Chasing Henry Ford: Visiting the Piquette Assembly Plant in Detroit

Culture Piquette Assembly in Detroit

Published on August 27th, 2013 | by Charu Suri

3 Chasing Henry Ford: Visiting the Piquette Assembly Plant in Detroit

I gaze at the New England mill-style building on the corner of Piquette and Beaubien streets in Detroit, blankly but curiously.  The bricks shine in the July sun and the façade is demure and unassuming but still beautiful.

It is almost impossible to tell that this is the building where Henry Ford assembled the models B, C, F, N, R, S, and the famous T. But like many humble beginnings, the plant that started what would be known as the modern automobile assembly line was so  unassuming that it could have been a school building. In this now National Historic Building, Ford had a corner office and realized his childhood dream of providing an affordable car for everyone.

“Come on up,” said one of the volunteer docents. We tread the creaky stairs which sound like a percussion instrument and had an unvarnished look to them.

How would this small plant house the long assembly lines? I thought.

Ford Piquette Assembly Line in Detroit


I need not have worried. Once I walked to the second floor, the space opened up like a foldable Prairie in a box. Polished cars were everywhere, standing on faded wooden floors that were straight out of the early 1900s.

The idea to construct this building was the idea of the board behind the Ford Motor Company. After just one year in operation, this building witnessed the birth of the modern assembly line, and subsequently would produce the first 12,000 Model T units.  Ford’s corner office on the third floor had thick white paint was peeling off from the walls and ceiling, but the floors seemed solid and as well-worn as a winter scarf. That idea of being in the same building as Henry Ford gave me goosebumps.

Around me were classic cars including the T, which became the world’s most influential car, debuting in 1908. The cars were exactly as Ford dreamed of: small but manageable, and above all, affordable (the four seater open tourer of 1909 cost $850). The average salary for a worker in 1908 was $600 per year, so a car would cost roughly more than a year’s wages, comparable to the cost of a car in 2013.

A brief black and white documentary took me through the Ford backstory: I learned about his determination and his idea of providing health insurance to every employee, far ahead of his time. The book, The People’s Tycoon by Steven Watts does not portray Ford as a brilliant man who knew it all: rather, he was ignorant about many aspects of life, and thought chili con carne was a “large mobile army” and Benedict Arnold as “a writer, I think.”

Piquette Assembly Line in Detroit Henry Ford Model T

ut as history has repeatedly shown, genius is not necessarily traditional brilliance. Einstein was a flop in school and Darwin exhibited little signs of brilliance until he boarded the H.M.S. Beagle to sail around the world.

The Piquette Plant does not have the assembly line displayed in the building but you’ll see the various cars with polished engine hoots and gleaming lights and bumpers, as well as plenty of literature on how the cars were assembled.

“Everything at the Piquette Avenue plant is done with the help of volunteers,” says our docent, adding that there are a lot of car buffs who want to reassemble, polish and repaint some of the models in the building. Ford and his workers produced 12,000 Model Ts in this building.

Other vintage paraphernalia, like the original chair Ford sat on, as well as his desk and oddities, sit in the long building, monk-like and quiet reminders.

While not an automobile specialist by any stretch of the imagination, I was moved by how much Ford had accomplished in his lifetime, and how committed he was to bettering people’s lives. While known for his controversial views (he advocated spending, not saving), he spoke unabashedly of how dynamic consumer capitalism leads to creating new wants—and he was right.

The “Five Dollar Day” pay rate was unheard of in 1914, and meant over $3,600 in annual wages for his employees, a marked upward departure from the norm. You could argue he was a modern day Bill Gates, eager for universal adoption, a passionate leader and tireless advocate of a better life.

Visiting Piquette for me was a very special experience getting in touch with the real Henry Ford. I used to drive a Ford, and feel all the richer knowing how it all began.

The Ford Piquette Plant is a member of the National Parks Service Passport Stamp program, and part of the MotorCities Automotive Heritage Area. It was also included in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Piquette offers auto buffs a chance to be a member of the Model T Ford Club, which helps preserve Model T Ford motorcars.


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2012 Destinations (PHOTOS): Reasons to Visit Motor City (Detroit, MI)

2012 Destinations (PHOTOS): Reasons to Visit Motor City (Detroit, MI)

Detroit Ford Motor Company Model T

Published on January 9th, 2012 | by Charu Suri

11 2012 Destinations (PHOTOS): Reasons to Visit Motor City (Detroit, MI)

There are some places that I am hesitant to visit initially, but end up falling in love with. Travel is like a kaleidoscope in that aspect — you don’t really know what you’ll get until you get there.

Detroit is one visit I will always remember from 2011. There’s so much to Motor City beyond the silver GM Building, the indefatigable assembly line pioneered by Ford, and the dreary thought of worker layoffs and stringent Unions. Detroit is for the foodie, the adventurer, the architect lover in all of us.

Beyond the Willy Wonka Car Production Factory: Detroit, a City for Serious Foodies

I visited Detroit in April, 2011 and drank in everything: from the developed, ethnic fabric in Dearborn, Michigan to the more run down outskirts like Corktown. Corktown is not pretty, by any stretch of the overactive imagination, but the area is a cultural melting pot and a fabric of Irish immigrant settlers and a now more hip, young urban crowd. Detroit is a place for foodies, and one iconic dining option –Slow’s BBQ on Michigan Avenue — has reinvented the culinary vernacular.

As I discovered, Detroit has surprisingly polished and diverse food choices. It would take a very uncreative person to starve here. One of my favorite places to eat was Pizzeria Biga which boasts Neapalitano-style brick oven pizzas with chewy, flavorful crust. Getting a slice of pizza these days is akin to sipping a generously warm latte from Dunkin Donuts — genuine, quality, but expected. Pizzeria Biga ups the ante and really gives you a flavorful experience.

For restaurants that have that “fun factor” woven into their aura and decor, there is plenty of action in Greektown, considered the most famous neighborhood in Downtown Detroit. At Pegasus Taverna,with its unassuming exterior, there is much gaiety, action and familial laughter. Savvy servers bring flaming plates of Greek Kasseri cheese lit ablaze with brandy to your table (the dish is called Saganaki Opa and the servers really and do shout Opa –a word which is often used to describe a joyful occasion or emotion). The patrons clap, as though at a concert. The restaurant makes one relive scenes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – minus the tacky.

Detroit Dearborn Michigan

A misty morning in Dearborn, Michigan

The Creme de la Creme of Museums

A visit to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village alone will inspire to you to appreciate the amount of American innovation that occurred at the turn of the century. Ford’s vision and motto was that “ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things” and he was a vast collector of iconic inventions (from Edison’s Menlo Park home reproduction to the actual bicycle where the Wright Brothers worked in Dayton, Ohio), you can truly see the innovations that shaped America.

At a popular places like Greenfield village, you can see school buses filled with children on field trips, tourists eager to inhale the spirit of turn of the century America, and museum curators eager to show off their vast knowledge. Detroit is full of passionate people, eager to recount legends, pass on their knowledge to those keen to soak it up, and features the creme de la cream of automobile and American innovation museums.

The sacred, iconic Piquette Plant Assembly, where Henry Ford and his team assembled the first Model T and several other models, is a museum pilgrimage that no automobile connoisseur could afford to miss. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, this unassuming mill-style building was home to the realization of Ford’s singular, stubborn dream of providing every American with an affordable car.

Creaky stairs, original wooden floors, even Ford’s old office corner — everything is preserved, loved, cherished. Each year, volunteers work on preserving the antique cars to make sure all parts are intact, polished, functional, and every second of their labor of love is a donation. What a testament to the vision of Ford, I thought, and what level of respect. Visitors can sit in a small room with benches and watch a documentary on Ford’s vision and realization.

The Only Place in North America Where You Can Look South Toward Canada

In Detroit, I discovered what it felt like to be in the only place in North America where you can gaze South toward Canada (I remember being in the General Motors building, a tall, silvery cylindrical skyscraper that looked a futuristic lighthouse), towards Windsor.

A City of Architectural Masterpieces

From the unmistakeable Guardian Building that lights up the city skyline, to the distinctly Detroit Pewabic pottery (the eponymous school still operates today and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991), there is so much square footage of Detroit devoted to architecture and the arts. Pewabic pottery is known for its distinct, almost phantasmagoric quality of glazing with rich and deep colors.

A newly renovated bedroom at The Henry, an Autograph Collection Hotel in Dearborn, MI

The outskirts of Detroit

The outskirts of Detroit, en route to Corktown

Corktown Detroit

Corktown may not be a place to linger or sit in a cafe, but it has spots that are being renovated.

Corktown Michigan

In Corktown, at the intersection of Wabash & Michigan Avenues. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

Slow's BBQ in Corktown Detroit

An iconic restaurant in Corktown and Detroit itself, Slow’s BBQ has brought tourists, celebrities, locals together in pursuit of a

new revitalized cuisine. Surprisingly, there are a lot of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.

Downtown Detroit

Downtown Detroit

PIquette Assembly Line Detroit

A Brush Motor Company car stands on the original wooden floor at the Piquette Assembly Plant in Detroit. Volunteers painstakingly restore each and every car to perfection on an annual basis

Clock in the Detroit Guardian Building

Inside the iconic Guardian Building, considered to be one of Detroit’s architectural masterpieces

Pewabic Pottery in Detroit

The rich glazed Pewabic Pottery Tiles that are distinctly Detroit

Pegasus Restaurant in Greektown Detroit Saganaki Opa Dish

Stately servers put on a show of “Saganaki Opa” (flaming Greek Kasseri cheese and brandy) at Pegasus Restaurant in Greektown

Detroit at Night

A city that is never on autopilot: Detroit at night


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Piquette Assembly in Detroit

Chasing Henry Ford: Visiting the Piquette Assembly Plant in Detroit