“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford
If ever there was one city that could encapsulate America—the ideal, ingenuity, architecture, artistic expression, civil rights movement, and the industrial antecedents to global hegemony in the 20th Century—it’s Detroit.
What has made Detroit so unique? People have always come here for the promise of opportunity. It was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, the largest port for rum-running, a magnet for musicians, and the birthplace of American industry.On the second floor of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum, an old warehouse in downtown Detroit, we admire a beautiful collection of classic cars, and the evolution from Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle to the 1908 Model T. The Quadricycle has four bicycle wheels powered by a two-cylinder engine that runs on ethanol. It has two speeds, no reverse, no brakes, and a doorbell button for a horn. Models A through S are made with brass, equipped with goose horns to scare away geese; and include the first cars to use glass—because driving a muddy street without a windshield ruined too many romantic evenings.
The Model T, assembled from wood, steel and aluminum in this very building, was built for roads before there was any wide-spread paving. No car keys required, just a crank up front. Oil lamps adorn the sides. There’s no radio, because commercial radio did not yet exist at the time of its invention, no turn signal, and no windshield wiper or heater, but the upholstery is really comfortable. It reminds me of sitting at a leather banquette in a classic steak house.Do you know why your steering wheel is on the left? The first Ford cars each had right-side steering, but Henry Ford, always paying attention to consumer feedback, recognized that women sitting in the passenger seat preferred being let off at the curb rather than in the middle of the street, and so the steering wheel was moved to the left side. The Model T was the first off of the assembly line to feature this new left-side steering.
Men wanted their cars to drive fast. Gas was easily combustible, cheap and did the trick. How different would our world be today had any of the steam or electric models taken off?One electric car we see, the 1918 Detroit Electric Brougham, designed specifically for women, has a comfortable cabin with a mounted flower vase and all seats facing each other. Rather than driving up front and having to turn her neck to speak to those in the back, the steering is in the back seat so that the driver can face her guests. Hence the term, “Back seat driver.”
Though the automobile was not invented in the U.S., the manufacturing process that revolutionized its production was. Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers achieved flight. At that time, Ford’s employees took 12.5 hours to build one car. He realized the process could be so much more efficient if, instead of workers moving toward car parts, car parts could move toward workers. Thus began the age of Fordism in which one car could roll off an assembly line every minute to the tune of 650 per shift.
At the Ford Rouge Factory Tour we learn about the all-electric Ford F-150 pickup truck, and walk through the factory with an astonishing bird’s eye view of each worker performing their task within 53 seconds, as the chassis of each vehicle passes from station to station along the assembly line, and piece by piece, transforms into a shiny brand new vehicle!
We try our hand at building a real Model T, but discover that mechanics we are not. In addition to learning about the automotive pioneers of Ford, Dodge, Chrysler and Buick, we watch a dizzying film on modern day car racing, and pass a motorcade of presidential vehicles, including the fateful Lincoln Continental used by President Kennedy. We run around tracks of rail cars, locomotives and steam engines that opened up the West to settlement and commerce; marvel at display cases lined with early American weaponry; step into a simulator to become wing walkers soaring through the sky; and hop into the fuselage of a Boeing 40 and Boeing 737. The Wright Brothers exhibit is inspiring, because we can visualize each of their successive attempts, and how many failures they endured before achieving their first 12-second flight. As Ford famously said, “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.”
In addition to technological achievements, the Ford Museum pulls no punches when addressing struggles for liberty. Seated in the very bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat is surreal. This furniture of history allows us to take a seat and imagine. Not only does this exhibit highlight heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but also of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. So much history happened in such a relatively short time. Each of these movements were galvanized by the employment and subsequent unionization in the auto industry, and by the freedom enabled by the automobile to provide a mobile platform and billboard to promote those collective aspirations.
These innovators, technological and social, provided vehicles for change. Each invention reinvented the world. That restless spirit, quintessentially American, fuels Detroit’s revival. The past is prologue, but the motor’s still running.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.