Galamb, the Model T's production run eventually reached 15 million--the first 12,000 of which were assembled on Piquette Avenue.

In the factory's early years, Ford's workers required eight to 12 hours to assemble each car, prompting him to experiment with faster assembly lines. His first major innovation was to use a rope to pull the car frame on wheels past the workers as they attached their assigned parts--rather than having the workers themselves move around the assembly room. Production rates leapt to an astounding 175 vehicles per day.

This process continued until 1910, when the company moved out of the overcrowded Piquette Avenue Plant to Highland Park, where the more sophisticated moving assembly line work began. By 1913, Ford's innovative approach to manufacturing had cut the time needed to construct a Model T down to an incredible 12 minutes.

The Studebaker Corporation bought the Piquette Avenue building in 1911, becoming the first of many owners over the decades. Yet I was amazed at how little seemed to have changed since the landmark 1904-1910 Ford production days.

Visitors slip back in time just by walking through the Piquette Plant's doors--envisioning with ease the sweating workers riveting parts, the men contorting into awkward positions to screw bolts while others inhale fumes as they paint the vehicles.

In those early days, Model Ts came in a variety of colors. By the mid-Teens, however, you could order one in any color... as long as it was black, as Mr. Ford liked to say. Black was the only paint that dried fast enough to accommodate his production speed.

The Piquette Avenue building's 355 towering windows, most with the original glass, make for a naturally sunlit space. Exposed pipes and thick wooden columns and beams graced with the patina of peeling paint underscore the authenticity of the old work area.

Arranged throughout are displays of vintage vehicles, some restored and others well used, from various automakers.

One of my favorites was "Miss Elizabeth," a 1909 Ford Victorian red beauty. Also eye-catching, for a different reason, was a 1922 Model T's snowmobile adaption. Skis replaced the front wheels, and the rear tires sport chains. The cleverest aspect: The car could be converted back to regular use come Spring.

Another humorous vehicle in the Piquette Avenue collection is the whimsical 1911 "Mother-in-Law's T," which is outfitted with a rear seat to observe the dating couple. I imagined myself perched there sternly as chaperone.

I would never have thought to put the Ford Piquette Plant on my bucket list--but I suggest you add it to yours. Detroit's only pioneer automobile factory offers that rare travel opportunity: an authentic experience without a crowd.