The Birthplace of Ford’s Model T

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In 1902, Henry Ford, having been pushed out of his company by the shareholders because he followed his own instincts and not theirs, built what was his second racer, the ‘999’. He hired a daredevil motorcyclist, Barney Oldfield, to drive it in a big race in October of that year. Oldfield had a week to learn how to drive an automobile, but won the race against a Winton machine. By the summer of 1903, Ford was back in the game again with new backers. This time, the Ford Motor Company would remain in business.

The new company’s mission was to begin production of what was called the Ford Model A, which Ford had thought about and worked on since 1901, and to make sales based on Henry’s racing fame. The Model A was a practical machine that sold for $800 and could withstand ordinary wear and tear. Racing was fine for publicity, but Ford never strayed far in his mind from the value a good car might have for farm families and city workers who needed dependable transportation.

Ford did one more publicity stunt. By this time, the new company had developed a second product, a 4-cylinder production auto, the Model B, and Ford drove it in some time-trials on the ice covering Lake St. Clair off Detroit in early 1904. He achieved a speed of 100 mph, which beat the existing world record of 77 mph. The Detroit Tribune pronounced:

Humped over his steering wheel, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zigzag fashion across the fifteen-foot [wide] roadway, Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to tempt.

Soon, the company began showing a good profit. In July, 1906, after a series of conflicts, Ford managed to gain control of the company when its other major shareholder sold out to him to pursue a vision of an air-cooled car. The company then began to stress the sales of its new Model N, a successor to the Model B of ice racing fame. The Model N incorporated some of the features that would go into the famous Model T. Orders increased 500% in 1906-7. Other models that the company offered were gradually dropped as sales of the Model N took off.

In early 1908, Ford introduced the Model T, designed as an inexpensive vehicle capable of travelling muddy farm roads as well as city streets. It was practical, but not elegant and was repairable by anyone with some mechanical proficiency. Ford also began to realize that this practicality extended to many people pulling off the rear part of the T and replacing it with a flat wooden bed, which led to the company producing the classic ‘pickup’ truck as a sideline. Rather than resisting this trend toward customization, Ford began to advertise the Model T as ‘The Universal Car’ and catalogs like Montgomery Ward’s began to feature parts and kits to add new capabilities to the machine. Railroads adapted its wheels to fit the rails so they could be used as inspection vehicles, while ski hills used it for operating tow ropes. As Roger Burlingame put it:

The ‘T’ was indigenous in its time, grassroots American; as Yankee-scented as the pot-bellied stove sizzling with true-aimed tobacco juice. Ford took the lead in roads because it alone could survive the roads of the time.

With Ford in effective control of his namesake company, he began to express his own philosophy about the process of providing Americans with wheels. His Model T was to be the only car the company would produce and, by stressing interchangeable parts and increased production, he felt he could get the price down to where everyone could afford one, including the farmers isolated in the countryside.

Ford’s idea hit the tenor of the times and the factory, basically a large warehouse/barn on Detroit’s Piquette St., was overwhelmed with shipments of parts, in part because production of finished autos was slow. A common method of producing the finished product was to have two teams of workers get parts from different bins and build two cars side-by-side. Once they finished, they would begin over again. Order backlogs developed, but the facility was not of a size or shape to permit more production.

In 1909, Ford began to build a dedicated plant north of downtown Detroit in the suburb of Highland Park. It was designed by Albert Kahn to allow as much natural light as possible and was dubbed ‘the Crystal Palace’. It opened in 1910 with much fanfare. It was said to be the largest automobile plant anywhere. The plant produced many of the Model T’s parts, rather than going to outside suppliers. Orders continued to climb.

Ford’s Piquette St. plant, home first to the ‘A’, then ‘B’, then ‘N’ and finally ‘T’, was sold to Studebaker, an auto company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, after a bigger and purpose-designed plant was built by Ford in Highland Park, just north of the city. Over the years, the Piquette St. building was resold to many owners until it was abandoned. In 2003, some Ford executives wanted to restore some of the 355 big windows that gave light to the workers building the Models A,B, and N, as well as the first 12,000 ‘T’s before production moved to the new plant in 1910. A group of volunteers began to work on the large windows and today, they are largely finished. Today, the building where the Model T was ‘born’ is open to the public, Wed-Sun. See the results at

www.fordpiquetteplant.org

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