In 1917, Henry Ford’s Model T plant in Highland Park, Michigan was one of the great wonders of the world. Explore the amazing factory in this beautiful vintage postcard set.
We are indebted to our good friend and Mac’s Motor City Garage reader Barry Wolk for this original and complete set of vintage postcards from 1917. They provide a wonderful virtual tour of the Ford Model T plant in Highland Park, Michigan, then one of the industrial marvels of the world. Ford not only put America on wheels with the 1909-1927 Model T; he also introduced a new form of manufacturing that operated on a colossal scale. These souvenir postcard sets (there were multiple versions) gave fascinated viewers around the world a glimpse at the miracles inside. From the original 24-postcard set of 1917, here are some choice examples.
Designed by the auto industry’s master architect, Albert Kahn, the Highland Park Ford plant was completed in 1910 and then expanded multiple times throughout its life. This tabletop model shows the 56-acre facility as it was in 1916, with the powerhouse and administration building at the front. In the 1950s the front portion of the plant, which faces Woodward Avenue, was demolished and a shopping center, the Model T Plaza, now resides on the site. The remaining rear portion is used today for warehousing and light manufacturing.
This image portrays a landmark event in Model T history: the production of 1000 cars in a single day. That record was quickly eclipsed, and eventually the assembly time was reduced from 12+ hours to 93 minutes. The last Model T was produced on May 31, 1927, with around 15 million units built.
The giant powerhouse at the Highland Park plant, with smokestacks that could be seen for miles up and down Woodward Avenue, included seven of these giant steam-turbine generators, each producing 6,000 hp. At one point Ford determined to power his railroad (read about it in the MCG feature here) with the surplus energy from the power station, but that never came off.
This view of the crankshaft department shows the vast number of turning and grinding machines, all powered by an overhead transmission system of shafts and pulleys. The snarl of exposed drive belts helps to illustrate why the writer Erskine Caldwell called Detroit the “eight-finger city.”
Of course, a key innovation of the Highland Park plant was the moving assembly line, in which cars moved along a conveyor as parts and assemblies were added along the way. Here, workers install the Model T’s 22-hp engine and two-speed planetary transmission in a basic chassis.
Henry Ford and his production bosses, including Charles Sorensen and William Knudsen, were obsessed with eliminating wasted and duplicated steps in the Model T production process. To that end, final testing was performed by driving the complete chassis to the holding areas.
Manufacturing tolerances in the Highland Park era were not terribly precise compared to today and consequently, Model T engines required a careful break-in. Large electric motors were used to rotate the engines until the current draw in amperes fell to a predetermined level. The units were then regarded free enough for installation.
Ford was quite aware that he was making history every day at Highland Park, and he set up a full-time Photographic Department to record the process in still and moving pictures. Pictured below are the front and rear covers of the 24-piece 1917 postcard set. The end plate depicts a speech by President Woodrow Wilson to 20,000 Ford workers in front of the plant in 1916.