Photos by Mike Skinner, NAHC, and Ford.
In today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine an automotive company needing to build a much larger assembly plant only two years after building a first, in order to accommodate huge public demand. That was the situation Henry Ford faced in 1906 while building cars at his Piquette Street plant. Ford realized he needed a much larger facility and decided to purchase 58 acres of land in suburban Highland Park, Michigan for his new assembly plant. His vision was to build a world-class factory using the latest architectural technologies.
Architect Albert Kahn was tapped to design Ford’s new assembly plant. Several years earlier, Kahn had designed Packard’s East Grand Boulevard assembly plant, considered to be the most modern facility in the world. Using what he learned from his Packard experience, Kahn designed Ford’s new factory. The facility, later known as the Crystal Palace because of the 50,000 square feet of rooftop glass, became the ultimate automotive factory.
The Highland Park plant was to be built on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Manchester Avenue in the sleepy hamlet of Highland Park, a village located within the city limits of Detroit. The location, just a few miles from his Piquette Street plant, was picked primarily because it bordered three major rail lines, vital at the time to the automobile business.
Work on the Highland Park plant began in early 1909. The original design called for a main office, powerhouse, engineering building, and a four-story assembly plant located behind those buildings. By January 1, 1910, the 75 by 865-foot, four-story building was ready to pump out Model Ts. Over the next several years, an L-shaped, four-story building was erected well behind the main factory creating a U-shaped facility. A one-story machine shop was built between the two buildings. In the middle of the machine shop, an 880 by 57-foot crane-way ran north to south, transporting materials from one section of the plant to another. Additional floor conveyors and chains powered by steam ran along the facility, bringing heavy parts from the foundry to the work areas. The north side of the building included a foundry, heat-treating area, and an engine room. The southeast portion of the plant included a sawmill and several shipping platforms.
Ford began producing Model Ts at Highland Park on January 1, 1910 using the traditional station build process, the same as used at the Piquette Street facility. It placed unfinished cars in a stationary location while teams of workers moved from car to car, assembling components brought to them by an employee pushing a hand-truck full of parts. Henry realized that to keep up with customer demand he needed to improve efficiency. He had been working to perfect the assembly line process for quite some time and was determined to vastly improve productivity by using this new method, but additional floor space was needed.
By July 1911, ground was broken for two six-story buildings east of the existing plant. Included in the buildings was a six-story-high crane-way that traversed the entire length of the building. Ford was now preparing for mass production, but needed to try out his idea. The assembly line process was first tested on the flywheel magneto assembly. Up until now, one person assembled a complete magneto, producing 35 to 40 per day. Ford then broke down the process into 29 separate operations, with 14 workers assembling only a small portion of each magneto. Those 14 workers were able to produce 1,335 magnetos per day, averaging 95 magnetos per person, even though the workday was reduced from nine to eight hours.
In addition to the added floor space, the entire facility needed to be updated to accommodate parts coming to cars as they moved down the assembly line. No longer would a worker push a hand-truck and keep up with the line speed. Overhead conveyers were built, bringing everything from gas tanks to wheels directly into the assembly area for the person responsible for installing that part. Body painting and assembly, interior assembly, and other miscellaneous part production stations were located on the second, third, and fourth floors. Chassis assembly was on the first floor. When mass production was ready to be introduced in April 1914, the twin final assembly lines were moved from the early four-story buildings to the six-story buildings on Manchester Ave. And at that time, the final line was doubled in length to 327 feet.
Ford’s mass production eventually revolutionized the entire automobile industry. In 1908, Ford’s Piquette plant used 450 workers to produce 10,607 vehicles. By 1921, 32,679 workers at Highland Park produced 933,720 vehicles. Ford’s market share rose from 9.4 percent in 1908 to 48 percent by 1914.
Prior to Ford’s move to Highland Park, the village’s population was 425 people. By the end of 1910 with the plant up and running, population grew to 4,120 and by the end of 1914–just nine months after Henry’s assembly line process was in full swing–Highland Park had a population of 27,170. While it was a boom for Highland Park, housing eventually became an issue with people pouring in to work at Ford. Many rented rooms shared with other workers, and few could afford to purchase a house.
During this time, immigrants were flooding into Detroit in an effort to seek the American dream. Many of these hard-working people wound up at Ford’s Highland Park facility. By 1914, nearly three-quarters of the workers were foreign born and of those, 50 percent were either from southern or eastern Europe. Their average age was 28 years old, and two percent of Ford employees were women.
While Ford’s workers were hard working, imagine the communication problems dealing with the many languages. How does someone instruct an employee about his or her job when the worker has no idea what you are saying? To resolve this issue, Ford developed an English school. Anyone not able to speak English was required to attend the school after work. Failure to do so would result in dismissal. Ford also saw the need to teach manners and set up schools to teach the basics of proper etiquette. The schools gave instructions on the proper use of utensils and the basics of being neat and clean.
A problem for Ford during the early years was the extremely high employee turnover rate. Employees worked a minimum of nine hours per day for about $2.00 a day, and many chose to look for work elsewhere. Ford decided to use money as a tool in reducing turnover–and more importantly, to allow employees to become customers of Ford products. In 1914 he increased pay to $5.00 per day while at the same time reducing the workday from nine to eight hours. In addition to the extra spending money, his new pay scale allowed his workers to purchase a new Model T with the equivalent of only four months’ pay. His workers now became buyers, and it was a win/win for everyone. Another perk for workers was an on-site safety and health department, hospital, drug store, butcher shop, grocery store, shoe store, and a trade school for boys as well as two factory apprentice schools for adults.
Eventually the plant grew to almost three million square feet of floor space. During its existence, Highland Park would produce over 15 million Model Ts, with Ford employing over 50,000 people. With so many people working there, Ford staggered quitting times so that the streets would not become overcrowded at the end of a shift. Because of plant efficiencies, the price of a Model T dropped from $950 in 1909 to $290 in 1925. On May 26, 1927, the 15 millionth Model T was built. Then on May 31, the last Model T rolled off the assembly line at Highland Park. Henry was ready to build his new Model A at the new Rouge River facility.
Today, portions of the Highland Park facility are still intact. The powerhouse, main office, and the original four-story building are gone. These days it is Model T Plaza, a strip mall. The second four-story building is still standing, as well as the two six-story buildings and a secondary office building. Ford Motor Company, while it doesn’t own the facility, continues to lease part of the building for storage. Today, Henry’s Highland Park plant continues to have a Ford presence that has lasted for nearly 100 years.
At the time, Henry Ford–with little education–became the world’s wealthiest person. Looking back, he was a true visionary, and he worked tirelessly to stay ahead of the competition.