Precision on Warren Avenue

Lincoln Motor Co.’s factory complex was many things – a unique real estate deal, a hurry-up construction project, and an albatross – before Ford Motor Co. rescued the operation.
Lincoln Motor Co.'s first plant
Factory City: Lincoln Motor Co.’s first plant was located on Detroit’s west side at Warren and Livernois avenues, where it built the Model L along with multiple custom built luxury vehicles with such coachbuilders as Dietrich, Fleetwood, Waterhouse, and Rollston. // Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Lincoln Motor Co. faced big problems when it set out to build a gigantic factory in the spring of 1917. The best site — 50 acres just beyond the end of the Warren Avenue streetcar line — was already subdivided, and lots had been sold. Intense negotiations with owners gave Lincoln the deeds in three weeks.

The next problem was finding structural steel for eight buildings encompassing 615,959 square feet of space. America had just entered World War I, and ordering steel meant waiting many months. But Henry and Wilfred Leland, the father-and-son founders of Lincoln, believed in their mission to make aircraft engines. Wilfred phoned American Bridge Co., pleaded his case, and had the steel in 10 days. 

After coming to Detroit in 1890, when he was 47, the elder Leland made a success of his precision machine shop before getting involved in the Henry Ford Co., the second of Ford’s manufacturing ventures. In those days, Ford was more interested in auto racing than production lines, and he ended up leaving his own company. The firm’s directors renamed the business after French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac; the Lelands took over as managers by 1904.

 Recognizable by his bushy Van Dyke beard, Henry Leland was known for reading the Bible to staff members during noontime prayer meetings, which may have explained the cars’ undeniable graces. After GM acquired Cadillac Motor Car Co. in 1909, the Lelands stayed on, but not for long. They left their managerial roles at Cadillac when General Motors boss Billy Durant refused to accept war-related contracts.

The father-and-son duo formed their new company on the fly. Henry Leland, 74 by this time, had voted for Abraham Lincoln back in 1864 and adopted his name for the enterprise. At first, they tabbed a Holden Avenue plant for the production of 14 Liberty engines a day, but demand grew with the order. The government, which paid $7,000 per unit, with a 15-percent profit built in for the manufacturers, wanted 6,000 engines from Lincoln.

Veteran architect George Mason drew up the plans, and Walbridge Aldinger Co. signed on for the construction. By October 1917, a legion of 1,900 workers had started building Lincoln engines. By Feb. 12, 1918, the steam was on inside the main hall. Dozens of designers and draftsmen had created thousands of specialized tools, and in May, just 13 months after the U.S. declared war upon Germany, the plant shipped completed engines.

Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard, and Marmon also built the compact, powerful V-12
Liberty engines, but only Lincoln had begun the project from scratch. In November the war ended, leaving the company with 6,000 employees and no work, so Lincoln became a car company. The Lelands floated a $6.5-million stock offering and presented the Model L in September of 1920. With its smooth-running, 81-horsepower V-8 engine, it was well-received by the press, but the car’s stodgy body design didn’t reflect the incipient Jazz Age.

Even worse, Henry Leland’s persnickety ways had delayed the car’s introduction, forcing its release to coincide with the postwar recession. Lincoln’s board put the company into receivership in November of 1921, and Ford — whose wife, Clara, was friends with Wilfred’s wife — rode in on a white horse, the only bidder at the receiver’s sale. Ford acquired his new luxury brand for $8 million, or about 50 cents on the dollar. The plan was for the
Lelands to stay, as they had at Cadillac, but instead they both departed by spring.

As for the plant, it remained in use until 1952, when production moved to Wixom. Three years later, Detroit Edison purchased the facility for $4.5 million. It was given National Historic Landmark status in 1978, but most of the buildings were knocked down by 2003, eliminating Detroit’s most obvious relic of triumph in the first Great War.