You’ve never seen the historic plant like this.
For much of his career, extraordinary automotive cutaway artist David Kimble has peeled away layers of specific cars to reveal amazing detail, but there have been some interesting side projects along the way. One of those endeavors is particularly appropriate as we enjoy this last long weekend of summer, so as part of our continuing series on Kimble Cutaways, we take a close look at this very pivotal point in the history of America’s labor movement, as illustrated by the clever cutaway master himself.
The Ford Model T is often credited with bringing cars to the working man, but Ford’s revolutionary Model T assembly line – not to mention the $5 workday that would come shortly thereafter – forever changed American manufacturing. To commemorate that moment in a unique way, Kimble was approached by National Geographic back in 1987 to create a cutaway of Henry Ford’s famous Model T factory, as it appeared in its early stages at the automaker's Highland Park, Michigan facility in June 1913.
Regular readers of this series know that Kimble begins each project with an in-depth photo shoot, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t able to visit the actual factory while workers were on the job. And yet, looking throughout the cutaway we see Kimble’s trademark attention-to-detail in spades. The assembly line is first and foremost in the cutaway, but looking at the back of factory we see rows of tool and die equipment. Notice on the far left how the floor on the upper level appears to have a wood surface. Even the Model T cars proceeding through the assembly process show an amazing amount of detail.
How did Kimble manage to create such a representation without actually being there to see it for himself? National Geographic had access to Ford archived images of the historic factory – albeit in black and white – that gave Kimble some points of reference. He also had photos from magazine articles of the day, all of which helped Kimble illustrate the tiniest details, from subassembly stations for Model T parts to suspenders and hats on workers that help bring this illustration to life.
Still, none of the old photos showed the facility as a whole from the overall perspective he was aiming for. To take the available images and form an accurate cutaway view of the overall factory would require the specialized knowledge of an industrial archeologist. Enter Dave Hounshell, who assisted Kimble in recreating this unique, period-correct view of factory from floor to ceiling, even though such a photo never existed. Even the bricks and windows are spot-on.
Even the Model T cars proceeding through the assembly process show an amazing amount of detail.
And actually, Kimble did visit the factory. The original Highland Park location on the corner of Manchester and Woodward Avenue still exists; it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and in his book David Kimble’s Cutaways: Techniques & Stories Behind the Art, he mentions “talking my way past the guards” to go inside for a look. Granted, the in-person visit was some 75 years after the scene he was depicting, and a year after he’d started work on the cutaway. But it was enough for him to still see the original mint green paint on the walls – a color he was somehow able to match perfectly in his illustration, despite only working from black and white photos.
As for the Model Ts in various stages of assembly, Kimble took a novel approach to capturing proper detail without disassembling actual vintage cars. Since he wasn't planning to sketch them up-close, the cutaway artist bought several 1:18 scale plastic model kits that accurately portrayed the body and chassis for the Model T. He built them in various stages of assembly – just as they would’ve been at the factory – and used them as reference for his creation.
The Highland Park factory would officially enter the record books as the first plant to assemble cars on a moving assembly line in October of 1913, just a few months after the scene Kimble depicts in this cutaway. In doing so, Ford was able to reduce the assembly time for a Model T from 12 hours to just 90 minutes, which also drastically lowered the vehicle price to $350.
And actually, Kimble did visit the factory.
Even with the automation, working on the line wasn’t exactly a dream job, so Ford offered the now-famous $5 workday wage in 1914 to help stem high employee turnover rates. It's also widely believed that the higher wages were to encourage employees to buy the cars they were building. Whatever the reasoning, it all worked. Turnover slowed, lower Model T prices made the car affordable to the masses, and in the eyes of many, Ford single-handedly created America’s working middle-class in the process.
Amid the barbecues, road trips, and the race to relax, it can be easy to overlook the work ethic that served – and continues to serve – as America's backbone. Thank you, David Kimble, for providing us this truly unique reminder of our past. Perhaps this glimpse into history can help us build a better future for all.