Big inventions are often created in small spaces. A classic example of that can now be seen in Detroit: specifically, on the third floor of the brick building at 461 Piquette, which housed the assembly plant of the Ford Motor Company from 1904 to 1910. More significant, it was the birthplace of the Ford Model T, a car that put automobile ownership within reach of people of average means and as a result accelerated America’s transition from a rural to an urban society.
In the northeast corner of the third floor, an L-shaped room measuring 870 square feet has been set aside and refurbished to replicate its state when it was the exact space where the Model T evolved from concept to production readiness.
Now known as the “secret experimental room,” the space was originally partitioned off from the rest of the factory floor in January 1907, with a padlock on the door when the room wasn’t in use. Only a trusted few of Ford’s workmen had access to the space.
Set up by foundry boss Charlie Sorensen, the room was established for what Henry Ford described as a “completely new job.” At that point, Ford’s Model N, together with its sportier R and S variants, was the top-selling car in America, and the experimental-room team embarked on the job with the anticipation that they’d be crafting an evolution of the Model N.
But Henry Ford’s concept was more revolutionary. As his autobiography, My Life and Work, records, Ford intended the T to be “a motorcar for the great multitude,” a car big enough for family use that was light, durable, and affordable. Based on physical evidence in the building, surveys by industrial archaeologist Richard Anderson, and 1950s interviews with workers employed at the plant at the time the Model T was birthed, a team of experts and volunteers brought the experimental room back to life. This included appointing it with the equipment the T team employed in 1907 and 1908: a drafting table, a chalkboard, a camera to record design ideas, a workbench, tool boxes, workers’ lunch pails, and a 250-volt DC motor turning an overhead line shaft that powered belt-driven machine tools—a lathe, a drill press, and a milling machine.
The space is illuminated by reproductions of the original GE arc lamps, fabricated by Detroit’s Kirlin Lighting, using a 3D printer and an authentic original lamp purchased from a Canadian collector. Piquette insiders note that the purchase of that vintage lamp cost more than the price of the original Model T. An old rocking chair duplicates the rocker Henry Ford occupied while directing operations, and a Model N chassis represents the starting point of the T project.
The ideas and brainstorming burgeoned in early 1907, and by the spring of 1908 the first of several running prototypes rolled out of the secret experimental room and onto public roads, whereupon the T was not so secret anymore.
Production began on September 27, 1908, with the formal public debut occurring on October 1. The T was an instant success—not so much because of its price, though, at least at first. With a base price of $850 for the original five-passenger touring car, it was less expensive than many contemporary automobiles but some $250 more than the Model N. Irresistibly low prices came later, with the economies of scale that set in after Ford established the moving assembly line in 1913.
What set the T apart was innovation, simplicity, and exceptional ruggedness. For example, Ford specified vanadium steel for a number of stressed components such as the crankshaft, axles, and wheel spindles, reducing weight and enhancing durability. Developed in Europe, vanadium alloyed steel had been tested in earlier Ford models and was used more extensively in the Model T, contributing to low curb weight (about 1200 pounds) and a chassis capable of surviving the then primitive U.S. road system.
Other innovations included a one-piece engine block (most contemporary engine cylinders were cast in pairs) and a removable cylinder head that made maintenance and repair infinitely easier. The magneto, which sent juice to the spark plugs, was integrated with the flywheel, the flexible frame helped the T survive on deeply rutted dirt highways, and the planetary transmission made the car easy to drive.
Today, the walls of the experimental room are cut away on two sides to give visitors a close look at its historic appointments. The room itself is augmented by backlit panels that trace the story of the T’s gestation from concept to running prototype, as well as a video kiosk with five short descriptions of the key elements that made the Model T stand out from the crowd.
In addition to serving as the home to the re-created experimental room, the Piquette plant is itself a museum, its top two floors home to a wide variety of cars from the T and pre-T era. Piquette was Ford’s first purpose-built factory. Before the T, it was the source of models B, C, F, K, N, R, and S. As with the previous models, T production at Piquette was based around single stations—where one team assembled the entire car.
Ford and his staff kept tweaking the process to speed production, but station-style assembly, which was then common to all vehicle production everywhere, continued up to and beyond the time that Ford left Piquette for a vast new factory in nearby Highland Park in January 1910. Still, during those 15 months some 12,000 Model Ts rolled out of Piquette.
Ford sold the Piquette plant to Studebaker, which produced vehicles there until 1933. Subsequent tenants were Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) and the Cadillac Overall Company, among others. In 2000—with the impending prospect of demolition facing the facility—the property was acquired by the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, a private group dedicated to preserving the Piquette factory and commemorating its singular historic significance.
In its Model T heyday, Ford was just one of 22 different carmakers in the area, which was then called Milwaukee Junction for its proximity to rail transportation. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is open to visitors 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from April through November. From December through March, the plant is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.