Model T Turns 100: Detroit Celebrates and Looks Ahead

The car that changed everything is turning 100. That “Tin Lizzie” with the big wheels and the frog-like headlights, is an old woman now. Some look better than others. Some are polished, others are fraying, but most of them are history – as in gone.

Still, the car can hang. Like that cool aunt that everyone gathers around. The one who knows everything (or at least claims to), who wears the red lipstick still, and cuts the rug after a few cocktails. She’s not as fast, maybe not as sleek, and definitely not as young – but she gets long looks.

That’s the Model T. Still turning heads.

And it’s very unlikely this ol’ girl will ever be forgotten. The influence was world changing. You can rank the Model T up there with the radio, the television, and the Internet on the list of global influential innovations.

Things haven’t been the same since that first one motored off the plant on Piquette Street in Detroit.

“You can think of the world in terms as pre-Model T and post-Model T,” Jerry Mitchell, CEO and founder of the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, Inc., says. “Everything changed. It was affordable, dependable, and made for the roads of the day.”

Now, as Detroiters celebrate her 100 years, we wonder what will be the next big thing to drive the city's economy, and change the world.

No one like her

There were other models. Like the Model S, the prototype of the Model T. There was the Model A, the first model produced by the Ford Motor Company. But it didn’t go alphabetically. Between the Model A and T you’ll find (in order of appearance) Models B, C, F, K, N, R and S. Up until the T the cars were quite large, quite expensive, and not really conducive for everyday driving.

Ford was, Mitchell says, building for his shareholders and not for himself or for the people. He had to build what the shareholders wanted because, well, they were footing the bill.

He eventually got enough power and took control of the design. The world then got the Model T.


Mitchell is standing on the roof of the old Ford Piquette Plant, the birthplace of the Model T and versions leading up to it. This building, on the corner of Piquette and Beaubien, is where it all originally went down.

And it’s a place Mitchell – a Boston-Edison resident, retired 30-year WSU-Medical School Teacher, and preservationist – saved from neglect and decay when his group purchased it in 2000.

The a tour guide is echoing facts about the Piquette Plant off of the side of the building across the street. There are about 20 or so people following the man with the bullhorn. Mitchell smirks to himself.

“It’s a tour,” he says, laughing.

Though the building isn’t exactly what Mitchell envisions yet, it’s, in a way, getting the job done. He says the building is here for knowledge and education.

Bill Chapin, co-founder of Motorcities National Heritage Area, who is also involved with Mitchell’s group, says they want to turn the building into an innovation center. He says that the College for Creative Studies, before they started looking into the Argonaut building, had thrown around the idea of the Piquette Plant. But, Chapin says, it boils down to the neighborhood. And though he says the streets around the plant have remarkably improved since 1999, there is still the idea that they aren't completely safe.

However, they’re obviously not giving up – that’s what preservationists do.

“I’d like to see that building turned into an innovation center,” Chapin says. “The Piquette plant could be like the MOCAD – an automobile MOCAD. If this building was in New York, someone would have scooped it up in half a second.”

“The story isn’t just cars,” Mitchell says. “It’s really about innovation.”

How to start a revolution

You could say that everything Henry Ford, and, essentially, what became Detroit, started at this plant on the corner of Piquette and Beaubien.

What Ford and his hand-picked team of big-brains were doing inside this three-story wood and brick New England Mill style building would change they way everyone lived their lives.

“Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, the automobile, vertical integration of a company,” Mitchell says. “But he improved them, streamlined them, and revolutionized Detroit.”

It all started a 100 years ago, come September 27. On that day, in 1908, the first “Tin Lizzie” motored away from the Piquette Plant and out into the world.

The Piquette production was fairly quick, though. After 1908, the demand grew to be too much for the plant. At its peak Piquette was churning out 100 cars a day. To accommodate the growing business, Ford moved production from Piquette – selling it to Studebaker – to the Highland Park Complex in 1910. There, it exploded. Ford was pushing out a 1000 cars a day with an incredible, and mind-scrambling 40,000 employees – and that was just at the complex alone.

Henry Ford directly and indirectly employed an enormous percentage of Detroit during this time, Mitchell says.

Both sites are fairly quiet now. The Model T Complex in Highland Park is deteriorating – some of it is empty, some used for storage and Mitchell isn’t sure what exactly the future plans are going to be.

As for Piquette, they just received a grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation to restore the facade of the plant to its original look.

Dream cruise

It’s Saturday, and the sky is blue. It’s a perfect day for a cruise.

The asphalt lot on the side of the Piquette Plant is lined up with restored GM and Ford vehicles, all parked in the shadow of the building.

A half dozen Model Ts, fully restored, are baking in the sun. A cluster of white older men has gathered in front of a particularly shiny one.

They’re talking cars – models and makes, engines and oils, gears and grease.

They’re gearing up for the “Year of the Car Cruise" from the Piquette Plant to the GM Heritage Center – a 24-mile excursion that was surly filled with honks and waves. This procession of automotive history kicks off “National Transportation Week,” declared as such in 1962 by John F. Kennedy. Its purpose is to gather transportation professionals to discuss key issues about the transportation of land, air, and sea.

Additionally, NTW is a jumping off point for Chapin’s group and the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau to talk about autotourism here in Southeast Michigan.

“People come here to do and see automobiles,” he says, adding that a large number of them are car enthusiasts coming to check out the Woodward Dream Cruise, the Grand Prix, and the Henry Ford Museum.

“We want to use this summer to figure out how to keep these people in Michigan for an extra day or two,” he says. And he’ll have the opportunity, too. This summer there are 120 events and activities planned throughout Southeast Michigan, that not only deal with autotourism in the area, but also celebrate both the Model T’s centennial and the centennial of the GM Corporation.

The paint in the Piquette is pealing. The oil-stained wood floor creaks with each and every step – almost even before you think about taking one. It’s hallowed ground here in Detroit. Hidden between Woodward and I-94, a few blocks south of Holbrook. It’s a cathedral of cars. The rock that Ford was build on – a St. Peter’s if you will.

Mitchell talks very deliberately, like you’d expect a preservationist. His hands folded in front of him. “If you have some time, I could tell you the story,” he says.

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D and produces the In the News section.


Touring the Model T plant on Piquette

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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