The "car the put America on wheels" was unveiled 100 years ago. The building where the Model T was developed and assembled a century ago still stands.
Next month marks the 100th anniversary of “the car that put America on wheels,” the Model T Ford. Henry Ford and his colleagues spent two years working on a secret project to develop a car “for the common man.” On Oct. 1, 1908, Ford unveiled his baby, a four-cylinder, 20-hp, five-passenger touring car with an $850 price tag.
After a full-page ad appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, the company was swamped with inquiries. Ford offered a vehicle that featured durable simplicity. Because of its high ground clearance, short turning radius and high power-to-weight ratio, the Model T could go almost anywhere.
The building where the Model T was developed and assembled 100 years ago still stands and is currently being renovated by a group of volunteers. Today, the three-story red brick structure, located a few miles north of downtown Detroit at the corner of Piquette Avenue and Beaubien Street, sits in a neighborhood that is dominated by abandoned factories and a forlorn urban landscape.
But, 100 years ago, the Piquette plant was the epicenter of the American automobile industry. The plant was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2002, because the first 14,000 Model T’s were assembled inside the building.
“The Ford Piquette plant is one of the most important buildings in the history of the American automobile industry and the history of technology,” claims Jerry Mitchell, president of the nonprofit Model T Automotive Heritage Complex Inc. “It is the only well-preserved, early automobile factory open to the public.” While operating the plant for six years, Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) became the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles, says Mitchell, and “developed some of the ideas that culminated in mass production of cars by the moving assembly line.”
In 1904, Henry Ford built the factory in an area that was known as Milwaukee Junction. The Piquette Avenue plant, which replaced Ford’s original factory on Mack Avenue, was located next to the intersection of two railroad lines that provided an easy method for shipping vehicles.
The 420-foot-long building was modeled after a New England textile mill, which at the time was considered to be the best design for catching daylight and distributing power. The interior featured thick maple floors and heavy oak columns and beams. It also had an innovative fireproof design, with amenities such as an overhead sprinkler system and heavy sliding metal doors that could isolate sections of the plant.
“Long and narrow buildings of this type were favored among businesses at the time, because they afforded the maximum amount of daylight to the interior through the many large windows,” says Mitchell. “At a time when air conditioning, too, was a novelty, windows also provided ventilation throughout the building.” The 67,000-square-foot plant has 355 windows and many workbenches are scattered along the outside walls to take full advantage of natural light.
Because Ford purchased most of its parts at the time, the Piquette Avenue plant was primarily designed for assembly. “On the third floor of the factory, preassembled engines, frames and bodies were put together into complete automobiles by teams of workmen,” says David Hounshell, professor of technology and social change at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh). In addition to early copies of the Model T, Ford built a variety of vehicles in the building, such as the Model B, F, K, N, R and S.
“Perhaps 15 such teams worked at different assembly stations, each demarcated by various piles of parts and by wooden stands upon which the cars were assembled,” adds Hounshell, who is the author of From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Johns Hopkins University Press). “Until about two years before the introduction of the Model T, the factory resembled more closely a poorly equipped job shop than a well-planned manufacturing establishment.”
In 1907, Henry Ford expanded the plant. As a result, he moved all operations, including machining, under one roof and began using interchangeable parts to build the Model N, the successful predecessor to the Model T. Engineers arranged tools sequentially, introduced flexible fixtures and jigs, and streamlined the flow of materials. “Simple gravity slides were installed in the factory between machine tools to move parts from one machining operation to another, thus expediting the flow of materials,” says Hounshell.
The efforts soon paid off. Later that year, Ford established a world record by assembling 110 cars in 10 hours. While the Model N proved to be a very popular model in 1907, Ford was already developing another car that would soon replace it and prove to be even more successful.
A Secret Room
In late 1906, Henry Ford had a small corner on the third floor of the Piquette Avenue plant walled off into a top-secret office and lab. Most employees thought it was a storeroom. Several of Ford’s most-trusted colleagues, such as Joe Galamb and Charles Sorensen, worked behind a closed, locked door for more than one year.
The 12-by-15-foot Experimental Room was cluttered with drafting tables, a lathe, some hand tools and several blackboards. It also contained an old rocking chair that was used by Henry Ford. The blackboards allowed the engineers to create full-size chalk drawings that could easily be photographed. That was extremely important, because it served as protection against po-tential patent lawsuits.
“Starting with the Model N as a basis, Ford developed a list of components that he felt could be improved,” says Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans and the author of Wheels for the World (Viking Penguin). “They included the transmission, the engine, the magneto and the suspension. Ford and the others spent a great deal of time gathered around the latest sketch on the blackboard, staring at it together, pondering it, then discussing it and changing it until some degree of concept, design and engineering emerged by consensus.”
According to Brinkley, 100 years ago the Piquette Avenue plant hummed like a beehive. He claims it was comparable in in-tensity of activity to the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II.
“Both efforts were multifaceted, yet well coordinated in order to foster the creation of devastatingly practical products,” ar-gues Brinkley. “That sort of outcome results only from an insistence on both efficiency and efficacy in every single task.”
Two draftsmen used slide rules to convert the chalk drawings on the blackboards into full-size engineering drawings. Next, a group of patternmakers created full-scale wooden patterns, molds and mockups that could be easily examined.
“A blueprint didn’t mean much to Henry Ford,” Sorensen recalled in his autobiography, My Forty Years With Ford (Wayne State University Press). “He wanted to see the finished size of the product. It was because of our constant tinkering that we were so right in many of the things we made. By whittling away at the wooden models of each part, and at the same time calculating the probable tensile strength of it in a few alloys of steel, we eventually came up with what was the Model T.”
After the parts were machined, they were assembled into prototypes. The Model T team created approximately 5,000 compo-nents. Instead of using traditional metal casting methods, Sorensen specified a variety of pressed steel parts, such as the crankcase, axle housing and transmission case, which streamlined production time.
Henry Ford’s goal was to develop a reliable, low-priced “universal” car. His big breakthrough was the use of vanadium alloy steel, which was tough, light and shock-resistant. It allowed Ford and his colleagues to develop axles, gears, springs, steering gear and other components that were strong and lightweight.
The Model T featured a planetary transmission system. Unlike many other vehicles at the time, the brake, clutch and gears were all incorporated within the transmission. Ford also cast the engine in one block. Other mechanical novelties included a detach-able cylinder head and a magneto built into the flywheel.
After several major hurdles had been cleared, the team built a few test cars in early 1908, which were driven as far away as Indi-anapolis and northern Michigan. In March 1908, Ford publicly announced the Model T, but production did not begin until the fall.
Peter Martin and Charles Sorensen were responsible for assembling the first Model T’s. Martin functioned as the factory su-perintendent, while Sorensen served as his assistant. Before ramping up production, they wrote out operation sheets that con-tained information about every subassembly and assembly process, listing step-by-step procedures and tools re-quired.
“[The operation sheets also] detailed the machining operations on various parts, the requisite material inputs, and the neces-sary tools, fixtures and gauges, and suggested how the factory ought to be laid out according to the sequential structure de-lineated on paper,” says Hounshell. “Preparation of these sheets brought order and clarity to what might have been a chaotic effort to produce the new model. Rather than hardening into rigid policy statements, the operations sheets served as guides to production and materials procurement.”
Martin and Sorensen also rearranged the plant floor and equipment for optimal efficiency. In addition, they purchased some new machine tools and set up an inventory control department to regulate the flow of tools and parts. “Their system laid the ground-work for even greater efficiencies at Highland Park,” says Lindsay Brooke, author of Ford Model T (MBI Publishing Co.).
When the first Model T was being assembled in early 1908, an accident occurred. It involved 40 people and 50 feet of rope. As workers hoisted the engine to attach it to the chassis, the rope broke. The engine crashed to the floor and several pieces broke off. But, the team shook off the incident, picked up the pieces and carried on.
“The next day, just seven men and eight feet of rope were allowed around the rebuilt engine, and it only took a couple of minutes to lower it into place,” says Brinkley. “None of them could have known that the prototype they were building would spawn the most influential consumer product of all time.”
All parts and components were hand delivered to each chassis assembly workstation. The process required 12 to 15 small groups of assemblers and numerous “pushers and shovers” who moved material back and forth. These “part fetchers” were often slow and unreliable, so managers constantly worried about the timely delivery of fasteners and other key parts.
“In 1908, on the eve of the introduction of the Model T, a Ford assembler’s average cycle task totaled 514 minutes or 8.56 hours,” says Jim Womack, chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute (Cambridge, MA). “Each worker would assemble a large part of a car before moving on to the next. For example, a worker might put all the mechanical parts-wheels, springs, motor, transmission, generator-on the chassis, a set of activities that took a whole day to complete.
“The assemblers performed the same set of activities over and over again at their stationary assembly stands,” adds Womack, who is coauthor of The Machine That Changed the World (Free Press). “They had to get the necessary parts, file them down so they would fit [Ford hadn’t yet achieved perfect interchangeability of parts], then bolt them in place.”
Eventually, the process of sequential assembly was implemented. Assemblers would walk along a row of stationary chassis performing the same operation on one car after another.
“Around 1908, when Ford finally achieved perfect part interchangeability, he decided that the assembler would perform only a single task and move from vehicle to vehicle around the assembly hall,” explains Womack. “By August 1913, just before the moving assembly line was introduced, the task cycle for the average Ford assembler had been reduced from 514 to 2.3 minutes.
“Taken together, interchangeability, simplicity and ease of attachment gave Ford tremendous advantages over his competition,” claims Womack. “For one, he could eliminate the skilled fitters who had always formed the bulk of every assembler’s labor force.
“This spurred a remarkable increase in productivity, partly because complete familiarity with a single task meant the worker could perform it faster,” Womack points out. “Also, all filing and adjusting of parts [was] eliminated. Workers simply popped on parts that fitted every time.”
Engine machining and assembly, such as the cylinder, crankcase and crankshaft departments, along with axle assembly, took place on the ground floor of the Piquette Avenue plant. Other light machining and subassembly tasks were carried out on the second floor. The third floor was occupied with Model T chassis assembly. Parts were transported to the third floor by elevator and stored until needed for assembly. “Once a car was put together, it descended by the same route that its component parts had come up,” Sorensen recalled in this autobiography, which was published in 1956.
The first Model T emerged from the Piquette Avenue plant on Sept. 27, 1908. But, production started slowly. Only 11 Model T’s were assembled in October 1908. By December, production rose to 200 cars a month and continued to climb steadily.
Assemblers cranked out 13,840 Model T’s at the factory in 1909, which were priced at $950 each. Over the next 18 years, more than 15 million vehicles were sold around the world.
Visiting the Piquette Avenue plant today is like stepping into a time machine. The walls, floors and ceilings are virtually unchanged from the early days of the Model T. The third floor has never been painted since Ford abandoned the plant in 1910 and moved to the famous Highland Park “crystal palace.” However, the humble Piquette Avenue plant is where the moving assembly line concept was developed 100 years ago.
“[A common] misconception is that the final assembly line originated in our Highland Park plant in the summer of 1913,” Sorensen wrote in his autobiography. “It was born then, but it was conceived in July 1908 at the Piquette Avenue plant, and not with the Model T but during the last months of Model N production.”
Moving workers from assembly station to assembly station caused bottlenecks. The process of walking several feet between each vehicle took valuable time. In addition, jams frequently occurred as faster assemblers overtook slower workers in front of them. Ford also encountered problems with material flow.
“The job of putting the car together was a simpler one than handling the materials that had to be brought to it,” recalled Sorensen. “The idea occurred to me that assembly would be easier, simpler and faster if we moved the chassis along, beginning at one end of the plant with a frame and adding the axles and the wheels; then moving past the stockroom, instead of moving the stockroom to the chassis.”
In his reminiscences, Sorensen claimed that he and some associates laid out a crude chassis assembly line at least five years before the technique was used in actual production. “I had [Charles] Lewis arrange the materials on the floor so that what was needed at the start of assembly would be at that end of the building and the other parts would be along the line as we moved the chassis along,” Sorensen pointed out in his autobiography.
“We spent every Sunday during July planning this. Then one Sunday morning, after the stock was laid out in this fashion, Lewis and I and a couple of helpers put together the first car that was ever built on a moving line. We did this simply by putting the frame on skis, hitching a towrope to the front end and pulling the frame along until axles and wheels were put on.
“Then we rolled the chassis along in notches to prove what could be done,” explained Sorensen. “While demonstrating this moving line, we worked on some of the subassemblies, such as completing a radiator with all its hose fittings so that we could place it very quickly on the chassis. We also did this with the dash and mounted the steering gear and the spark coil.”
Some observers, such as Mitchell, believe Sorensen took too much credit for the moving assembly line. Like Henry Ford, Sorensen supposedly had a big ego, and both men wrote books in which they espoused their ideas and laid claims to various innovations. In reality, Mitchell believes that numerous people were probably responsible for developing the moving assembly line concept.
No matter who first thought of the idea, Sorensen and his colleagues successfully proved that an automobile could be put together quickly while moving a chassis past a sequence of waiting parts. However, their boss (Henry Ford) rejected the idea in 1908 and it was buried in the rush to build the state-of-the-art Highland Park plant, which opened in 1910 a few miles north of the Piquette Avenue plant.
According to Sorensen, Ford encouraged the experiment 100 years ago, but he did not necessarily accept it. “[Peter] Martin and [Harold] Wills doubted that an automobile could be built properly on the move,” Sorensen claimed. “Wills was particularly hostile. That way of building a car, he said, would ruin the company.”
Even if the moving assembly line concept was approved in 1908, the layout and manufacturing operation of the Piquette Avenue plant was not conducive to wide-scale automation. As Model T orders began pouring in, Sorensen said “Piquette Avenue, the last word in auto plants from years before, was too small to meet the demand.”
But, Sorensen and Clarence Avery continued to fine-tune the moving assembly line concept. Finally, management consented to more extensive experiments when they were faced with the daunting task of producing more and more copies of the popular Model T.
Ford and his managers were searching for new ways to increase production speed to keep up with rampant consumer demand. They decided that the best way to achieve higher production volume would be to change the way assemblers worked.
On April 1, 1913, the first moving assembly line for a large-scale manufacturing application began to operate. It was used to produce flywheel magnetos. The first moving line for chassis assembly started in January 1914. By 1916, thanks to efficiencies created by the innovation, production at the Highland Park plant jumped to 585,388 units, while the price of a Model T dropped to $360.
The early moving assembly line consisted of two strips of metal plates-one under the wheels on each side of the car-that ran the length of the Highland Park factory. At the end of the line, the strips, mounted on a belt, rolled under the floor and returned to the start of the chassis assembly line.
“Since Ford needed only a belt and an electric motor to move it, his cost was minimal,” says Womack. “This innovation cut cycle time from 2.3 minutes to 1.19 minutes. The difference lay in the time saved in the worker’s standing still rather than walking and in the faster pace, which the moving line could enforce.”
To learn more about Model T production processes, search for these articles on ASSEMBLY’s Web site:
- Automation Pioneers.
- How the Model T Was Assembled.
- Ten Ways the Model T Changed the World.
- The Man Behind the Moving Assembly Line.
- The Model T’s Chicago Connection.
- The Model T Turns 100: How Production Evolved.
- The World in 1908.