Few could have predicted that the settlement started by French officer Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac in 1701 would become the symbol of American industrialism. First named Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the largest city in the United States– Canadian border would later shorten its name to Detroit until it became known by other appellations like Motor City, Rock City, Hockeytown, or the home of soul and later, techno music.
The city’s location on the river linked it to the Great Lakes and allowed its early fur trade to boom and quickly influence the city’s development. Yet, much of its prosperity now is owed to the automotive industry.
The first industrialist to see the potential of Detroit was Henry Ford. With a thriving carriage trade in the city, Ford sought to automate the means of transportation and built his first auto-carriage in 1896. Though by no means the world’s first automobile, his early success led to the founding of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. There could be no better place to build a car, with raw materials like coal and steel not far away, linked by the Detroit River. Automotive pioneers William C. Durant, the Dodge brothers, Packard, and Walter Chrysler would soon follow, establishing Detroit’s status in the early twentieth century as the world’s automotive capital.
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Ford would later acquire brands like Mercury and Lincoln to form the Ford Group. William Durant, cofounder of General Motors and Chevrolet with Louis Chevrolet, eventually took Cadillac, the brand named after the city’s founder, into the group. Walter Chrysler would later acquire the Dodge company from the Dodge brothers. True to the city’s pioneering spirit, Detroit today continues to be the center of the American automotive industry and a very influential one, globally. America’s largest auto conglomerates continue to maintain headquarters within the greater Metro Detroit area. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) are fondly referred to as Detroit’s Big Three.
Therefore, in addition to motoring hubs like Tokyo, Japan; Modena, Italy; and Munich, Germany; Detroit is worth the pilgrimage for automotive enthusiasts. Not surprisingly, the city hosts one of the world’s biggest annual auto shows, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), popularly referred to as the Detroit Auto Show.
Aside from the auto show in mid-January, there’s more of the motor city to take in.
Ford Piquette Avenue Plant
Easily one of the best places to start is the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. Built in 1904, the building was the home of the eponymous Ford Model T, and is a late Victorian-style brick building, modeled after New England’s textile mills. The facility grants a unique insight into assembly line manufacturing popularized by Ford. It houses not only several lovingly restored Model Ts but also vehicles by Dodge, Packard, Chrysler, and Chevrolet. Visitors will learn just how closely intertwined the fates of Detroit’s Big Three are.
Ford Rouge Factory
The Rouge factory is the jewel of Ford’s industrial might. The massive 2.4 kilometer by 1.6 kilometer complex is where the F-150 pickup truck is produced and serves as a prime example of vertical-integration production. There are daily tours of the facility, starting with a 4D educational movie about how the vehicle is produced.
Gilmore Car Museum
Just outside of Detroit, the Gilmore Car Museum is a 90-hectare campus with 1930s vehicles and a same-era gas station, and a 1940s diner. A wing of the museum is dedicated to the iconic Checker Cab, vintage automotive toys and hood ornaments, and mascots.
Next to cars, Detroit is known for its pop music legacy, being the hometown of Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Madonna and the progenitor of the Motown record label, which churned out a string of pop-soul hits in the 1960s. The label has its own shrine in the Motown Historical Museum, with its first recording studio kept in pristine condition, along with memorabilia from the explosion of legendary talent it nurtured like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and Michael Jackson.
For architecture buffs, the Fisher Building in downtown Detroit is a 1928 art deco tower designed by Albert Kahn. It houses restaurants, cafés, and shops on the building’s first floor, as well as the Fisher Theatre, which has staged productions of West Side Story and Mary Poppins. Be sure not to miss the ornate ceiling in the lobby.
This article originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 19 No 1 2015.
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