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Model (T)owns

Two historic sites in Michigan remember the automobile and Henry Ford, the man who 'changed everything' 100 years ago.

October 12, 2008|Jay Jones | Special to The Times

DEARBORN, MICH. — IN AN era in which we indulge ourselves with cars equipped with MP3 sound systems and satellite navigation, it's hard to imagine a time when something as simple as a roof wasn't standard equipment.

Yet that was precisely the case when the first Model Ts went on sale 100 years ago this fall.

They were priced at $850. Customers had a choice of red, dark green or gray. Shelter from the elements -- a top -- cost $60 extra.

Production of the Model T began Oct. 1, 1908, in a three-story plant along Detroit's Piquette Avenue. It was the first car to be mass produced, a process that would put America on wheels and forever change the way we live.

"I can give you 20 horsepower without a single horse," boasts Henry Ford, played by actor Patrick Moltane outside the inventor's workshop at Greenfield Village, a living history museum in suburban Dearborn, Mich.

"You'll never have to feed my Model T anything but gasoline. It only eats when it works. And it won't leave anything in the road, except maybe a few oil drips," he adds.

The centennial of the world's first mass-produced car is creating a much-needed buzz for economically beleaguered Detroit. Visitors can tour the newly refurbished Piquette Plant in Detroit, where the first Model Ts were made, and can even hop in a Model T for a spin -- albeit a slow one -- through the streets of Greenfield Village, part of the sprawling visitor attraction known reverently as the Henry Ford.

Model Ts "got 20 miles per gallon and ran on unleaded gasoline," says Don LaCombe as he drives a couple of guests down Main Street. He motors along at a leisurely pace. The cars have a top speed of about 45 mph, but that, he says, was impractical on the rutted dirt tracks that passed for roads a century ago.

"People drove these things about 15 to 25 mph," he tells his passengers.

That seems slow to our 21st century minds, but it was revolutionary because 25 miles was roughly the distance a person could cover in an entire day -- not just one hour -- on horseback.

"It changed everything," says LaCombe, who supervises the operators of a fleet of 13 fully functioning Model Ts at Greenfield Village. "Life was very remote. People who lived on farms -- other than their immediate neighbors, they could go for months without seeing people.

"It changed the courting distance from about 12 to about 50 miles," he observes. "It changed the gene pool."

It also put a lot of money in a lot of pockets, according to Bob Casey, the Henry Ford's curator and author of "The Model T: A Centennial History."

"The automobile became -- and no pun intended -- the engine that drove the economy," Casey says. "The automobile used so many other things -- steel, oil, rubber, glass -- [that] supplying the needs of automobile owners became an enormously profitable business."

Workmen at the Piquette Plant made about 10,000 Model Ts from 1908 to 1910, when the growing demand forced Ford to transfer production to a larger facility in suburban Highland Park.

Over the years, the original factory fell into disrepair. In 2000, a group of auto buffs created the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex; it has spent the last eight years restoring the building. But, as co-founder Mike Skinner notes, visitors won't see an assembly line inside.

"The moving assembly line didn't come until 1913," he says.

The definitive collection of antique autos, however, is a few miles west at the Henry Ford, which preserves the history of the auto and of the businesses spawned by a newly mobile society -- including filling stations and roadside diners.

In Greenfield Village, guests can tour Ford's birthplace, his Bagley Avenue workshop and even Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory -- all of which Ford relocated from their original sites.

As the Model Ts popularity grew, Ford and his wife, Clara, moved from Detroit to Dearborn, where they built a rambling, 56-room mansion. The couple named their new estate Fair Lane, after Ford's ancestral home in Ireland. The property is now a national historic landmark.

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The Henry Ford ( www.thehenryford.org) is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Piquette Plant ( www.tplex.org) is open only by appointment during fall and winter. Fair Lane ( www.henryfordestate.org) is open year-round, though days vary. Check the website for seasonal schedule.

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