TBT: This Detroit Factory Was the Birthplace of the Model T and the Moving Assembly Line

Apr 11, 2024

The celebration of Ford’s 120th anniversary in 2023 could only mean the same thing this year for the company’s first purpose-built – and arguably most historically significant – manufacturing plant. Ford’s short-lived home, the Piquette Avenue Plant, was the birthplace of the Model T. The company purchased the land in Detroit where the building still stands today, on the northwest corner of Piquette and Beaubien, in April of 1904. 

Ford moved from its original space in a converted old wagon factory on Mack Avenue to the Piquette Plant in 1905. The facility was reportedly 10 times larger. One early employee went as far as to suggest the company could never utilize all the space (more on that later). Once situated in its new facility, the company would continue on the alphabetic line of succession established with the Model A before landing on the Model T in 1908. With the moving assembly line still five years away, workers built the vehicles by hand at various stations throughout the three-story, 67,000-square-foot, New England mill-style brick building. 

Despite those limitations, workers at the plant set a world record for car production in June of 1908 when they produced 101 units of the Model N, R, and S in just 10 hours. Elsewhere in the plant, the Model T was being developed in a secret room for more than a year before its October 1, 1908, introduction. By December of that year, Ford was building 200 Model Ts per month, with engines and axles assembled on the ground floor and light machining and sub-assembly occurring on the second floor according to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum. Model T production would go on to reach more than 10,600 cars in the first year.

With the popularity of the Model T, Ford decided to concentrate on its production because “specialization is the secret of manufacturing perfection,” according to one Ford ad from 1910, which touted the “Universal Car’s” dependability following a victory in the New York to Seattle endurance race.

Model T-era advances

The Piquette Plant was home to several early Model T innovations, including the invention of vanadium steel, which was lighter and stronger than other types of steel, and the creation of the flywheel magneto, which allowed the car to generate its own electricity. The company also established a nationwide dealer network as it refined itself in other areas of the business, such as advertising and sales techniques. Ford also hired some of the first women to work in the automotive industry to fabricate magneto parts. 

Ford had already outgrown the Piquette Plant by 1907, before a single Model T ever left the factory. Due to expectations and the car’s early success, the company moved its operations to a larger plant in nearby Highland Park, where the advent of the moving assembly line would further revolutionize the automotive industry, in 1910. The Piquette factory was sold to Studebaker Corp., then changed hands several times before being purchased and restored by a group of preservationists beginning in 2000.

Planning a visit to Piquette

Today, the Piquette Plant building is a public museum operated by the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum, a nonprofit organization not affiliated with Ford Motor Company. Many of the organization’s volunteers are current or former Ford employees. Click here for more information about volunteering.

The former Piquette Plant building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and it is designated a Michigan State Historic Site. The museum draws more than 18,000 visitors annually. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Click here for more information. 

Although Ford’s time at Piquette was brief, the burgeoning company’s progress made there – 12,000 Model Ts built and experimentation with a rudimentary form of the assembly line – set the stage for the wild success in the decades that followed.

Love Ford history? Access http://fordarchivesonline.com with your CDSID to search your favorite topics. Or visit http://fordheritagevault.com , where no CDSID is needed, to browse and download product history.