Historical Reconstruction of Ford Model T Assembly Line

This digital model and film show, for the first time, the entire Model T being assembled from start to finish in a single time-lapse shot of the Ford factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Numerous photos were taken and some films were made in the 1910s and 1920s, but no film from the time tracks the entire car’s assembly from start to finish. There were many types of Model Ts produced, but the specific car shown here is the 1915 Model T Runabout. Watch the film and see as the various car components are hoisted over and bolted into place. Or walk across the factory floor in the virtual reality computer model.

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The film’s audio replicates the sound of Model T production. The accompanying music at start and end is from the 1936 film Modern Times, where comedian Charlie Chaplin parodies Ford’s assembly line production methods.

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Explore Model T assembly in virtual reality.
Give thirty seconds for browser to load. Link opens in new window.

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Henry Ford did not invent the car, nor he did invent the assembly line to produce the car. For years before Ford, cars were being built in small numbers at local workshops. For centuries before Ford, assembly line production was being used to make all manner of goods like pins, fabrics, and steel. At the same time as Ford, others were making cars and building assembly lines.
Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.

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Final Stage of Model T Assembly in Highland Park c.1915, David Kimble’s illustration for National Geographic

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Between when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913 and when the fifteen millionth rolled off in 1927, the car’s appearance did not change significantly. The car chassis, motor, and color-scheme in 1927 were almost identical to 1913. Despite variations in the number of seats and exterior of car, the motor and chassis beneath were consistent and unchanging over time. Henry Ford liked it that way to bring down costs and to produce the greatest variety of car types with as few variations as possible to the car’s internal structure.
However, although Ford resisted changes to his car design, he was always redesigning the factory floor and assembly line to produce the greatest number of cars with the least amount of human labor. In this same period from 1913 to 1927, the Highland Park factory was constantly redesigned and expanded. Few records survive of all changes to the factory. However, the 1915 book Ford Methods and the Ford Shops includes detailed plans and photos of the factory at one point in time. Ford was still tinkering with the assembly line, as Model T production had begun just over a year before this book was printed. Within a few months of these photos, assembly line methods had improved once again as Ford redesigned the factory floor shown in this film. Rather than documenting Ford production for all time, this film captures Ford production the way it looked in the months it started.

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Assembly line flowchart of River Rouge c.1941, showing Ford’s production methods applied to the design of an entire complex. The ideas in embryo at Highland Park become fully visible at River Rouge.

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After Ford stopped producing Model Ts in 1927, newer models started production at the new and larger factory at River Rouge, where Ford makes cars to this day. The Highland Park factory switched to producing other goods like tractors and later tanks for WWII. Within a few years, production methods had so quickly improved under Ford that Highland Park became too small and obsolete. The factory was largely demolished, and with its demolition the initial appearance of Ford’s first and greatest invention was lost for all time: the moving assembly line.
Some of the factory buildings still stand, and the specific part of the factory shown in this film still exists. But the buildings were all cleared of their original machinery, and the most impressive part of Ford’s invention was not the factory itself but instead the equipment and processes within that factory that are no longer visible. The buildings themselves were simply functional warehouses designed with large open spaces to allow the easy movement of machinery.
The entire complex covered many acres, and the other factories that supplied the Highland Park factory with materials and components created a web of trade that spanned the globe. Instead of filming the entire process, this film focuses on the final and most important stage of production where finished parts from all over the world and factory complex came together for final testing and assembly.

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Sources

Main reference text: Fay Leone Faurote and Horace Lucian Arnold. Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. New York, Engineering Magazine Company: 1915. See esp. Chapter V on “Chassis-Assembling Lines” that includes factory floor plan and photos from pages 131-57. Also see pages 142-150 that describe the 45 steps required for chassis assembly. Link.
Main reference photo: David Kimble. “Exploring the Model T Factory.” Motor1.com. September 1, 2017. Link. Kimble’s image originally published in June 1987 National Geographic centerfold.
Animation opening image: Postcard of Highland Park in 1917. Link.
Animation opening music: Factory Scene from Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Link.
Model T shown in film can be downloaded as a computer model at this link.

The Detroit Evolution Animation

Created in gratitude to the University of Michigan’s PhD program in architecture
Related: The New York City Evolution Animation

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Soundtrack: “Pruitt Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and composed by Philip Glass.

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This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.
The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic 1960s racial unrest, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.
However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.

View map bibliography and project methodology

Includes links to download all source files on which the film is based

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The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.

View music in original context

Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi; composed by Philip Glass with images by Godfrey Reggio

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Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.

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The influx of Black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-Black city surrounded by majority-White suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is Black, and only 11% is White. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-White until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% White. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-White city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-Black city in 2020.
A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful Whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban Whites over urban Blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.
As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?

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Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant

Neon Night

Cities of consumerism and spending, wherever they are, realize the human desire for energy and movement. Neon Night is a triptych representation of urban life. Each image of city lights is the accidental result of sudden camera movement during the long shutter speed required for night photography.

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Neon NightLeft to right: lights from Newark, Detroit (Fox Theater marquee), and Santander (Spain)

Detroit: visual essay

Detroit represents the shortcoming of American-style, car centric urban development. Wide highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods now serve a city devoid of people in whole neighborhoods. In a city that lost 60% of its population since its 1950 height, extensive infrastructure designed to serve millions of people now serves thousands. After Detroit’s July 1967 civil unrest, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit in fewer than five years. Now over 50,000 homes lie vacant and decaying.
During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment that rolled out of its auto factories. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit, too, has been bombed. Except this time, it’s a city destroyed from within by the American forces of racism, the automobile, and anti-urban government policies.

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Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen status fall short. Everywhere there are fields of surface parking lots, where there were once businesses, people, and wealth. A near-empty monorail system circles a quiet downtown. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full rotting Art Deco architectural gems and empty storefronts. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the aging and indebted city. The imposing appearance of the nearby Greektown Casino abuts the ominous city jail. Suburban residents travel to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field; they return afterwards by car to their safe, quiet, and white communities.

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the failure of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a city divided along borders of race and class.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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