We had only one day to visit Detroit, so we went to see what it is most famous for – music and motor cars.
When I went there to see a Red Wings hockey game with my family, we had several hours to kill before puck drop so we spent our time visiting two museums that were reminders of Detroit’s past greatness. The first was the Ford Piquette Plant where Henry Ford dreamed up the Model T and the other was the Motown Museum, where countless hit songs were created to become the soundtrack of a generation.
Motor-car manufacturing is what garnered Detroit its nickname of Motor City which evolved into the hipper-sounding Motown. Automobile innovator Henry Ford is the man most responsible for that reputation thanks to the success of his Ford Motor Company. There is actually a Henry Ford Museum in Detroit dedicated to the man’s work that includes a tour of a modern Ford factory. That’s not where we went. Instead, we toured the smaller, but equally fascinating, Ford Piquette Plant, the place where Ford first started making Model T’s before he invented the assembly line.
The plant is an unassuming building in a former industrial neighbourood of Detroit known as Milwaukee Junction. Two major railway lines converge there, which made it attractive to Ford and dozens of other competing manufacturers, including Cadillac and Packard, who wanted to ship cars quickly across the country.
Today, many of those industrial buildings are abandoned, their windows smashed and their walls covered with graffiti. Many lots are overgrown with trees and weeds making the area around the Piquette plant look like something out of a war zone, but despite its outward appearance, Milwaukee Junction is actually shaping up to be one of Detroit’s hottest new residential neighbourhoods.
Neither my wife or my two boys are car aficionados, so I figured our visit would be brief, but we spent an amazing three hours there, completely captivated by the story our award-winning tour guide, Tom Genova, spun as he explained the building’s history, the exhibits and the man behind it all.
Henry Ford was a lot like Steve Jobs of Apple fame, Genova, explained, and the Model T was the iPhone of its time. Ford didn’t invent the automobile and Jobs didn’t invent the mobile phone, but both men were brilliant enough to be able to refine their products and market them in such a way that everyone wanted one and it transformed society.
Inside, the three-storey, Victorian-era building consists of long, open spaces with worn wooden floors, brick walls with peeling paint and massive glass windows that were necessary in a time when electric lighting was still in its infancy. Lining these spaces are rows of old cars, mostly Fords, but also some other examples of cars from the early 1900s. The cars are perfectly restored and polished to a shine, many of them still in running condition. Each one has a story and Genova recounted as many of them as he could during our time there.
The plant was only used by Ford for a few years and cars were built only a few at a time with groups of workers moving from car to car as they put them together. It is where Ford dreamed up his idea of an assembly line to quickly manufacture his cars that he was able to scale up his output and be able to sell affordable cars to everyone, not just the rich.
A little more than a century later, here we were in Detroit, having driven there in our own car thanks to the innovations of Ford and his contemporaries that popularized the automobile.
A five-minute drive away is the Motown Museum, but before our visit, we went for lunch in Midtown. If all you’ve ever seen are photos of some of the city’s abandoned buildings, you’d have the impression that the city resembles some of the worst neighbourhoods of Syria. Midtown is a dynamic neighbourhood filled with creative energy, including the home of one of the city’s recent success stories, Shinola, a manufacturer of locally-made, quality wristwatches.
The other global export for which Detroit was famous was its music, specifically the hits pumped out by the Motown Records label. An amazing 28 songs that were recorded in their humble Detroit studio during the 1960s and 70s went to number one on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart. It’s no wonder that the studio garnered the nickname Hitsville U.S.A.
A brief sampling of some of the names that recorded in the Motown Records studio include the likes of Diana Ross, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, and Michael Jackson.
Today, Hitsville U.S.A. is part of the Motown Museum. It’s nothing more than an ordinary, two-storey suburban home resembling many others on the street, except this one is painted a brilliant white and blue with a sign proclaiming Hitsville U.S.A. out front. That will change in the near future as the museum is undergoing a $50-million expansion set to open in 2019.
The home, along with an adjacent building and some others in the neighbourhood, became the headquarters for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s growing musical empire. For many years, he and his family lived upstairs in the main building and it’s today preserved to show visitors what it looked like in the 1960s.
Inside the museum, there are artifacts on display that help tell the story of Motown and the musicians that made it famous. There are gold records, concert posters, photos and many other souvenirs from the record label’s history. Each group is accompanied by a tour guide who helps bring the era to life with anecdotes about Gordy and his artists.
For example, Gordy famously had something he called the sandwich test. When he sat with his employees to decide whether or not they would release a certain song as their next single, he’d ask them if they’d rather spend their money on the record or on a sandwich. If the majority felt it was more worthwhile than a sandwich, then it would go on sale. Otherwise, they’d go back to the studio to see if they could make the song better.
The climax of the tour is a visit to Studio A in the building’s basement. As you pass into the studio, you can look into the control room where the producer and engineers would sit. You can see the worn-out spots on the floor’s linoleum where they would stomp their feet to the rhythm of the music.
There isn’t much to see inside the studio apart from a few cables and some microphones, but after hearing the stories about Motown from our guide and realizing so many great songs were recorded in this very spot, you feel like you are standing on hallowed ground.
We were all given the lyrics to The Temptations song “My Girl” and encouraged to sing together. Everyone’s a bit shy at first, but it doesn’t take long before a group of complete strangers is singing out loud how ‘they’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day’ and everyone is smiling as they do it.
IF YOU GO: