Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

Henry Ford changed human destiny when he introduced the Model T. In its 19 years of production, over 15 million were built, and affordable motor cars helped put the world on wheels. For this reason, the Model T remains the unequivocal vehicle of the 20th century, forever cemented in history. And yet, despite everything we know about this automobilia icon, very few people know where she was born. This facility is known as the Piquette Avenue Plant, one of the oldest automobile manufacturing sites still in existence today.

Henry Ford’s automotive history did not begin with the company we know today. In fact, this current iteration of Ford Motor Company was Henry’s third attempt at building an automobile. It was not an uncommon story in Detroit at the time, with literally hundreds of automakers booming. However, Ford was destined to succeed, and the Ford Motor Company began in earnest on June 16, 1903. At the start of business, Ford leased production space inside a building near Mack Avenue in Detroit. Although Ford vehicles were built at this plant, it was not directly owned by Ford. As business grew, Ford came up with plans for a new factory that he would own.

ford piquette avenue exterior of the factory in period

Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

This building was constructed in the heart of Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, named after the rail lines that intersect in its center. The factory has been positioned with easy access to parts and raw materials. The location also allowed finished cars to be shipped across the country. This small, growing part of town would house the operations of other notable automakers like Brush, Packard, Cadillac, and Regal. In this neighborhood, the Model T came to life.

Ford’s first plant was built at the corner of Harper and Piquette avenues in April 1904 at a cost of $76,500. Measuring 402 feet long and 56 feet wide, the three-story building is far from a modern mega-factory. Although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, the Piquette Avenue plant was state-of-the-art for its time, with a 25,000-gallon fire suppression system, l one of the oldest in the country. Electricity was another must for Ford, who had previously served as the chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company. As such, the factory featured electric lights and an electric lift on which employees entered the facility. It should be noted that approximately 10% of Detroit’s residents had electricity when the plant was built.

Assembly station of the Ford Piquette Avenue plant at work in period

Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

When the Avenue Piquette factory opened in 1904, it housed a few hundred employees. As production methods changed and production increased, this figure increased significantly, according to Piquette Avenue historian Tom Genova. There were so many people working at the small Piquette plant that Ford had to build several outbuildings on the property to house part of the operation. Ford’s Models B, C, F, K, N, R and S were all designed and built in the factory, with the Model N winning the national sales title in 1907. Ford and Piquette were officially big players in the business booming automobile.

With the growth of his business, Henry Ford started a top secret project in Piquette. The business mogul had a section of the third floor of Piquette walled in to house a team of skunkworks, hand-picking the best and brightest within the company for the task. Among those people were Ed “Spider” Huff and a 14-year-old Edsel Ford, who would use a Model N as a test bed for a new machine. Forgoing the advice of investors who wanted to sell more expensive and more profitable cars, Henry and his team invested in trying to reduce customer costs while improving the Model N.

ford piquette avenue factory building model ts

Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

The Ford Model T made its world debut on October 1, 1908. The first production example, which arrived for the 1909 model year, left the Piquette Avenue factory on September 27, 1908. The car was a success immediate – Ford took thousands of orders in the following weeks. In the first year of sales alone, Ford moved 10,066 Model Ts.

The Model T was brutally simple, designed to be lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to repair. Up front was a 2.9-liter inline-four with a one-piece engine block, which produced 20 hp. A two-speed planetary gear transmission backed the engine, with spare gearing. The Flywheel magneto ignition system also helped keep costs down, while providing the added benefit of opening up your fuel choices beyond gasoline. Unlike some of the automakers of the day who spoofed rigid chassis and body structures, the Model T was meant to flex and twist as it bounced around the miserable roads of the early 1900s. still, the Model T was cheap, with a base price of just $825, or just over $24,000 today.

ford piquette avenue factory

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, Bill Dweyer

Of the approximately 15 million Model Ts that were built, around 12,000 would enter the world through Piquette’s gates. In that first year of production, the plant became the first in automotive history to build more than 100 vehicles in a single day.

There are several ways to identify a Model T that was built in Piquette. For starters, you can look on the radiator for the badge, which was unique. Unlike later variants, Piquette cars feature long tails on the first and last Ford letters. The difference in value these wings bring to the market today is staggering. A Model T wearing colored paint (instead of the ubiquitous coat of black) may also be a native of Piquette, but it’s wrong to say that’s always the case. Ford’s famous black paint policy didn’t officially come into effect until after the automaker left Piquette, with some painted examples being built in Highland Park.

The completion of Ford’s facilities at Highland Park in 1910 spelled the death knell for Avenue Piquette. The massive Highland Park produced an incredible number of vehicles thanks to Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly line. In 1913, Highland Park was able to build a Model T of the Walnut Soup in just 93 minutes. It used to take more than 12 hours to finish a car in Piquette. Ford’s move did not mark the end of Piquette’s place in automotive history, as Studebaker continued to use the facility from 1911 to 1933.

The Piquette Avenue plant would then fall into the hands of several other companies before ending up in private hands in 1989. By then the facility had fallen into disrepair and talks around the town began to whirl about its destruction. Luckily for us gearheads, the Model-T Automotive Heritage Complex purchased the site in 2000. Now known as the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, this 501(c)(3) nonprofit now operates the site as a museum. As the Motor City continues to change things, the museum hopes to be part of how Detroiters envision that future.

collection of other early 1900s automobiles from the ford piquette avenue factory

Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

“Henry Ford was a disruptor,” said museum president Jill Woodward. “If you think about vehicle manufacturing, you have to look at what was happening around it. The Great Migration had its origins here. The rise of the middle class and its access to the automobile started here, in Henry Ford had a series of innovations in his lifetime, from the Model T to the V-8, and that’s a rare example of entrepreneurship. That’s a typical Detroit story. And so we’re consider it a cultural resource for the city and a point of pride for the city.

The museum itself is certainly something to be proud of, housing an incredible collection of vintage American automobiles. In fact, Piquette is one of the only places on Earth where you can see the entire Ford “Alphabet” collection displayed together. The team of volunteers worked for over two decades to restore the building to its former glory, using the correct materials and practices along the way. This level of dedication is felt during your visit, and it’s no surprise that the team is currently engaged in talks to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, pending some (expensive) upgrades.

Whether or not the early days of the automotive industry tickle your fancy, the Avenue Piquette plant should be on every enthusiast’s bucket list. Ford’s work there reshaped the entire fabric of our society. Piquette put the world on wheels and we never looked back.

the first model t from the ford piquette avenue factory

Ford Plant on Avenue Piquette

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