The General Motors Heritage Center at 6400 Center Drive protects one of the greatest vintage car collections in the world, curated and maintained by the Detroit-based automaker.
Detroit Free Press
If anybody not named “Ford” can call themselves a “Ford family,” it’s Joseph and Louanne Offer.
The siblings’ grandfather, Louis A. Albemi, worked as a draftsman in the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit in the early 1900’s, designing the original Model T chassis and other early Ford vehicles.
Joseph, 57, and Louanne, 73, each have a copy of the original blueprints their grandfather helped create — “a piece of history,” they called it. Albemi was a Michigan State University student and would send letters to Henry Ford; eventually, Ford hired him, and the two worked closely together.
“Henry knew some of his employees personally and brought them on his journey as his company grew,” Albemi’s granddaughter said.
They’re among more than 200 descendants of auto workers — as well as history buffs and car fanatics — who filled the 1904-built factory Sunday for Ford Piquette Heritage Day. The event honored of those who built the cars that shaped Detroit, as well as celebrated the return of the original alphabet cars to the plant they were manufactured.
The Piquette Plant was the first factory built and owned by the Ford Motor Company. The New England mill-style building is where the Model T was born in 1908 and where teams of workers built Models B, C, F, K, N, R, and S by hand.
Albemi went on to become the first dean of engineering at the then-University of Detroit (which merged with what is now University of Detroit Mercy).
“I don’t drive anything but Fords,” the younger Offer said. “Before I married my wife, I told her that her Honda has got to go.”
Detroit born-and-raised resident Gloria Whelan, 94, said her grandfather, Carl Kilwinski painted the three-story, 68,000 square foot factory.
“He found it very exciting that he had the opportunity to paint such an important building,” she said.
Kilwinski immigrated to Detroit from Germany to avoid serving in the military and started his own painting business, where he created art and painted commercial buildings and houses. Whelan said her grandfather was paid $23,000 by Ford to complete the job, which could have earned him a fair-share of Model T’s.
“There’s a lot to cover in this building, just look at the vast walls and the ceiling,” she said.
Whelan added that her grandfather’s original paint job still dons the walls today.
“He must have done a good job,” she said with an ear-to-ear smile on her face. “I’ll be sure to walk away with a (paint chip) today.”
The event Sunday was the first time the donations of the original alphabet cars by the Porter family — with the Larry D. Porter Artifacts Trust — six months ago was formally recognized.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said called the function an “awesome and historic event.”
“Having all the alphabet cars here is a great thing for the city,” Jones said. “I would not have missed an event this important.”
The former factory is owned and operated by The Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, a non-profit. The Piquette Plant is now an open to the public museum that showcases the vehicles that factory workers manufactured there years ago, as well as Henry Ford’s office and a once-secret room where Ford kept blueprints and plans — attracting more than 18,000 tourists per year, according to its website. It is the oldest auto plant open to the public and is a designated National Historic Landmark.
“This place is just so special. The creative and innovative things that happened in this building is a real tribute to the people who worked here,” said Steve Shotwell, president of the board of trustees of the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. “There is one key word that describes this place and can never be overstated: passion.”
In the late 1990’s, the old building was not well-maintained and was facing demolition.
“The windows were broken, the building was full of junk and was just in rough shape,” said 76-year-old Dearborn resident Randy Mason, one of the original board members of the non-profit who worked to save the building.
“We made a real effort to preserve one of the most important and historic sites in this city,” Mason said. “A lot of people around here didn’t give a damn about history. We did.”
Contact Omar Abdel-Baqui: 313-222-8850 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @omarabdelb
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Published at Mon, 09 Apr 2018 10:06:15 +0000