Whilst President Trump vows to revitalise the American auto industry, a collection of images

offer an insight into Ford car manufacture from 1917.

Detroit – A Century Past


With the UK manufacturers proclaiming total 2016 car production the best for 18 years at 1.7 million units, 100 years ago Henry Ford was demanding similar numbers from just one plant. Michigan played host to most of the American auto manufacturers during the early part of the last century, their remnants leaves the city of Detroit with huge empty factories that produced marques long forgotten. In 1904 Henry Ford began work on the Piquette Avenue site after parting ways with The Henry Ford Company which actually became Cadillac. The first Model T was built at Piquette in 1908 and after a further 12k had left the factory gates production was moved a few blocks to the Highland Park facility with 25 times more floor space. The location for these plants wasn’t chosen at random, with the Great Lakes nearby came access to raw materials via ship plus a railway system established by 1901. Although the local transport struggled to cope with the daily influx of auto workers toiling inside plants for Fisher, Packard and Hudson plus many others, road transport offered little option with the main north-south ‘Dixie Highway’ only begun in 1915; the auto producers saw no benefit from this until completion in 1929. Ford’s Highland Park plant set the standard for future plants, known as the Crystal Palace due to the massive windows, it enjoyed floors of reinforced concrete and the first moving assembly line. With an overhead monorail measuring 2 miles, their own powerhouse supplying six levels, occupying 75 acres of floor space. A train would enter one end of the factory so a crane could unload its cargo into giant buckets at the appropriate work stations along the production line. Along 84 distinct areas, the line workers would assemble 3000 parts to build one Model T. In order to produce one new Model T every 24 seconds, mass production required mass employment; Highland’s numbers peaked at 68K in 1924. Constant improvements in working practices meant that the 2 millionth Model T arrived by 1917, then 5 million by 1921 and the 10 millionth arrived in 1924. Compared to 290k Austin Sevens built from 1922 to 1939 or 1.3 million Morris Minors over 24 years just confirms that the Highland Plant and Henry Ford’s philosophy was ultra-efficiency in all aspects. Certainly, many complications were reduced with all body types adapted to a single 100 inch (wheelbase) chassis but this doesn’t explain the Highland Plant’s ability to reduce the build time per car from 12 hours to ninety minutes. Whilst the plant paid three times the average worker wage at $5 per day, they produced the first car for the masses, one that employees could afford (and were expected) to buy. With the honour of being the cheapest transport ever produced, the Briggs & Stratton Flyer was little more than a powered ‘buckboard’ for sale at $150 in 1922 but three years later a new Model T was just $110 more; the equivalent Chevrolet was well over twice the price of the Ford. No doubt Highlands workforce were required to put in a full 8-9 hour shift but the benefits of employment at this plant wasn’t just seen in their pay packets. Prior to the plant the town’s population was 425, once installed it rose to 4,120 by 1910 and within 5 years it reached 27,170 and doubled again over the next decade. Local infrastructure struggled to cope with the thousands of workers, especially the transport system at shift change and when a train strike caused thousands of completed cars to remain at the plant Henry looked for an alternate area for his next factory. The final Model T rolled of the production line at Highland on May 31st 1927 just four days after the 15 millionth chassis had been recorded. The new Model A was now available at the new River Rouge complex and this meant Highland would no longer produce cars, although Ford tractors still left the site until 1973. Ford produced a set of postcards in 1917 that offered an insight into their production capabilities whilst extolling the company’s virtues. Looking back 100 years later, one cannot fail to be impressed with a level of mass production we are unlikely to see again.  


Factory Shopping List

Minimum Production for Highland Park Plant in 1917 was 700,000 units and based on that figure Ford look to purchase four cartloads of sparkplugs per month, 310,464 tons of steel, 80,811,500 square feet of rubber for tops, 2,800,000 wheels and tyres, 3,500,000 lamps, 6,209,280 feet of Vanadium steel shafts and gear axles, 2,950,000 feet of exhaust pipe, 3,450,000 of glass, 9,800,000 lbs of steel for magnetos, 3,041,825 lbs of solder, 6,158,000 square feet galvanised steel for petrol tanks. 22 tons of coal per hour running the factories power house plus 29,512,000 cubic feet of gas each day.

Hundreds of thousands toured the facility at Highland Park, many postcards to relatives and friends including the Prince of Wales who was presented with the 11 millionth Model T in 1924

Over 56 acres with 75 acres under roof, the average number of employees was 42k in 1917 but plans were already in place to double the staff and the output.

Surrounded on three sides by well-kept lawns the lobby area included high ceilings, wide curving staircase and marble flooring located inside the free standing power house

One thousand Ford Model T chassis assembled and ready, in 1916 workers produced an amazing 2,768 in just a single day therefore if one single part of the line slowed a backlog ensued

Purpose built Power House at Highlands was at the time the worlds largest direct current control board, minus mains electricity the plant created its own via gas-steam engines with a 40-ton flywheel

The train arrived, the crane way at six stories high would unload specific carriages and deposit the contents at the appropriate loading platform so the workers never went far for their materials

The piston machine shop was supplying at seven seconds per unit to fit inside the iron blocks cut out by a milling machine that dealt with three engines in each operation

The final assembly line, three workers per station although many employees would leave the great wages and benefits, unable to continue with the repetitive nature of mass production

Setting the motor, whilst one worker connects the driveshaft to the engine the other lowers the block and working in choreographed unison they would have the motor installed simultaneously

Engine testing on ‘electric blocks’ ensured the 2.9 litre straight four offered 20hp, with reliability confirmed and ease of maintenance, it’s said Ford didn’t advertise the Model T between 1917 and 1923

Producing 6,000hp, the gas-steam engines within the power house supplied electricity 24/7 designed specifically for the plant, by 1917 there were seven but Highland would eventually have nine

The crankshaft grinding department, complete with their share of the 50 miles of belts required to drive the heavy machines producing a perfect example every 30 seconds to keep up with production

Small parts were supplied by the pressed steel department creating items such as fenders, lights and radiator caps, all subject to slight changes over the years.

The final part of the production line, starting the Model T for the first time and driving the chassis to the body shop where space allowed constricted stock to just three days manufacturing

Around 750,000 engines mated with their chassis at Highland Park in 1917 transported along belt driven conveyors; in 2013 Ford looked to install 6 million engines over dozens of plants worldwide

Ford promoted their ‘Vanadium steel’ which arrived with the early Model T’s, designed for longevity, a heat treatment department was built at Highlands, new methods were sought by the mid-20s

More than a mile and a half of overhead monorail track ran throughout the factory taking parts to the workforce and each electrically powered car was driven by one operator within a cab

Ford employed ‘movie makers’ to record their achievements, many were produced and before ‘health and safety’ came to be, their favourite filming position was swinging 6 stories high via the crane

From the main crane way a view of the stock held on a single day estimated over $1 million of mainly raw materials, stock holding by Highland park would mean production ceased after 2-3 days

The 56-piece Highland Ford workers concert band toured across the nation playing for other plants as well as the public, their highlight performing in front of 35,000 gathered in Seattle

Millions of immigrants flocked into the USA during the 20’s, $5 per day ensured applicants, Henry realised their lack of understanding hurt production thus Ford’s English school was set up

Workers health mattered to keep production at its maximum and their wages were dependant on clean living, a hospital at Highland dealt with emergencies as well as general and dental well-being

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The Garage was the last port of call for Model T’s completed prior to the 500-foot shipping platform able to accommodate 185 Model T’s, the trains taking them on pulled 100 freight cars

President Wilson addressed 20,000 workers with the power house chimneys in view. The building only required two but Henry Ford insisted on five so he could display a massive Ford sign from them