Exploring Detroit's rich automotive history -- no urban spelunking gear required
Every January, despite the cold and snow, the city of Detroit puts on its glass slippers and forgets its many troubles for a while. Glitzy lights and posters decorate the outside of Cobo Center, conspicuously expensive cars bring life to the broad streets, and hungry, tired showgoers crowd hotels and restaurants. With apologies to urban farming, this is what makes Detroit special.
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be attending the show when it opens to the public this Saturday, here are a few more auto-related activities that will remind you what Detroit once was and give you hope for what it may yet become.
Model T Automotive Heritage Complex
Completed in 1904 at a cost of about $100,000, this humble brick building on Piquette Avenue is where it all began for the Ford Model T. Ford soon moved on to bigger and better things, but the Piquette plant remains in remarkably original
condition. After years of neglect, it has been converted to a museum and welcomes auto-show visitors.
Detroit Art Institute Diego Rivera Mural
There are plenty of massive, colorful displays at the auto show, but none have the impact, or the staying power, of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry. The twenty-seven-panel mural, which Rivera completed after eleven months of work in 1933, captures the city’s unbreakable, almost spiritual connection to auto manufacturing.
Detroit Public Library Skillman Collection
We like to think we maintain a pretty good collection of automotive books here at Automobile Magazine, but we don’t hold a candle to the 600,000-item collection at the Detroit Public Library. A great place to lose track of time, whether you’re researching that book you’re writing on windshield wipers (first make sure it isn’t there already) or just browsing.
All three Detroit automakers maintain historical collections in the metro area. The General Motors Heritage Center is accessible only to large groups, but the Chrysler and Ford museums are open to the public. The Henry Ford has many nonautomotive exhibits to pacify spouses sick of staring at cars.
The area around the Piquette plant, known as Milwaukee Junction, was a hotbed of auto-industry development at the turn of the last century. Although historical tours of this and other areas are unfortunately shut down for the winter, the Detroit Historical Society offers a brochure for exploring this area for the very reasonable price of $1. Drive a few blocks away and you’ll find two Albert Kahn masterpieces, the former General Motors headquarters and the Fisher Building.
Admittedly, Woodward Avenue gets more than its share of attention thanks to the yearly Dream Cruise. However, it’s still worth taking the time to drive up Detroit’s most famous road, if only to see the city at its best (affluent suburbs, aesthetically pleasing downtown) and worst (troubled neighborhoods in between). A free audio tour from the Woodward Avenue Action Association highlights points of automotive history along the way.