Detroit was once the beautiful home to some of the most prosperous and successful car manufacturing facilities in the world. Ford, Chrysler, GM—all the big names were located here, often in multiple locations. It was a cutthroat time full of healthy competition, and many (most) smaller companies didn’t make it. Companies we never hear of anymore, like DeSoto, Kaiser-Frazer, Graham-Paige, and more, all started in Detroit.
Nowadays, the place is a shell of its former self—and that’s being generous. Detroit is home to the largest abandoned factory in the world, the former Packard Plant. Most of the abandoned factories have been littered with graffiti and forgotten, like an ugly scar that no one wants to look at.
But there’s hope in the air: the city is trying to revitalize and bring commerce back into their bankrupt home. There are 12 developmental plans in the works—totaling over $1 billion—that are geared to transform Detroit. Some of those projects include Ford’s investment in Corktown and Michigan Central Station, Monroe Blocks, and the Hudson’s site, all slated for completion by 2022.
Other developments in the works include neighborhood and construction developments, Brush Park’s City Modern development, and the Gordie Howe International Bridge that will span to Canada. The Hudson’s site, for instance, plans to include a 912-foot-tall tower with an observation deck, a hotel, residential and offices, a ground floor market, retail space, and more. This will be the tallest building in Detroit, and it will take over where the old Hudson Motor Car Company plant was located (which we touch on below).
Here are 15 pictures of Detroit in its heyday, and 15 pictures of Detroit now.
15 Ford Motor Company in Highland Park
There’s no doubting that the 20th century was a very exciting time for Motor City, Detroit. Many of these vintage photos show the heyday of the car companies that had their main factories located here, and the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park is a great example. The picture above was taken sometime in the 1920s, with a front view of the Ford plant. It looks like something straight out of a movie, with the big towers on the building and the old-timey cars below. It’s a great scene—and don’t the streets and buildings look… clean? Unfortunately, that scene can never be replicated in today’s age, as you can see by the beat-up building below that’s a sad shell of its former glory.
14 Hudson Motor Car Company
That building that looks like a department store building is actually home to the Hudson Motor Car Company, located in Detroit. It was founded in 1909, before merging with the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation to form American Motors (AMC), which would continue building cool cars up until 1957, after which the Hudson name was discontinued. Today, the building is a ghost structure with no resemblance to its prior days with the trellises and happy looking employees and American flags flying around. This picture was taken in 1941, before the United States entered WWII and many car factories were turned into military facilities to provide for our fighting forces.
13 Chrysler Corporation M3 Lee Tank Assembly Line
This is what I was talking about before, with the war effort: even though this picture was taken in 1941, the Chrysler Corporation building here is already filled to the brim with M3 Lee tanks in mid-build. It’s a veritable assembly line of mass production in a time when mass production was done by hand. It’s an awesome sight to see, when the US as a country came together in support of the biggest threat humanity had ever known. Today, the Chrysler Headquarters and Technology Center is the main hub of the company, located in the Metro Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, Michigan. Unlike many others, it still looks pristine today.
12 Packard Automotive Plant Car Assembly
The Packard Automotive Plant was a former car-manufacturing factory in Detroit where luxury cars were made by the Packard Motor Company, and later by the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. It was opened in 1903 and, at the time, was the most modern automobile manufacturing facility in the world, and a huge source of job creation. It housed skilled craftsmen in over eighty trades. The factory closed in 1958, though other businesses operated there until the 1990s. Also, during the 1990s, it became home to “underground” raves and techno parties. Now, it’s a completely vacated, graffitied building and completely unrecognizable.
11 Chrysler Jefferson Plant Complex
This is another picture taken from the early 1940s, when car companies and factories thrived in Detroit. Many of these factories opened in the turn of the 20th century, and more than half of them closed before the century was halfway through. The Chrysler Jefferson plant was a sprawling complex of buildings that opened in 1908 and closed in 1990. It was home to multiple corporations through the early 1990s: Chalmers-Detroit and Chalmers Motor Company from 1908 to 1917; Maxwell Motor Car Company from 1917-1925, and the Chrysler Corporation from 1925 to 1990. It was one of Chrysler’s most important wartime plants, too, building a wide range of products. The building was demolished in 1991. Chrysler still operates a factory on the site, known as Jefferson North, pictured below.
10 Packard Automotive Plant
Here’s another picture of an assembly line at the Packard Automotive Plant, the 3.5-million square foot building that came to a sad end during Detroit’s economic downturn. Most of the Detroit plants closed up shop, and the Packard building obviously didn’t escape (it was already emptied during the 1990s), but within the last couple years, a revival effort has been underway to restore the plant to its former glory (and others like it). A year into the revival efforts, the Packard Plant has cleaned up pretty nicely, and hopefully, someday, it will be manufacturing cars again. Or at least, if it isn’t manufacturing cars, it can be home to dozens of smaller businesses, like it once was.
9 Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant
Ford had a bunch of factories in Detroit, since it was the heartland of their company and they were the biggest kid on the block back then. Here we see their River Rouge plant during its heyday, putting out tons of carbon dioxide emissions (before we knew about global warming), and with a parking lot absolutely filled with hundreds and thousands of Ford cars. As you can see, the River Rouge plant was huge: it stretches to the end of the horizon, just about, on the picture above. Today, as you can see below, it’s not looking so hot. The building shown here, “Rolling Hall,” doesn’t seem to be rolling very much. It’s just a skeleton of the massive, productive building it used to be.
8 Kaiser-Frazer Motor Car Company in Willow Run
Kaiser Motors, formerly known as Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, made automobiles in Willow Run from 1945 to 1953. Kaiser merged with Willys-Overland to form Willys Motors Incorporated and ended up moving production of their vehicles to Toledo, Ohio. The short-lived company's tenure in Michigan was one of many that couldn’t make it in the competitive atmosphere there. Still, it’s better to have good, healthy competition than it is to have a dead city without any industry. The company was known as Kaiser Motors Corporation until 1955 before going broke. Kaiser-Frazer was the only new US automaker to achieve success after World War II, if only for a few years. As you can see from the picture above, they also had a lot of success during WWII.
7 Ford Piquette Avenue Plant
The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is a former factory located in the Milwaukee Junction area in Detroit. It was built in 1904 and was the second center of car production for Ford after the Mack Avenue Plant. At Piquette, the company created and first produced the Model T, for which it is famous, as you can see in the picture above. Prior to the Model T, several other cars had been assembled at the factory. Studebaker bought the factory in 1911, using it to assemble cars in 1933. In 2001, Piquette became the oldest purpose-built automotive factory building open to the public, becoming a museum that is visited by 18,000 people a year. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2002.
6 General Motors Fisher Body Plant 21
One of the most infamous sites on this list is the Fisher Body Plant 21, if only because of what it has come to represent in Detroit in recent years. Fisher Body was a coachbuilder founded in Detroit in 1908, that had been a division of General Motors for some years before dissolving to form other General Motors divisions in 1984. Fisher & Company continue to use the name, and its name—as well as the iconic phrase “Body by Fisher” used as a logo—were well known to the public. As you can see, it was a very successfully plant during its day, with a massive assembly line, but it now represents everything wrong with the automotive industry in Detroit: destitution, destruction, and disrepair. Luckily, it’s part of Detroit’s revival project in the works.
5 Chrysler DeSoto-Warren Plant
The DeSoto plant, also known as the Chrysler DeSoto-Warren Plant and Graham-Paige, was built around 1920 to 1922 to make Paige Motor cars. The plant was the manufacturing center for the Jewett Motors division of Paige Motors. In the 1940s, the plant started making cars as part of a joint venture with Hupp (Huppmobile), with the Graham-Paige version called the Hollwood, and the Hupp called the Skylark. The car was a failure, Hupp bowed out, and the plant closed. Chrysler then leased the huge, empty plant, building sections of the B-26 airplane (nose and fuselage) there. Afterward, it produced DeSoto bodies and engines until 1959, before closing for good.
4 Chrysler Corporation Lynch Road Assembly Plant
The Lynch Road Assembly Plant was located in Detroit near Coleman A. Young International Airport. It is now the location of The Crown Group, a powdered coatings manufacturer that supports the automotive manufacturing industry (as you can see below, the same address of 6334 Lynch Road). Lynch Road was initially opened for DeSoto and Plymouth production in 1928, and production ended in 1981, with the manufacturing moving to Newark Assembly in Delaware. The automotive divisions of Chrysler at the Lynch Road plant were: Plymouth from 1929 to 1964 and again from 1979 to 1980, DeSoto from 1929 to 1933, and Fargo Truck from 1929 to 1930. Cars produced here included the Plymouth Belvedere (1964-78), Dodge Coronet (1964-78), Dodge Charger (1965-66 and 1972-74), and Chrysler R-Series (1979-81).
3 Chevrolet Gear And Axle Plant
Another long-lost landmark of Detroit’s automotive industry is the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Plant, which is located just north of the General Motors Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly. This facility was a combination of two former factories, the Detroit Gear and Axle and Detroit Forge. The factory was demolished in 2014, having occupied the space since 1917. It was also home to the 1945 Chevrolet Gear and Axle Plant Strike, where workers picketed in front of the building in November 1945. It took place after WWII, when workers demanded a 30% pay raise to keep up with the cost of living. GM declined to deal with the 300,000 workers, who went on a 113-day strike. Another strike in 2008 further damaged labor relations, and the plant closed in 2012.
2 Dodge Main Plant Hamtramck
The Dodge Main Plant was the headquarters of the Dodge Brothers and the Dodge Division of Chrysler Corporation. The complex included the Winfield Foundry (camshafts), Detroit Forge Plant (coil springs, crankshafts), and the Hamtramck—or Main—plant. There was a feeling of extreme loyalty working for Dodge, and the facility was an excellent place to work compared to other facilities. A small portion of the 67-acre facility was in Detroit, while the rest was sprawled across Hamtramck, Michigan. Here we see an aerial view of the entire facility as it would have been shown to prospective buyers and customers, and then what its emptiness looks like today.
1 Motor City Industrial Park Sign At Packard
There probably isn’t a better singular representation of how the car industry is doing in Detroit than these two pictures juxtaposed here. On top, we have the Motor City Industrial sign, as seen just before Detroit’s inevitable collapse, and below we have what we can see today. Luckily, Packard (whose building is connected to the sign) has plans to revitalize and restore the destitute sign. A picture of the sign a little further up under one of the Packard entries shows their idea for how they will replace the sign: PACKARD will replace the Motor City Industrial Park text, though the clock underneath the words will remain the same. It’s a $1.2 billion project, and truly, it can’t get done fast enough.
Sources: metrotimes.com, jalopnik.com, and nytimes.com