Ford Model K at the Piquette Plant. Photo courtesy Ford Piquette Avenue Plant on Facebook.
Best known as the birthplace of the Ford Model T, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit also served as the company’s only production facility for a few years prior to the T, so it’s only natural that a collection of T predecessors mostly built at the plant return home for a long-term exhibit.
Though it spans just five years, the Larry Porter Alphabet Ford collection includes a tremendous variety of cars, from tiny proto-Ts to behemoth six-cylinder luxury cars, from mid-engine single-cylinder horseless carriages to front-engine four-cylinder brass cars. Combined, they tell a tale not just of how the Ford Model T came to be but how Henry Ford fought for control of both his company and his vision of the ideal everyman’s car.
The earliest car in the collection, a 1903 Ford Model A, was actually manufactured at Ford Motor Company’s first factory, the rented Mack Avenue Plant. Its success, however, allowed the carmaker to build the three-story Piquette Avenue Plant and (at least for some within the company, most notably financier Alexander Young Malcomson) to entertain ideas of building larger and more expensive automobiles, starting with the Piquette-built four-cylinder 1904 Model B and culminating in the grand 1906 Model K, the company’s first six-cylinder automobile.
Photo courtesy Ford Piquette Avenue Plant on Facebook.
At the same time, Henry Ford developed a divergent line of what we would today call entry-level cars. The Model A evolved into the Model C in 1904 and then into the 1905 Model F, each progressively larger and more powerful but still motivated by a two-cylinder engine. The same year the company introduced the sensational Model K, Ford introduced with less fanfare the car that would actually predict the company’s success, the light and inexpensive Model N with its front-mounted four-cylinder engine.
Which of the two design philosophies would come out on top was determined both by the market and by Henry Ford’s business acumen. The Model N outsold the Model K by a margin of 10 to 1, and Ford ultimately bought out Malcomson; no longer would Ford have to build large and expensive cars that he could barely conceal his disdain for.
In 1907, the N begat the slightly better-equipped R and S, and the trio began to more closely resemble the mass-market dream of Henry Ford, who that year built an experimental room in the Piquette for his engineers to draft up plans for what would become the Model T.
Photo courtesy AACA Museum.
While some of the pre-Model T Fords sold well – Ford moved about 7,000 Model Ns, by some estimates – others proved rather rare. Porter, however, resolved to complete the so-called Alphabet collection by gathering at least one Model A, B, C, F, K, N, R, and S and, when possible, restore them. To ensure the collection would remain intact after his death, he formed a trust and placed the cars in it.
According to Jeff Bliemeister, executive director of the AACA Museum, Porter originally wanted the collection to reside at the Piquette, but in 2003 the AACA Museum was opening and the Piquette wasn’t yet ready to display cars, so the collection went to the former on a long-term loan.
“It’s nice that they’ll get the treatment they deserve at the Piquette,” Bliemeister said.
While the collection made the move from Pennsylvania to Michigan late last month, the Piquette will wait until April, the start of its season, to unveil the cars. The collection will remain at the Piquette for at least the next five years.
Bliemeister said the AACA Museum likely won’t replace the collection with a similar exhibit. Rather, it will use the space to display additional cars from its annex.
For more information on the Piquette Avenue Plant, visit FordPiquetteAvenuePlant.org.