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.
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.”
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.