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Detroit’s Rich Automotive History Shines Through Berkley Filmmakers’ Lens

A Berkley media company creates hometown movies depicting Detroit's history.

Peek into a cradle, and you will see a connection to the past. Peek into a garage, especially in Detroit, and for many of us, the experience is much the same. Here in the Metro suburbs, we are closer to the true history of the very first automobiles than we suspect.

It may be true that no one knows more about that close relationship than two local documentary filmmakers. For three years, they labored long and hard on a very special slice of history, and this spring, their “baby” finally arrived. 

Proud parents are Scott Zuchlewski and Will Lawson, known collectively as CaptureCom Inc., a Berkley-based creative media company that specializes in corporate communications.

Together, Zuchlewski and Lawson created an 18-minute documentary for Detroit’s Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. Narrated by Marty Bufalini, a local actor whose movie credits include the 2008 motion picture Gran Torino, the video serves as a visual exhibit in the living museum that exists in the Piquette Avenue Ford Plant, nicknamed the “T-Plex” for short.

Visual Kickoff

Titled The Piquette Avenue Plant Story: Birthplace of the Ford Model T, the video serves as a mood-setter for visitors to the T-Plex, said Richard Rubens, president of the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, the nonprofit organization that runs the facility. The company is located on Piquette Avenue, just off Woodward in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood of Detroit.

A New England mill-style factory, the T-Plex is the site of Henry Ford’s very first office and the plant where, in 1908 and 1909, the first 12,000 Ford Model Ts were built, according to the organization’s statistics.

“The video provides visitors with an orientation to the times when Mr. Ford started the factory and shows the industry and inventiveness of those who surrounded him,” said Rubens. “It really does a good job of showing how the Ford Model T changed the way everyone on the planet lives as well as the way everything today is manufactured.”

The T-Plex, the historic birthplace of the Model T, is “one of the top 100 most significant industrial sites in the world, simply for the innovation and processes that came out of it,” said Rubens.

The Piquette Avenue Plant is part of the Motor Cities National Heritage Area, an affiliate of the National Parks Service that promotes Michigan’s automotive-related tourist attractions.

How It All Started

Lawson said he was commissioned in 2008 by Randy Mason, vice president of the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, to create the video. Lawson knew Mason from his days as resident filmmaker at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, where Mason served as curator of transportation.

“I have always been interested in social history and documentary projects,” said Lawson, 65, of Royal Oak. “Randy asked me if I would be interested in documenting the restoration work being done at Piquette after they were accredited as a national historic site; one thing led to another.”

Lawson believes an interesting story exists beyond the walls of Piquette, and this larger story served as the theme for the video he and Zuchlewski created.

An Introduction and Much More

In addition to filming and editing, the project included countless hours of historical research, during which Lawson said he was overwhelmed by the level of support and interest expressed by supporters of the Piquette facility.

“I interviewed family members of those who had worked at the plant and searched through archives in Detroit, and wherever I was, no one charged me for the use of the photos we borrowed from the collection,” said Lawson. “They knew this was such an important project that they gave me 70 pictures instead of five, really just a wealth of material.”

Because Lawson and Zuchlewski set out to create a five- to seven-minute video and completed research for a much larger scope, they have plenty of material to create a variety of additional videos for use in future video kiosks throughout the plant, said Lawson. They also have created a few television and radio spots, plus a Web video for Piquette.

Rubens said he couldn’t be happier with the end result. “Because we are the most nonprofit of nonprofits, these guys were given a miniscule budget to do a simple, brief project, and they said even though you don’t have enough to pay us what we are worth, we will do this right,” said Rubens.

“They donated all kinds of time and research far beyond what we asked them to do, and they literally have done a phenomenal job of telling the story and archiving future stories of what they felt we ought to tell.”

Historically Accurate

Zuchlewski filmed much of the video and provided editing and color correction work, composing layers of graphics and finishing touches to the project. He said he learned much from the consulting historians who run T-Plex.

“They would be able to tell us what shots were appropriate where, and the product we put together is historically accurate because we had a wealth of historians looking over our shoulders and fact-checking as we went along,” said Zuchlewski, 41, of Berkley.

Appealing to all T-Plex visitors, the video catalogs life at the turn of the twentieth century, he said.

“We go into a lot of what was going on in Detroit at the time and what really makes Detroit the place it is. We didn’t just talk about cars, but we talk about transportation and how Detroit was the cast-iron stove capital and how people migrated to Detroit, which was a center for manufacturing at the time,” said Zuchlewski.

“The video is a good place to start and gives T-Plex visitors a trip back in time, with a perspective of what happened here and why Detroit became the Motor City,” he said.

See the video and all of the exhibits at the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex Piquette Plant, located at 461 Piquette Ave., Detroit, MI 48202. For more information, call 313-872-8759 or write to info@tplex.org.

Fun Facts about the Birthplace of the Model T:

  • Predating the assembly-line technique for which Henry Ford is famous, the Piquette Plant operated a “station assembly” model, where cars remained in one spot, to which parts were brought and built on to the cars. Then the cars were hand-pushed for final detailing.
  • Piquette has a secret “Experimental Room” where Henry Ford developed and tested engines and other machinery. It was here that Ford first developed plans for the famous Model T.
  • The Piquette Plant remains as it was in 1910, with original paint, firewalls, flooring, windows and “Positively No Smoking” signs.
  • Visitors are welcome from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday from April through Nov. 20. Admission costs $10 for adults; there is no charge for children 16 and younger.
  • The facility is run entirely by dedicated volunteers.
  • The Piquette Plant was under threat when the nearby Studebaker plant burned in 2005. Workers continually hosed down the plant with water to avoid ignition by blowing embers.
  • Weddings, book signings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other events are held at the facility.
  • A dedicated team of retired Ford engineers is working to preserve the 355 double-hung windows in the Piquette Plant. Each window requires 55 man hours of restoration.

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