Ford Motor Co. began producing cars in Chicago 10 years before the current assembly plant opened a century ago. A six-story “branch factory” opened on the South Side in 1914 to meet surging demand for the Model T. The 213,798-square-foot facility was located at 3915 S. Wabash Ave. (a few blocks southeast of where the Chicago White Sox currently play baseball).

Inside the building, a team of 407 assemblers built an average of 175 cars a day. Parts shipped by rail from Ford’s Highland Park factory in Detroit were delivered to the upper floors of the building, where vehicles were put together using a top-down assembly process. Tin Lizzies rolled out a door on the ground floor, either for sale in the branch plant’s showroom or for distribution to regional dealerships in northern Illinois and Indiana.

An article in the August 8, 1921, issue of Ford News, an employee newspaper, explained how Model T’s were assembled at the Chicago facility:

“The sixth floor is devoted to the fender department and building the passenger car bodies. Here the bodies are given the first or ‘priming’ coat of paint and all enameling is done.

“These bodies are then sent to the fifth floor, given the second coat of paint and then the last or ‘finishing’ coat is sprayed on. The upholstery work is also handled on this floor.

“The fourth floor is given over to the finishing of the closed bodies only.

“On the third floor is found the wheel painting department and also the final operations necessary to prepare the bodies for mounting on the finished chassis.

“The second floor is the scene of the greatest activity, embracing as it does the minor assembling and also the complete assembling of the cars. This is the most interesting department in the building, for here the visitor can watch the complete building of the car and obtain and excellent idea of Ford Factory Methods.

“At one end of the center aisle a bare frame starts down the famous Ford progressive assembly line and ends up, a few hundred feet distant, as a finished car ready for driving.

“In one corner front systems are being assembled—in another the rear axles—in another the motors—the assembling of all units of a car’s construction is accomplished on this floor.

“The car is started on its way to completion with nothing but a frame, which drops into place from the second floor. In a twinkling the springs are bolted in place, using automatic wrenches driven by compressed air, and after advancing one step the motor and rear axle are assembled.

“The frame is then placed on a moving conveyor and does not stop until the competed car is driven from the building. The conveyor does not stop for a single moment, the mechanics working as it moves. Each man has a definite operation to perform in a certain length of time, and the precision and rapidity with which they work is nothing short of marvelous.

“As the chassis moves on past the various mechanics, wheels appear on the axles, fenders and splash aprons are bolted in place, the entire dash and steering gear is attached, the gasoline tank full of gasoline is installed and the radiator is bolted on. The body is then dropped onto the chassis from the third floor and the radiator is filled with water.

“The car is then ran onto a starting platform, where constantly turning wheels, installed in the floor, cause the front wheels to revolve as they are tested. The car is then moved forward until the rear wheels are revolved, and after a few moments of running in this manner the emergency lever is released and the engine starts.

“The attendant then hops into the seat and drives the car out into the test yard, where it is carefully tested and finally marked for shipment. Those cars which are for dealers distant from Chicago are loaded into freight cars and those for the local dealers are delivered to them on the first floor from the shipping department.”

By 1920, the six-year-old facility proved to be inefficient to meet growing demand for the Model T, so Ford purchased a large tract of land on the Southeast Side of Chicago and began constructing a state-of-the-art factory the following year. The Chicago Assembly Plant opened in 1924 and has been building vehicles ever since.

To learn more about other factories that made Chicago a production powerhouse in the 19th and 20th centuries, see Made in Chicago: The Windy City’s Manufacturing Heritage.