Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Innovations

During the six years that the Ford Motor Company occupied the Piquette Avenue Plant, the automaker transformed itself from a mid-sized company assembling several car models made with components manufactured by others, to the largest automobile company in the United States. While at the Piquette Avenue Plant, Ford began manufacturing a significant portion of the components used in its automobiles at Piquette Avenue and at the nearby Bellevue Avenue Plant. Ford manufactured engines at the Bellevue Avenue Plant in 1906 and 1907, but by late 1908, the automaker was manufacturing virtually all of its engines, transmissions, axles, and flywheel magnetos at the Piquette Avenue Plant. Because the design and reliability of their engines could determine the fate of early automakers including Ford, becoming self-sufficient in engines was an early goal of Ford and the others. To be sure, Ford continued to purchase bodies, tires, batteries, and other parts from outside suppliers, but these components were cheaper and less critical to the success of Ford's automobiles than engines and transmissions. The company achieved quantity production of automobiles by revolutionizing the way in which they were manufactured and assembled. During the years spent at the Piquette Avenue Plant, the Ford Motor Company laid the essential groundwork for the later development of the moving assembly line at its Highland Park Plant.

Ford Motor Company simultaneously assembled two or three different models at Piquette Avenue from Fall 1905 through September 1908. Producing a variety of models complicated the assembly process and created logistical problems in terms of coordinating the flow of components into the plant and the flow of finished automobiles out of the plant. During the year ending 30 September 1905, Ford Motor Company offered a large (1,700 pounds) four-cylinder touring car, the Model B, selling for $2,000; a two-cylinder light runabout (1,250 pounds), the Model C, which replaced the Model A, selling for $800; and a two-cylinder mid-priced touring car, the Model F (1,400 pounds), selling for $1,000. Models B and C went into production at the Piquette Avenue Plant in Fall 1904, while Model F was introduced in February 1905. All were assembled on the third floor at Piquette. They all sold well, with combined sales of 1,745 cars in 1904-1905. According to James Couzens, the Ford Motor Company employed 300 men in April 1905 and was assembling 25 cars a day. Model C production ended in December 1905 and Models B and F were produced until April 1906. During the next year (1905/1906), sales fell slightly to 1,599 cars.

The introduction of the successful new Model N in the middle of 1906 necessitated an enormous expansion in manufacturing and assembly capacity at the Piquette Avenue Plant and elsewhere. Sales increased more than five-fold from the previous year, to a staggering total of 8,423 cars in 1906/1907, a remarkable achievement given the Panic of 1907 sweeping the country. For calendar year 1905, Ford Motor Company was the fourth largest producer among American automakers, after Cadillac, Rambler, and Oldsmobile. Ford leaped to the top position in 1906 following the introduction of the Model N in July 1906 and remained the leading American nameplate every year through 1926. Three new models introduced in 1906-1907 were all low-priced and set the stage for the introduction of the Model T Ford.

The Model N Ford (July 1906) and its slightly more refined variants, the Model R (April 1907), Model S Runabout (July 1907), and the Model S Roadster (April 1908), incorporated Henry Ford's long-term goal of producing an inexpensive high-quality car in large quantities. The introduction of the Model N shifted the Ford Motor Company's sales philosophy to favor inexpensive cars, gave Henry Ford unchallenged control of the company, and brought fundamental changes in Ford Motor Company's manufacturing and assembly methods. It brought a power struggle between Alexander Malcomson, who insisted that the company make expensive cars, and Henry Ford, who was philosophically opposed to high-priced automobiles. On 10 May 1904, a Detroit newspaper carried a brief announcement, without attribution, that Ford Motor Company would introduce a car the following year that would sell for $400 and begin with an initial production of 10,000 cars a year. A Ford Motor Company advertisement in Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal on 1 January 1906 announced Henry Ford's plans to build a four-cylinder runabout that would sell for $450 and therefore be affordable for the average American.

On 22 November 1905, Henry Ford and several Ford Motor Company stockholders, except for Malcomson, John Gray, Charles Woodall, and Vernon Fry, incorporated the Ford Manufacturing Company as a "dummy" corporation. It was established to make engines and other components for the inexpensive car that was planned, the Model N, and to earn profits on the sales of the components to the Ford Motor Company. This was a tactical move clearly intended to drive Alexander Malcomson out of the enterprise that he had bankrolled in 1902 and 1903. Ford Manufacturing Company leased a factory at 773-775 Bellevue Avenue (no longer extant) from the Wilson & Hayes Manufacturing Company. The Detroit city directories show Ford at the Bellevue Avenue location in 1906, 1907, and 1908. There, Ford manufactured engines and transmissions for the Model N, leaving Ford's long-time supplier, Dodge Brothers, providing engines for the expensive Model B and later, the Model K Ford. With these moves, the Piquette Avenue Plant briefly became an assembly plant for all Ford models and much of the component manufacturing shifted to Bellevue Avenue. The effort to get rid of Malcomson worked. On 12 July 1906, he sold his shares of Ford Motor Company stock (255 shares out of 1,000) to Henry Ford for $175,000, giving Ford effective control of the company. Stockholders Charles Woodall and Vernon Fry quickly followed suit.

Ford Motor Company began installing machinery at the Bellevue Avenue Plant in Spring 1906 to turn out Model N engines. Ford initially planned to assemble 100 cars a day starting in mid-July 1906, implying a yearly production of 30,000 cars, and planned to sell them for $500 or less. The Model N received rave reviews in the automotive press and Ford could not begin to satisfy the orders that came pouring in. The $500 price tag was also not attainable. The Model N sold for $600, Model R for $750, and Model S for $700, all of them sold as runabout models. The Model S Roadster sold for $750. Henry Ford intended to dramatically increase production of these cheap cars. An internal company memorandum of mid-October 1906 called for the production of 11,500 of the inexpensive models, along with 600 of the expensive Model K over the next 300 working days, or 41 cars per day. The Model K, which was Malcomson's favored model, sold for $2,800 in either a roadster or touring car version. Malcomson was not alone in his support of a more-expensive model-the Dodge brothers also thought that this might be the future trend in automobile sales.

During the two-year period when Ford Motor Company made the Model N (July 1906-June 1908), Henry Ford and his manufacturing staff made key advances in production methods that enabled the company to increase output significantly. Ford established even larger production at Piquette Avenue with the Model T, but the experience of Model N production laid the foundation for later improvements. Henry Ford began preparations for production at the Ford Manufacturing Company's Bellevue Avenue Plant by installing machinery purchased through Walter E. Flanders, an experienced Yankee machinist who sold machine tools for the Landis Tool Company. Henry Ford respected Flanders, who was very knowledgeable about machine tools and machining methods. Flanders urged Ford to hire Max F. Wollering as superintendent for the Bellevue Avenue Plant and Ford did so in April 1906. Ford later hired Flanders to take the position of works manager in mid-August 1906 and gave him complete control over manufacturing operations at both plants. Flanders brought with him Thomas S. Walborn, a talented associate of his in Cleveland. Flanders, Wollering, and Walborn were responsible for the dramatic changes in Ford manufacturing methods put into place for the Model N production.

Flanders and his associates developed an improved manufacturing system at the Bellevue Avenue Plant in the second half of 1906, with the intent of installing the improved methods at the Piquette Avenue Plant as well. Wollering installed fixtures and jigs on machine tools that turned them into what he called "farmer's tools," i.e. tools that enabled an unskilled farmer to perform high-quality machining equivalent to that of an experienced machinist. More important, he and Flanders initiated "progressive machining" operations for the Model N engines. Other manufacturers typically arranged machine tools by type, i.e., all the drill presses would be in a single room or on a single floor, and the work would be brought to the machines. Flanders and Wollering arranged the machinery sequentially, according to the work that needed to be done. They also purchased specialized, single-purpose machine tools such as a drilling machine that drilled eight holes in one operation. By the end of 1906, the Bellevue Avenue Plant allegedly was producing one hundred engines a day. Production was more likely somewhere in the range of 50-75 engines a day. If the plant produced one hundred engines a day and operated only 250 days a year, it would produce 25,000 engines a year. Ford's combined production of all models in 1907 was slightly less than 15,000 cars.

The Ford Motor Company also made huge strides in achieving interchangeability in parts and components for the Model N, R, and S. Manufacturing and assembling cars in large numbers demanded sufficient precision in manufacturing to produce parts that were interchangeable. Flanders preached this gospel, which Ford wholeheartedly supported. Walter Flanders learned the machinist's trade in New England, the birthplace of interchangeable parts in the small arms, sewing machine, typewriter, and bicycle industries. Ford advertising suggested that the company had achieved interchangeability by January 1906, at least six months before the fact: "We are making 40,000 cylinders, 10,000 engines, 40,000 wheels, 20,000 axles,.. . all exactly alike" Henry Leland had also achieved effective interchangeability of parts while managing the Cadillac Motor Car Company at about the same time. In early 1908, Cadillac was the only manufacturer to enter a standardization test offered by the Royal Automobile Club of England. Leland entered three operating one-cylinder Cadillacs, which were disassembled and then parts selected randomly to reassemble the cars using only wrenches and screwdrivers. The test proved that Leland had achieved genuine interchangeability with the Cadillac. Only Henry Leland and Henry Ford had achieved this result.

The Model N Ford marked the beginning of Ford Motor Company's move into manufacturing key components of its cars, starting with engines. Manufacturing much of the automobile "in-house" became more attractive and more necessary as Ford dramatically increased production. Henry Ford could control the quantity, quality, and cost of key components by manufacturing them himself. In the early months of 1907, Ford Motor Company began to consolidate many of its manufacturing and assembly operations at the Piquette Avenue Plant, particularly those related to the high-volume production of the Model N. This involved rearranging almost all of the machinery in the three-story building. The heavy machines used to manufacture the engines and engine components were installed on the ground floor, but the second floor, where components were assembled, and the third floor, where final assembly took place, had no machinery whatsoever. Assembly work took place on benches along the outer walls and at "work stations," often no more than a pair of sawhorses supporting the component. This work was labor-intensive hand-work, involving nothing more than a few hand tools such as wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and files. A surviving floor plan of the plant from 1907 showed Model K assembly on the second floor, with Models N, R, and S assembled on the third floor. Ford also began making transmission at Piquette Avenue as well as engines. There is photographic evidence that Model K assembly as well as component production were moved to the Bellevue Avenue Plant by 1908 and perhaps earlier. This would have made sense because Models N, R, and S shared the same chassis and used components made at the Piquette Avenue Plant. The Model K was a much more expensive model ($2,800) which sold at a much lower volume than the other offerings. The Dodge brothers manufactured Model K engines and other key components, while Ford Motor Company made almost none of the Model K parts.

The first significant addition to the Piquette Avenue factory complex was a heat treatment building constructed late in 1907 to treat vanadium steel parts. J. Kent-Smith, an English metallurgical engineer, demonstrated to Henry Ford the value of vanadium steel, an alloy made by adding vanadium to steel. This alloy was stronger and lighter than ordinary steel and thus an ideal metal to use for automobile parts subject to heavy stresses. Ordinary steel might provide up to 70,000 pounds per square inch in tensile strength, but vanadium steel provided up to 170,000 pounds per square inch. Its manufacture required furnace temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, not attainable at most American furnaces. Early in 1907, Ford found a small steelmaker in Canton, Ohio and paid for experimental production of vanadium steel there, which was successful. In March 1907, the Ohio firm produced a 40-ton heat of vanadium steel for Ford, the largest batch at any U.S. steel mill. The Ford Motor Company briefly employed Kent- Smith to help the automaker and its suppliers master vanadium steel production. Ford used vanadium steel in Models N, R, and S on a limited basis in 1907, but more extensively in the Model T. It was the first American automaker to do so, giving the Model T Ford an enormous advantage over competitive cars.

Flanders, Wollering, and Walborn quit the Ford Motor Company together on 15 April 1908 to work for the new E-M-F Company on the other side of Brush Street. Their departure mattered little to the Ford Motor Company because the production system they had developed remained in place and had the enthusiastic support of Henry Ford and the other stockholders. As the Piquette Avenue Plant was fulfilling the last orders for the Model N, the factory established a new industry-wide record for building cars in a single day 101 complete cars on 4 June 1908. Production of eighty cars per day was common earlier in the year. Ford reached these unprecedented output levels by achieving interchangeability of parts and carefully coordinating the delivery of parts and components to the Piquette Avenue factory and then the flow of work within the factory.

There would be no moving assembly used by the Ford Motor Company for another five years, well after the company had settled into the Highland Park Plant. Nevertheless, there was an interesting experiment with the concept of the assembly line carried out at the Piquette Avenue Plant in July 1908 using Model N parts and components. According to Charles Sorensen, who had replaced Flanders as the production manager, he and a handful of helpers, working on Sundays, experimented with a moving assembly line on the third floor of the Piquette Avenue Plant. Rather than using the standard "station assembly" method, where the chassis remained in one place and the workers brought the various components to the chassis and built up the car, Sorensen decided that "assembly would be easier, simpler and faster if we moved the chassis along, beginning at one end of the plant with a frame and adding axles and wheels; then moving it past the stockroom, instead of moving the stockroom to the chassis." Sorensen and a handful of helpers spent several Sundays in July laying out components in several configurations to see what would work best. Finally, they assembled their first car using a primitive moving assembly line: "We did this simply by putting the frame on skids, hitching a towrope to the front end and pulling the frame along until axles and wheels were put on. Then we rolled the chassis along in notches to prove what could be done." Henry Ford encouraged this effort and witnessed the first demonstration, but did not incorporate the concept until after Ford Motor Company had moved to its Highland Park Plant, a more appropriate factory setting for the assembly line. By the summer of 1908, all of Henry Ford's attention was on getting the new Model T Ford into production for the fall selling season.