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Images from the River Rouge Part II: The Largest Auto Factory in the World

Construction of the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Complex began in 1917 and when finally completed 1928 it was the largest factory in the world. Henry Ford and Company had built a state of the art facility that not only manufactured cars and trucks but also processed the majority of the raw materials necessary to build these vehicles on site.

In addition, iron ore, coal, and lumber from Ford-owned off site properties were shipped to the River Rouge with the Company’s own transportation network of boats and trains. Learn more about the River Rouge Complex at The Henry Ford, the source of the photos in this series.

Today’s lead image taken on November 25, 1935, contains Ford workers polishing pressed steel 1936 radiator grilles. The surface preparation process was performed on heavy-duty buffing and polishing machines before and during the chrome plating process.

View earlier posts about the River Rouge here.

  • Horizontal milling machine and operator guided by a tracing attachment and pattern (top) in the Tool and Die Shop on January 10, 1939 machines one half of roof pressing die from a block of steel. 

  • 1934 Ford V-8 engine and transmission assembly being lowered into a chassis by workers.

  • Henry Ford II diesel-powered freighter which was in operation between 1924 and 1988 hauling iron ore and coal. The boat which was a part of the Ford Marine Division is seen being  towed while passing through a draw bridge at the complex. 

32 responses to “Images from the River Rouge Part II: The Largest Auto Factory in the World

  1. Excellent history lesson. Photos that I have never seen. That was one large block of steel being milled for a roof pressing die.

    • It probably wasn’t steel… Dies such as this were usually made of a dense metal similar to lead, but very tough.

      • High volume production dies were steel. Low volume, or trial parts could be made with what were called crooksite dies. Good enough for a few pieces but not sturdy enough for continuous duty. Interesting in that photo that a rough milling cutter is being used to bring the shape of the roof to life, following the tracing head on the wood pattern model. Further finishing work would be required on the steel die to get it to be as smooth as wood model, prior to it being used in a production environment.

  2. These are amazing pictures! Thanks for posting them. Is there any more explanation available anywhere about the second picture? I’m not sure I understand the process of smoothing out the ribbed sheet of steel–photos I’ve seen showed the part being stamped out, already smooth and ready for the windows to be cut out and process on to welding and finishing. What’s with the ribbed steel?

      • Yes,it seems that part of the fine machinering and smoothering of the die was already done at the lower righ extreme of the piece… .

    • This is a photograph of making what appears to be a drawing tool for the roof panel. The tool half is the steel piece on the bottom with the tool number, weight, etc painted on it. Above is some sort of resin, wood, or other material mock up of the shape of the roof. The machine both pieces are mounted to translates the contours of that shape to the position of the cutting head to cut the piece below. You can see both the probe on the top piece and the cutter on the bottom piece.

      The ‘ribs’ appear to be thin bits of steel left between cuts. I am not sure why they would choose to do it this way rather than use overlapping rough cuts. I think the jagged edge might be a clue. In order to speed up the process the ribs of steel are weak and can be broken off or perhaps fall away when making a finer cut. This would then save time in making the tool.

      • The tool being cut is made of a zinc aluminum alloy called kirksite. The original wood model above it was used to make a sand cast for the tool. There was a reverse cut tool to go on top of that tool to sandwich the sheet metal to make the formed roof panel.

  3. Thanks, Mr. G. Love to see how cars were put together. The 1934 motor drop looks a lot like what I saw when we toured a plant back in the sixties.

  4. About 15 years ago I stopped for lunch and upon entering the place noticed a CBI (China Burma India) plate on a car in the lot. My keen sense of deduction focused my attention on an elderly guy sitting alone. He told me yes he did serve in Burma during the war, and invited me to sit with him. He soon mentioned that he was working at the Rouge at the time he enlisted. I started pumping him with questions and he was happy to oblige. Did you ever see the ‘ old man’ on the floor? Oh sure. How about Harry Bennett? “You know about him too”, was his reply. My friends account of Bennett’s activity was laced with some—shall we say—colorful language that would take even the most skilled genealogist down a very confusing path. Over a period of the next two years or so I had the very real privilege of sitting with him over lunch, listening to his stories of the Rouge and CBI. RIP Bill.

    • Robert, thank you for your comment…it was delightful to read. It further convinces me of the amazing value of pausing to chat with folks wherever you go…something I learned from my Dad. He would wander around downtown Minneapolis during his lunch break and chat with construction workers and foremen at building sites and share their knowledge over our dinner table. As a dentist, he loved anything mechanical or of a construction nature…and passed that love on to me. But more important, the value of pausing to chat with people
      I’ve made a point of chatting with all sorts of people I encounter when on vacations…recalling in particular in Berlin a few years ago, chatting with a group of Aeroflot flight attendants in Viktoria-Luise-Platz and a group of high school girls by the Bauhaus Museum who wouldn’t allow me to leave until I learned to correctly pronounce Köln. Also a family from Columbia who appeared to be lost in a U-bahn detour. I summoned up what little Spanish I remembered to try lead them… when they got to where they needed, they insisted on giving me a souvenir t-shirt they had just bought for one of their sons. To me, travel is as much about the people as it is about seeing places.

      Robert, how wonderful your connection with Bill lasted two years…and the memories for many more years!

    • Just have to second that attitude from Robert and Pat. i learned to do that from my dad who chatted up all sorts of folks, many times with us in tow. I now do the same, to the consternation of my wife at times, but to the delight of my girls when I explain why I do that. I am frequently pleasantly surprised by what I learn and by some of the friends I have made. A great tool!

  5. 2nd photo .Basiclly a heavy duty pantograph,I think at GM they were called Kelleher machines.
    Also today the steelmill division at the Rouge has been farmed out to a Russian company.

  6. Another piece of the complex history of the American automotive industry. Fascinating stuff Dave,thanks for sharing it with us.

  7. The best description of the Rouge I’ve heard is; Iron ore comes in at one end, finished automobiles out the other.

  8. Anyone have a list of the cars made there?
    (Obviously in the days before the T-Bird, compact Falcon and intermediate Fairlane all Ford’s were one basic model, but since then)

    • The first ‘vehicles’ produced there were 60 anti-submarine boats for the US Gov. Then came Fordson tractors and parts for the Model T to be assembled elsewhere. The first full auto produced there was the A. When WWII started, auto production was stopped and they built M4 tanks there until 1943 and then continued building M4 engines there as well.

      • Oh, forgot to mention that the Ford M4 tank engine was probably the GAA, an all-aluminum V8, 32 valve, DOHC, twin-carb model of about 450 hp! Put that in your post-war racer and stuff it….LOL! M4A3 models.

  9. My paternal grandfather was a wood pattern maker in the Rouge tool and die shop starting in the mid-thirties and on into the early forties.

  10. Thank-you Pat and Mad Dog for your thoughtful remarks. Just wish more folks understood the joy that can come from encountering strangers. Even the lowliest among us has something worth sharing. And speaking of sharing, my thanks to Dave Greenlees for his tireless effort in providing this wonderful source of automotive history for us.

    • You’re very welcome, Robert… and thanks to Mad Dog for your comments. It really is a great tool.
      Indeed, thanks to David for providing all this auto history…and a forum where he welcomes these thoughts.

      • OK, OK, it is all Dave’s fault for keeping this site valid. Blame him for all the time we waste here when we could be so, so much more productive. Hmmm, wonder what is new today? (Pat and Robert, ya made my day!)

  11. Fascinating images, thank you for your tireless effort to share them. Note in the first that the buffing/polishing department was integrated, auto manufacturing jobs were a draw for thousands to escape the segregated South.

    The stamping die-making process is amazing for the size and weight of what has to be created beforehand in order to form all the individual pieces necessary. Such skill to make precision dies is impressive.

  12. I read in a Ferrari book that after the war steel was impossible to get in Italy and Ferrari had To send his workman out at night like werewolves to beg borrow or steel sheet metal for to make the car bodies with.A popular source were billboards.They say when doing complete body restorations on postwar Ferraris people find body parts painted with “Campari” in huge letters. “Martini&Rossi” Pirelli tires,you name it.

  13. The piece being machined would be called a “lower punch”. It would be in the first die operation. A panel such as a roof used to take as many as six or seven dies to create. A roof today is done in no more than four dies. The lower punch would have definitely have been made out of a hardened steel.

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