Jerald Mitchell calls the Ford Motor Company’s Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit “a fulcrum point of human history [where] the balance of history shifted.” It was at this factory in Detroit that Henry Ford and his cohorts conceived the Model T automobile. For nine months, these men labored through fifteen-hour days, scrawled rough diagrams on the blackboards, fiddled with auto parts and patterns, argued and probably repeated the words “what if” a thousand times. When they were done, they had created the design for one of the most revolutionary automobiles ever built.
The Model T was the car Ford designed for the world’s first automobile assembly line, which he perfected at his next plant in Highland Park a few years later. But the first Model T was built at Piquette on September 27, 1908. About twelve thousand more followed before Ford moved to his new plant in 1910. The car was much more affordable than any before because it was mass-produced. It started a “revolution in personal transportation” that is ongoing, says Mitchell, who is director of the former factory that is now a museum.
Mitchell is among a dedicated group of preservationists, auto historians and car buffs who saved the plant in April 2000. Their aim was to keep the plant from demolition, which was probably just a matter of months away. The place had stood empty and unrecognized at the corner of Piquette and Beaubien for decades. There were no historic markers and no apparent appreciation of the building’s inherent historic value.
The nonprofit group has been careful not to overdo exhibits, because the real charm is the building itself. Since it was used mainly for warehouse space after Ford left, the factory is almost unchanged from its Model T days. The wood floor is worn and bears scratches and scrapes made by workers 100 years ago. There will be no polishing of those floors, Mitchell says. “You’re walking up and down the same floorboards as many automotive pioneers did.”
The story of where Henry Ford revolutionized an industry and changed the face of Michigan is featured in the November/December 2008 issue of Michigan History magazine. For this and more fascinating stories about Michigan’s past, pick up the latest issue of Michigan History at newsstands, subscribe at michiganhistorymagazine.com or call (800) 366-3703.
More about the Model T & Ford Motor Company from Absolute Michigan and visit tplex.org for more about the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex.