During the 1950s, Ford Motor Co. had two assembly plants in Chicago. In addition to the auto factory celebrating its centennial this year, the company operated an even larger facility which produced military aircraft engines. That chapter in history is long forgotten, but Ford’s manufacturing legacy lives on as the namesake of a popular shopping mall on the Southwest Side of Chicago.

The facility located at 7401 S. Cicero Ave. was originally built in 1942 by Chrysler’s Dodge Division to assemble Wright R-3350 Cyclone engines for the Boeing B-29 bomber.  Albert Kahn (the same architect behind the Ford Chicago Assembly Plant) designed the massive facility using new materials and construction techniques.

When it opened in 1943, the $173 million Dodge Chicago Plant comprised 6.3 million square feet of space spread out over 19 buildings. The main facility covered 82 acres and included air conditioning to support precision assembly processes.

The first aircraft engines came off the assembly line in January 1944 and production quickly ramped up to 1,600 units a month. At its peak, the factory operated around the clock and employed more than 10,000 people.

After World War II ended, the fledgling Tucker Corp. acquired the facility to assemble a revolutionary new automobile. The Tucker 48 featured three headlights, a rear-mounted engine and doors that cut into the roof to provide more headroom for passengers getting into or out of the vehicle. After only making 51 cars, the company went bankrupt in 1949 and the huge plant was shuttered.

The U.S. Air Force acquired the building and contracted with the Ford Aircraft Engine Division to the assemble a 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney reciprocating engine for use in bomber and cargo planes.

According to an article in the July 20, 1951, issue of the Chicago Tribune, the large facility included an aluminum foundry, a magnesium foundry and a forge equipped with a 5,000-pound metal stamping hammer and an 8,000-pound hammer. It also contained “6,200 machine tools required to make 227 parts that require more than 9,200 different operations.”

The article claimed the plant “has become one of the Chicago area’s larger employers, with about 6.500 on its payroll.” By 1955, the facility employed more than 10,000 people.

An article in the July 21, 1951, issue of the Chicago Tribune explained that the engines contained “about 2,000 parts of which 1,800 are being subcontracted to outside manufacturers, with up to 70 percent of those firms located in the Chicago area. Ford is producing larger engine parts, such as cylinder barrels, connecting arm, magnesium castings and propeller shafts.”

In early 1952, the U.S. Air Force awarded Ford a $30 million contract to build J57 Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines at the facility. They featured a dual-rotor axial-flow compressor (see photo above), which lowered fuel consumption over a wide operating range and improved the sluggish acceleration characteristic of previous jet engines.

The J57 was the first production jet engine to generate 10,000 pounds of thrust. The engines were used to power a variety of Cold War era military aircraft such as the Boeing B-52 bomber and the North American F-100 Super Sabre fighter.

In 1957, Ford proclaimed that the “mammoth 85-acre defense plant” was “the biggest under-one-roof factory in the United States.” However, it closed the facility in early 1959.

Two years later, the U.S. government sold the massive factory to a real estate developer who planned to open a shopping center. Some buildings were torn down to make room for a parking lot, but Ford City Mall opened in 1965 and still remains in operation today.

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.