The nervous growl of the Mustang engine is not often heard in the streets of Detroit. Rather, they welcome the quiet meow of the more economical Ford Fiesta. The American capital of the automobile, where Ford has set up its first factory, has been strongly affected by the crisis which has shaken the sector since 2008. The heart of “Motor City” beats at the same rate as that of the factories which inhabit it, in particular those of Ford, which deeply marked the history of the city.
This industrial empire was created by Henry Ford. This farmer’s son galloped as a child on the family farm in Dearborn, in the heart of present-day Detroit suburbs, which he helped develop. He left the farm at 16 to settle in the nascent metropolis, where he successively set up two businesses. The first goes bankrupt and the second is redeemed after a year of existence.
First assembly line
The third time will be the good one for this serial entrepreneur: on June 16, 1903, he founded the Ford Motor Company, with the support of 12 investors. He rents a studio on rue Mack, in Detroit, which he quickly leaves for a larger building on rue Piquette. It is there that he imagines in August 1908, the car which will make his fortune, the Ford T. It will be sold to more than 15 million specimens.
In 1913, he created his first large-scale factory in Highland Park (on the border of the city). In this large parallelepiped of red bricks, now condemned, he set up a production method in force in Chicago slaughterhouses: assembly line work, which would later be called Fordism. On October 7, the company’s engineers set up the first assembly line in the building, where the Ford T’s were pulled by a winch. The first 140 workers no longer need to travel, their tasks are simplified as much as possible.
Result: it takes no longer 12 hours and a half, but only 93 minutes to build the car. Its price drops from 850 to 260 dollars. Ford hired to meet the growing success of its star vehicle: in 1914, the company had more than 13,000 workers. The tasks were arduous in the factories and the pace of work sustained. To avoid too much turnover, Henry Ford decided to pay his employees 2.34 dollars per day, plus a bonus of 2.66 dollars, a significant sum at the time.
But this bonus was attributed to merit: the workers had to be married men, to maintain their homes and their gardens perfectly. They were not to smoke or drink … These requirements had a strong influence on the lives of the people of Detroit and on the local culture. Employees, better paid, were able to settle in small pavilions, with a square of lawn carefully mowed in front.
A ghost town
Ford-branded automobiles reigned supreme on the streets of the city for several decades, because the workers of the group were sufficiently well paid to afford (after several years of savings anyway), the king vehicle of the company , the famous Ford T. Detroit’s road infrastructure has been adapted accordingly.
But Ford was not just a cornucopia for Motor City: when the group began to relocate its factories on a massive scale abroad, in the 1980s, unemployment set in. This movement accelerated with the financial crisis of 2008, which brought the main American automobile groups into virtual bankruptcy. The city had 1.9 million inhabitants in 1950. In 2014, they were only 700,000. The unemployed workers left their homes, for which they could no longer pay their drafts for lack of wages. In the residential district of East of Hamtramck, brambles have invaded the grounds of abandoned houses.
But Ford had sensed the storm coming: the group borrowed in 2005, two years before the crisis, 20 billion dollars from the banks to revive its activity. Driven by heavy state investment, activity is picking up again in Detroit and the surrounding area. Today, 500 people work in the assembly line in the Ford plant in Michigan, from which several hundred Focus and C-Max are produced every day.
Lélia de Matharel