Ford Model T Plant May Be Opened to Tourists

Just the Facts:

HIGHLAND PARK, Michigan — The Ford plant that produced the iconic Ford Model T and gave birth to the automotive assembly line may become a tourist attraction if a community-development organization has its way.

The Woodward Avenue Action Association hopes to get funding to purchase two buildings and create a destination site for tourists and auto enthusiasts. The group has a tentative agreement with the property's current owner to buy the parcel for $550,000.

The association has $10,000 of its own funds available for the project, and the Michigan Department of Transportation has added $400,000. Another $15,000 is available from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., leaving the group still short of the purchase price. Other sources of funding are currently being explored.

The deal would include a 40,000-square-foot administration building and an adjacent 8,000-square-foot garage, as well as three acres on Woodward Avenue that could be used for parking or future development.

If all goes according to plan, the ground floor of the four-story administration building would become a welcome center with informative displays, a theater, a gift shop and a café. It could also be used for staging tours of other automotive history sites in the area. Additional space might be rented out to businesses or historical organizations.

Known as the "Crystal Palace" for its abundance of windows, the Ford Highland Park plant was designed by famed industrial architect Albert Kahn and built between 1908 and 1920 at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Manchester Street. The complex, situated next to multiple railroad lines, included a powerhouse, machine shop, foundry, assembly buildings, a film plant, tailor shop, grocery store and a hospital.

The main building, 880 feet in length, was connected to a second structure 840 feet long and 140 feet wide. It was the largest automobile factory in the world at the time.

Kahn's innovative design, utilizing reinforced concrete, allowed the main assembly building to be constructed with no interior dividing walls. This well-ventilated open space featured natural sunlight streamed through 50,000 square feet of windows and was protected by a revolutionary sprinkler system.

It was here, at Ford's second plant, that the moving assembly line was perfected for automobile production. Henry Ford had begun experimenting with this process at his first plant on Piquette Avenue in Detroit, just a couple miles away. Over the course of six years, he and his managers reviewed time-motion studies and observed processes in other industries, including the "disassembly" operation in Chicago meat-packing plants.

They tested, analyzed and gradually introduced conveyors until the construction of a Model T was almost entirely completed on a rolling assembly line. By 1914, the time needed to build a car had plummeted from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes. Visitors from other industries flocked to Highland Park to study what Ford had achieved and subsequently applied its techniques to virtually every other manufacturing operation in the world.

As a result of efficiencies gained by the moving assembly line, Ford was able to reduce the cost of a Model T runabout from $900 in 1910 to $345 in 1917, turning what had been a plaything for the rich into a commodity available to working people. The Highland Park plant didn't just revolutionize the automobile industry, it revolutionized society.

In 1927 Ford moved auto production to its massive new River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The Highland Park facility was subsequently used to manufacture other products, including trucks and tractors, before the company sold it to a management company in 1981. Some buildings at the site were torn down and a shopping center opened there in the 1990s.

The Ford Highland Park plant was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and has been awarded a Michigan Historic Marker. The Woodward Avenue Action Association is currently pursuing UNESCO World Heritage status for the site, which would put it in the company of the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Statue of Liberty.

Source: Edmunds