Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit Debuts Secret Experimental Room

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The Model T, which revolutionized mobility more than a century ago, had its birthplace recreated in the famed Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Sunday when a team of mostly volunteers unveiled what is known as the Secret Experimental Room.

On the top floor of a three-story, mill-style factory built by Henry Ford in 1904 at the corner of Piquette and Beaubien Street, more than 200 people attended the debut of the new room, outfitted with what historians say is as near a replication of the original 870-square-foot space.

Henry Ford, who founded Ford Motor Co. in 1903 in a one-story rented factory on Mack Avenue (a second story was added soon after), financed the new factory on Piquette with profits from the sale of his early automobiles, each of which was designated by a letter of the alphabet.

“This is a major step forward in understanding the history of a vehicle that literally changed the world,” says Jerry Mitchell, president of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant board of trustees. “Education is our major mission, and we want people to know what happened here, why it is so important, and how it contributes to the renaissance of Detroit.”

Steve Shotwell, vice president of the board of trustees, says he and a group of volunteers worked with the late architectural historian Richard K. Anderson to analyze every inch of the space. The L-shaped room was made from true 2×4 white pine studs and bead board that were custom milled in southeastern Michigan. One of the recreated features is a set of double doors that Ford originally designed to move vehicles in and out of the locked space.

“We started making plans for the project in 2005, we began applying for grants two years ago, and work began in earnest five months ago,” says Shotwell. “Fortunately, we tracked down a 250-volt DC motor that we use to power a line shaft. From there, we have a milling machine, a lathe, and a drill press.”

The machines date to the late 1800s, and are set next to a long workbench. Above, three General Electric arc lamps that were reproduced by Kirlin Lighting in Detroit using a 3-D printer were the same in style to those used as streetlights used in the city at the turn of the last century.

The longer sides of the rectangular factory face east and west to better capture the morning and afternoon light. The exterior brick walls were white washed, to reflect even more light into the factory.

“When Ford and the six craftsmen who worked with him on developing the Model T came up with component designs, they would write them on a chalkboard,” Shotwell says. “From there, they used a box camera to take a picture of the diagram, and when the film was developed, it was given to a draftsman. It was a very efficient operation, but no one working on the project thought the car would revolutionize travel, they simply wanted to build a car that the average man or woman could afford to buy.”

The Model T was equipped with numerous innovations, including Vanadium Steel, which was pliant enough to handle severe surface conditions prior to the development of paved roads. Other advancements included a flywheel magneto that allowed the Model T to generate its own electricity (an industry first).

In addition, Ford and James J. Couzens developed a national dealer network, while other advancements were made in design, sales, advertising, and distribution. In total, more than 16.5 million Model Ts were sold between 1908 and 1927. The car was first conceived in early 1907.

“Ford built the Highland Park Ford Plant starting in 1910, and the Piquette Plant was sold to Studebaker,” says Shotwell. “It passed through several hands, and the secret room was disassembled. We are fortunate some of our board members acquired the building (in 2000) and set about restoring it.”

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant includes Henry Ford’s office, workshops, assembly areas, and car displays. In addition to public tours, the space is rented out for special events, weddings, car clubs, and other uses. Sunday’s event coincided with the birthday of the Model T, and guests were given rides in the Tin Lizzie.

For more information about the plant, click here.

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