Detroit auto tours: from Model T to modern-day robotics

Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he gets credit for putting the world on wheels and Detroit on the map as a leader in car manufacturing.

Much began in the long-ago industrial neighborhood of Milwaukee Junction, near the intersection of interstates 94 and 75, just north of downtown. Consider it the cradle of automotive production.

The location was ideal for automakers because of nearby railroad lines and Great Lakes shipping, which made access to raw materials easy. But prosperity changed to poverty as economics shifted and auto sales declined.

One block apart in the area today are monstrous ruins and a National Historic Landmark.

First, the ruins: Six-story Fisher Body Plant 21 was constructed in 1919 to build Cadillacs and Buicks for General Motors. It would be retooled during World War II to produce military equipment parts. Ownership changed, and bankruptcy closed the factory for good in the mid 1990s.

The eerie-looking eyesore remains an environmental hazard, playground for vandals and reminder of the Motor City’s deep challenges.

The story and message are more upbeat at the national landmark, which since 2001 has doubled as a volunteer-operated museum in a tidy but unpretentious brick building that came close to demolition in the 1990s.

The building matters because it was the birthplace of the Model T, the first four-wheeled vehicle that the average U.S. family could afford. The museum explains why the “Tin Lizzie” was revolutionary and shows off dozens of early-day Ford autos.

The first Model T rolled out of this Ford Piquette Avenue Plant 110 years ago, on Oct. 1, but Ford Motor Company was flooded with orders long before the car went into production.

Why? Besides affordability, the Model T was lightweight, easy to drive and repair, seated five and performed gallantly on shoddy roads.

How shoddy? A 20-minute film, to introduce automotive history, shows tires caked with mud and stuck in deep ruts. Vehicles bounced along and routinely overturned, eons before AAA and tow trucks.

The Model T got 13 to 21 miles per gallon and topped out at 40 or 45 miles per hour. The car sold for $850 in 1908, but the price dipped below $300 by 1925 as assembly line production was refined.

At least 15 million Model Ts were built before the vehicle became obsolete in 1927.

An estimated 250,000 Model Ts are still owned by collectors, and at the core of the Piquette museum display are Ford pre-Model T “alphabet cars” – models A, B, C, F, K, N, R and S – from the Larry D. Porter Artifacts Trust. (Letters are missing because some models were experimental designs, not sold to the public.)

Additional vintage cars are on loan from other sources. “Only three cars in this museum don’t run,” observes Jack Seavitt, a volunteer tour guide.

The first Ford vehicle, a quadricycle, would stop by putting a foot on the tire. Going in reverse meant pushing the contraption backward. So the Model T represented huge advancements in automotive technology.

What else? Much research went into re-creating Henry Ford’s office at the Piquette plant. Oral histories were reviewed, and an industrial archeologist examined building details – walls, windows and more.

The logistics of producing cars in this three-story building were a trick, as was deciding how and when to turn ideas into the next automotive advancement. The 30 Piquette workers brought parts to each chassis; eventually assembly lines moved the car frames to them.

These are all reminders that we take a lot for granted. Consider the decision to buy a vehicle instead of sticking to a horse and carriage. Not a casual commitment.

As another guide mentioned, days later in Detroit: “When Henry Ford introduced the car, you gotta remember that nobody wanted one.” Yet. Now look at how the world has changed because of our mobility.

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit is open Wednesday through Sunday. It is not affiliated with Ford Motor Company.

Admission is $12, less for children and senior citizens. Guided tours leave at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., at no extra cost. Tour length depends on the guide. Ours exceeded 90 minutes.

For a big contrast: Take a self-guided and five-part Ford Rouge Factory tour in Dearborn, Mich., 10 miles from the Piquette plant. An elevated walkway takes visitors above F-150 truck production, a precise, efficient and complicated assembly line that requires both robotics and the humans touch.

A tour ticket is $18, less for children and senior citizens. Buses to the factory leave from the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation every 20 minutes. Tours don’t happen on Sunday.