Milwaukee Junction. It don’t look like much. Broken windows. Crumbling concrete. Graffiti, ranging from the beautiful to the obscene. Typical Detroit, 2014.
But this was once the epicenter of the American auto industry. At the intersection of the local Michigan Central and Grand Trunk railroads, Milwaukee Junction was ground zero for legendary companies like Ford, Studebaker, Fisher Body, Cadillac, Dodge, and Oakland. If the rail lines were the veins of Detroit industry, this was the heart. It’s where the chassis met the wheels and the key met the ignition.
At shift change men in soiled coveralls streamed out into the streets, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder. Vendors sold frankfurters from carts under big umbrellas, barking out prices over the deafening din of the trains and machinery. It was Times Square for men that bled oil. The big windows gleamed in the daytime and glowed through night.
No factory in Milwaukee Junction was more important than Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant, a thin three-story brick building that stretched back for a whole city block. It was there that Henry Ford fooled his rich investors, had his worker assemble cars that he never intended to sell to buy time for his Model T, a revolutionary car to be sold at the lowest price possible. “So the man that needed it most could afford it,” Ford said. “Anything that is good for only a few people is really no good.”
Old school moneyed men like Horace and John Dodge took Ford for a naive, uneducated farmer. Why not sell a luxury car with real profit margins? Ford’s wiry build, plainspoken manners, and perpetually worn oxfords only added to his image as a backwater hick that got lucky with his gasoline engine.
But Ford knew better. He’d proudly tell his associates, “We will work it the other way; low prices, increased sales, increased output, lower prices. It works in a circle!”
With that thought in mind, Ford and his engineers rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly on blueprints and schematics for the Model T, holed up inside a secret “Experimental Room” on the plant’s third floor. Except, of course, when they took a break for target practice at the makeshift shooting range on the factory floor, or when Ford pulled one of his infamous practical jokes. Charles E. Sorenson, one of Ford’s top men, later reminisced that at the early Ford Motor Company, “work was play.”
Finally, after over 2 years of hard “play”, the first Model T rolled off the production line in late summer 1908. What had been a wild dream on engineer József Galamb‘s giant blackboards in the back corner of the plant was now a living, breathing reality, although the public’s first glimpse wouldn’t be until October 1.
Those early Model T’s were truly a sight to behold, with sturdy vanadium steel bodies painted a stark shade of black. Combined with brushed leather seats and gas headlights and radiators encased in solid brass, the car had a classy look that belied its surprising affordability.
Already, Sorenson was busy figuring out ways to speed production with assembly line techniques. With the help of assistants he used ropes to drag the chassis along the factory floor as workers added parts, innovating the trademark techniques Ford adopted at his famous Highland Park plant. Even at this stage, efficiency was king.
Ford knew he had an instant winner with the Model T. Normally reserved and remarkably even-keeled, he was so hysterical when he saw the finished product that someone else had to test drive it for him. All those lonely, endless nights in his drafty shed, tinkering with his gasoline engine, vindicated in a single moment. The man neighbors had dubbed “Crazy Henry” for his myopic dedication didn’t seem crazy now.
The Model T was ready to make history, on 21″ tires.