How Detroit Became the Motor City

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A 4 p.m. change of work shift at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Highland Park, Michigan, 1910s

When people say “Detroit” in a business context, they’re not talking about the city in southeast Michigan. The name long ago became a synonym for the auto industry.

But how did this gritty Midwestern port become the Motor City? Why was its fate to dominate the American car and truck market in the 20th Century? How did Detroit give birth to the Big Three (and dozens of other carmakers that have come and gone)?

Here are the key factors that positioned Detroit as the automotive capital of the world:

Pioneers of Detroit Auto Industry

Some of the inventors and industrialists who began building the first vehicles in the 1890s and early 1900s happened to be born and bred in Michigan. If they didn’t start here, Detroit attracted them. Michigan proved to be a magnet for men with a mechanical gift eager to tap into the state’s industrial bounties.

Henry Ford was born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., where he built his iconic Ford River Rouge plant in the 1920s. The mammoth factory still turns out Ford F-150 pickups. Ford perfected the assembly line and sold more than 15 million Model T’s to average folks, earning the unofficial title of the car that put the world on wheels, according to ford.com.

Ransom E. Olds was the first auto manufacturer in Detroit in 1896. His company introduced the Curved Dash Olds in 1901, the first mass-produced gas-powered car in the country. Ransom Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, but his family moved to Lansing, where his father opened a machine shop. Olds actually piloted the first assembly line in Lansing around 1899.

Henry Leland, who founded both Cadillac and Lincoln, exported his technological genius from his native Northeast to Detroit, machining products as diverse as rifles, barber’s clippers and brakes for trains along the way. Once in Detroit, Leland devised the concept of interchangeable parts that helped auto assembly plants build vehicles faster and with more consistency. He also helped develop the electric starter and electric lights for his Cadillac cars.

William C. Durant, who launched both GM (1908) and Chevrolet (1911), started his career in the buggy business in Flint, Mich. And David Buick, also an innovator in the plumbing trade (he discovered a way to anneal porcelain to bathtubs), built gasoline engines in the 1890s and launched the Buick Motor Car Company in Detroit in 1903. Durant bought Buick’s company and later founded General Motors as a parent corporation for his acquisitions, which also included Cadillac, Oakland (which eventually became Pontiac) and Oldsmobile.

John and Horace Dodge ran a bicycle shop in Detroit at the turn of the century, when bikes populated the city’s streets. In 1910, the Dodge brothers began manufacturing engines, transmissions and parts for Ford and Olds plants, and then started making cars themselves in 1913 in the city of Hamtramck, Mich., according to their profile on Britannica.com.

Carriage Builders in Michigan

More than 125 Michigan companies pounded out carriages, buggies and wagons in the 19th century, making the state a leader in the horse-drawn transit industry. A carriage maker supplied the body for the first Curved Dash Olds gas-powered vehicle in 1896.

Before the Big Three we know now, the big three of carriage makers was based in Flint, Mich. The Durant-Dort, Flint Wagon Works and W.A. Paterson companies built a combined 100,000 carriages a year, according to a profile of Durant in BusinessWeek’s The Great Innovators series.

Carriage builders throughout Michigan provided Detroit with dozens of machine shops with tools and equipment that could be easily adapted to the emerging vehicle industry.

Ship Building and Marine Engines in Detroit

The cities along the Great Lakes — primarily Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit — all benefited from the trade along those key waterways. Ship builders and steam engine makers found Detroit to be a natural place to locate factories.

A few of the same trailblazers of the automotive industry, including Charles Brady King and Ransom Olds, also plied their trade in the marine engine business in Detroit, according to a Hemmings.com profile of the King Motor Car Club.

Petroleum

From 1859 to around the turn of the century, the oil fields of northwestern Pennsylvania produced half the world’s petroleum supply. With oil conveniently available, the ship builders, engine manufacturers and early automobile entrepreneurs had a plentiful resource just down Lake Erie.

Detroit Railroads

In addition to the Great Lakes offering a conduit on water, Detroit had a substantial web of railroad tracks sprawling out from the city. Before the car became king, the Michigan-Peninsular Car Company, which built railroad cars and wheels, employed the largest number of industrial workers in Detroit.

Possibly the most pivotal development for the auto industry happened almost 500 miles away in Albany, N.Y. That’s where, in 1825, the Erie Canal opened to commercial traffic, linking ships from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes system. Actually a series of locks stretching over 363 miles, the Erie Canal system immediately brought economic fortune to cities along the Great Lakes.