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Henry Ford's 'secret' workplace birthed Model T

The Detroit News
Replica Model T's at he Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in the Secret Experimental Room is revealed on the third floor at the north end of the historic building.

Detroit – You can call it the womb of the Model T, the closed-up chamber inside a room that requires special entry, where Henry Ford and a small group of lieutenants created the iconic car that made motoring affordable for middle-class Americans.

Though the Model T is often credited as “putting the world on wheels,” Ford Motor Company’s Model N was already the top-selling car in America when, in 1907, Ford called a small group of workers together and said he believed they could do better.

The result of their work, the Model T, would roll out of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant a year later, and by the time production of the vehicle stopped in the late 1920s, half of the cars in America were Model Ts. 

Under cover of silence – and aided by a big lock – the team went about creating what Ford called the “universal” car that would be known both for quality and affordability. It also launched the era of assembly-line auto production.

On Sunday, the space Henry Ford called “secret,” and that workers privy to it called “experimental,” was christened as the “Secret Experimental Room” and opened to more than 100 visitors at the former Ford plant. Now a museum, the former factory at 461 Piquette, is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays from April through November. 

During the celebrations at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, the Secret Experimental Room is revealed on the third floor at the north end of the historic building on Sunday September 24, 2017.

Jerald Mitchell, president of the museum’s board of directors, hailed the Model T as a “disruptive technology that changed every aspect of American life.”

Ford sold the plant in 1911, less than a decade after building it. 

With few photographic or written accounts to go on, the museum had to call in an “industrial archaeologist,” the late Richard Anderson, to better understand what went on there. “He gave us a ton of info,” said Steve Shotwell, board vice president. 

Getting the tools, the room, even the wood boards, to the specifications that would’ve existed in 1908, was done at great time and cost, Shotwell said. 

At one point, there was a question of whether the room should use a different type of board than would’ve been used in walls more than a century ago.

Getting that wood to spec wasn’t physically easy, but making the commitment to do so was, he said. “There were so many obstacles, it looked like we wouldn’t overcome them,” Shotwell said. “But I’m glad we did.”