Ford’s Highland Park Manufacturing Plant

Henry Ford knew before he started building the Model T Ford that his manufacturing ability was the limiting factor to his success. Ford had followed typical early automotive principles when building the earlier Ford cars. Wheels were purchased from several companies, bodies from two companies, lamps from several other companies.

The Dodge brothers, Horace and John, built Ford’s chassis and delivered the chassis parts to Ford. The Dodge brothers had been the manufacturer of the curved dash Oldsmobile, and were well known for their ability to supply a high quality automobile chassis and engine. This arrangement allowed Ford to build a fairly large quantity of the Model N – R – S car, which was the most profitable and prolific automobile manufactured  anywhere in the world from 1906 – 1908. Not only were the Dodge brothers the manufacturer of the Ford chassis, they were also shareholders in Ford Motor Company. No doubt they were not happy when Ford announced plans to build his masterpiece of automotive manufacturing, the Highland Park Plant, in 1908.

The new Ford plant would be able to manufacture everything from bodies to engines, and every part of the Model T chassis when it was fully operational. The Dodge brothers knew that when it was finished it would spell the end of their ability to sell parts to Ford. On top of that source of displeasure, Henry also lowered stockholder dividends in order to pay for the new plant with cash on hand.

Summer 1910 photograph of the Highland Park Plant nearing completion.

Summer 1910, the finished plant ready for move in.

Ford and his engineering team worked with master design team Albert Kahn and Associates to achieve all the attributes they could conceive of needing. Kahn had emigrated from Prussia (now part of Germany) to the USA in the mid 1890’s. He had recently designed Packard’s Detroit factory, which was completed in 1903. The new Ford facility would use the same principles of steel reinforced concrete construction as had been used at the earlier Packard facility. This simplified construction and made the building much less susceptible to damage by fire. The plant was (and is) located at 91 Manchester Street in Highland Park Michigan, a Detroit suburb that is about 3 miles north of Walkerville, Ontario Canada. The Detroit River divides Canada and the United States where Woodward avenue crosses the river at its southern terminus.

Electric street cars dropped off employees at the Highland Park plant. The overhead power lines can be seen above the dirt road that existed at the time the plant was constructed. This photo was taken just before the plant opened. Within a year it would all be paved.

The plant location was thought to be good due to its location near rail lines and not too far from the Detroit river. The foundry in the new plant would depend upon iron and steel ingots plus coal being delivered first by ship to the docks, then by rail to the factory. Meanwhile, finished cars would be transported by both rail and ship to customers.

Inside the Highland Park Plant summer 1911 finished Model T’s await shipment.

Ford and his manufacturing team decided upon implementing a moving assembly line at the Highland Park Plant long before the plant was built. At the time, assembly line type manufacturing was already used to make large quantities of other goods, such as sewing machines and firearms. The idea of a continuously moving line was in use in the meat industry for disassembling animal carcasses into products that could be sold to consumers, from meat to grease. It was hardly revolutionary to see Ford using these processes to make cars. What was revolutionary was Ford implementing all of the processes and procedures within a few short years  to achieve this level of mass production for entire automobiles.

Early 1911 photo showing piles of lumber destined to be used to build Model T’s.

For the assembly line to function properly, sub assemblies also needed to be made in a timely manner and with precision enough to eliminate any hand fitting on the main line. Quantities of every item needed to make every subassembly needed to be delivered to every subassembly station. Subassemblies needed to be delivered from subassembly areas to assembly areas. The Highland Park Plant was designed as an automotive manufacturing machine, something that the world had never witnessed.

The process of moving from the Piquette plant in Detroit to the new Highland Park plant was also carefully designed and executed. We don’t know the entire sequence of events but reports are that the magneto assembly department, which employed mostly women, was the first operation to be moved to the new Highland Park facility.  Parts were still being supplied by Dodge Brothers, but the assembly was now on a new moving assembly line. A bare flywheel would begin at one end (photo above), and a finished, ready to install assembly would emerge at the other end.

Ford embraced fully the idea known today as “vertical integration”. The idea was to control every process involved in making whatever you make, from raw material to finished product. By doing this you capture every bit of profit that can be made in every step of the product’s life. Above we see a pair of stamping presses at the Ford Highland Park plant. Next to the nearest one we can see magneto field coil rings in piles of perhaps 50. The stamping presses are run by overhead line shafts. Each line shaft was connected to a huge DC electric motor.

The electricity at the plant was produced at Ford’s own power plant on site (above), which burned coal to produce steam which in turn powered steam engines which powered huge DC generators.

Auto production was entirely moved to the Highland Park plant by January, 1910. However the moving assembly line was still years in the future. The photo above was taken in the Highland Park plant, showing how stationary Model T chassis were still being assembled on saw horses that had been used years befre in the Piquette assembly plant. This photo was taken early in the 1913 model year – those saw horses look tired!

Gas tanks being installed on the new assembly line, late 1913 photo.

Circa 1914 photo outside the plant shows kids playing on the sidewalk. At that time there were houses across the street on Woodward avenue. They ultimately all were replaced by business properties.

The Sales building was also designed by Albert Kahn and had a showroom for displaying new Model T’s, with administrative offices upstairs.

This photo taken in the winter of 1913 shows new 1914 Model T chassis coming down the line where wheels and radiators are being installed. Notice the radiator inlet pipes are painted black.

The streets around the plant were crowded at shift change times. Circa 1915 photo.

During 1913 – 14 Ford spent a lot of time photographing the nearly fully functioning Highland Park plant. One of the more iconic images from that period of time shows an entire day’s production of Model T chassis staged outside the plant. This image shows workers arranging the cars for that publicity photo.

The plant was designed with harsh Michigan winter weather as a consideration. These camera men are riding on a gantry crane that was used to unload rail cars inside the building. Goods could be moved by the crane directly to the loading dock of a specific manufacturing station inside the plant easily.

The plant today is used mostly for storage. The rail tracks have been removed, semi trailers are the typical way to move goods today.

In 1924 Ford built about 2.1 Million Model T Fords. Average production per day of the Highland Park plant was about 5400 cars. The car above has 21 inch demountable “balloon” tires. Notice the engine appears to be unpainted. June 1924 photograph.

1927 Model T Fords were the last cars built at Highland Park.

Model T production at the Highland Park plant ended in May 1927. The plant was never used to build any other car other than the Model T Ford. Beginning in 1927 Fordson tractors were built at Highland Park.

This WWII photo of the Highland Park plant shows the power plant operating as it had since 1910. During the war years Ford built Sherman tanks at the Highland Park plant.

After WWII Ford tractor production resumed at Highland Park. It continued until the 1970’s when tractor production was moved to Ford’s new Romeo, Michigan facility.

Today the Highland Park plant is still owned by Ford Motor Company. It is on the register of National Historic Places, and is a Designated National Historic Landmark. Portions of the plant are leased to Forman Mills, a clothing manufacturer. Other portions of the plant are used as offsite storage for the Henry Ford museum.

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