No one has to tell us that Dearborn, along with all of Detroit, is in the midst of big changes. The auto industry and the city that made it king are facing tough times. Just like our personal lives, adversity can make you bitter or better. History also holds that sometimes great cars are produced in the middle of difficult circumstances.
So with all that in mind, we set out for Motor City to visit spots of particular interest to Mustang enthusiasts. Our ride for the trip was a very extraordinary Roush BlackJack, a high-spirited thoroughbred engineered for ferocious power, handling, and style by Roush Performance (www.roushperformance.com). The BlackJack, also a Detroit native, boasts a supercharged 4.6L V8 rated at 430hp, full Stage 3 suspension and brakes, and the Roush body and interior treatment. It's a premium package based on Jack Roush's personal driver.
Our route called for a visit to Henry Ford's home, the historic River Rouge industrial complex where hundreds of thousands of Mustangs were built, and a pass down Detroit's famed Woodward Avenue. Finally, we set out in search of the long-lost Kar Kraft facility where the '69-'70 Boss 429s were assembled. We had some intel from Charlie Henry, who used to make deliveries there many years ago. Would his recall hold up and, if so, was the building still standing 40 years later?
We kicked off our road trip with a visit to Ford World Headquarters. This 11-story building in Dearborn, built on land originally owned by the Henry Ford estate, has been Ford's corporate face since 1956. Across the Southfield Freeway is Fairlane Town Center mall. Ford's influence in the area is huge, and many businesses have Ford-themed names.
Henry Ford Estate
Henry Ford was born on a farm near Dearborn during the Civil War. He grew up on a Dearborn-area farm, and at age 16 walked eight miles to Detroit in search of work in the machine shops. In 1903, Ford Motor Company was formed. Five years later, the Model T was on its way to transforming the world. In 1915, Henry Ford and wife Clara moved into this grand 56-room mansion made of marblehead limestone and concrete. Ford lived here until his death in 1947. Fair Lane, as it was known, was donated to the University of Michigan in 1957 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Today, the home serves as a conference center.
Tooling slowly around the blacktops of Fair Lane, the BlackJack makes no protest of driving slow, as high-performance cars sometimes do. The temperature stays in the cool zone, clutch and brakes stay smooth, and the transmission doesn't get sticky. The mufflers also do a nice job of keeping things quiet, but not too quiet.
Adjacent to the Henry Ford Museum is the spacious outdoor exhibit, Greenfield Village. Founded in 1929, it portrays America from past eras, including the actual courthouse where Abe Lincoln practiced law, the Wright Brothers' workshop, and the Menlo Park laboratory of his good friend, Thomas Edison. A genuine steam-engine train makes excursions around the grounds. It's probably the closest thing to real time travel we'll ever see.
In the parking lot, an admirer stops to check out the BlackJack. Bhargav Mehta, from India, notices the car and is overwhelmed. He asks if he can sit in it. As he gushes about what a huge Mustang fan he is, his sister snaps pictures of the moment. He seems like a nice guy and a genuine Mustang lover, so I decide to make his day by asking if he wants to go for a spin. We buckle in and I pull onto the road. "Are you ready?" I ask. He nods. I uncork all 430 hp. First gear pulls like a tractor beam. The sound is magical, the power amazing. Power shift to second and the BlackJack explodes forward with supercharged fury. Redline shift to third. Wow. Slowing to normal speed, Bhargav stuffs his eyeballs back into his head and grins like a college kid who just pranked the professor. Let's see your Tata Indica do that.
Henry Ford Museum
Leaving Fair Lane, we have a short jaunt down Michigan Avenue to the Southfield Freeway, then hang a right and hop off on West Village Road-not enough time to stretch the BlackJack's legs. We're heading for The Henry Ford, a complex comprised of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The world-renowned Henry Ford Museum is a vast compilation of transportation, aviation, and industrial history. The labels don't do it justice. If you're in Detroit, plan on spending at least a day in the museum. Keep a sharp eye out and you'll see Mustang number 001, a white '64 1/2 convertible that Ford recognizes as the first production Mustang.
Ford Test Track
Directly across Village Road from the museum and Greenfield Village is Ford's low-speed and high-speed proving grounds. It's protected from public view by a tall, red brick fence. Look carefully at those vintage PR photos of your favorite old Mustangs and you'll see this same fence. Ford used this area for publicity shots for many new models prior to their introduction. The proving grounds also has steep grades, water tests, and the Pitch and Jounce area. Many great Fords have logged many test miles here.
Ford's famous Rouge Assembly Plant, which began operations in 1917, was Henry Ford's grand vision of self-sufficient manufacturing, where ships with raw materials would sail up the Rouge River to unload materials that would be crafted into engines, frames, glass, sheet steel, radiators, even tires and paper. At its peak, the Rouge plant had 93 buildings with 15.7 million square feet of floor space, 100 miles of railroad track, 120 miles of assembly conveyors, and over 100,000 employees. It had its own electrical plant, hospital, police force, and fire station. Mustangs were built there from 1964 to 2004, along with two-seat T-Birds, FE engines, Cougars, and regular passenger cars (look for the "F" plant code in the VIN). Many of the old plants have been demolished. The big white building, visible behind the electrical tower, houses the Rouge's last remaining vehicle assembly-the F150. Tours are available, leaving from the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village.
From Dearborn, we saddle up for a trip east on I-94. The BlackJack is always ready to blast up on-ramps and merge with power to spare. Cruising speeds are child's play, and we have to salute the exhaust designers for avoiding the 65-mph throb that so many high-performance mufflers seem to have. The BlackJack, though capable of cornering loads over 1G, does not pound you into powder on expansion joints. Compliance is not Town Car soft, but it's not go-kart stiff either. It finds the sweet spot of both cornering and comfort.
We exit downtown at M1, Woodward Avenue. Named for a judge who laid out the city streets back when most were dirt roads, Woodward is downtown's East/West dividing point. We roll through city blocks that have seen better days. The world's first electric traffic light was installed at Woodward and Michigan Avenues in 1920, and between 6 and 7 Mile roads was the world's first mile of paved concrete.
We cross I-696 and enter Woodward's famous cruising zone. First stop is Vinsetta Garage in Berkley. Dating back to 1919, Vinsetta's began working on horse-drawn carriages when Woodward was still a dirt path. While the landscape changed around it, Vinsetta's kept its early 1950's look with neon signage, round-top gas pumps, and the old driveway canopy. They have earned a solid reputation and continue to accept new clients-by referral only. Says owner Jack Marwell, "I'm old, the building is old, the business is old. Old is good."
Once lined with a couple dozen pre-franchise drive-ins, Woodward left the cruising culture behind in the 1970s. The last remaining burger joint is Hunter House in Birmingham, at Woodward and Maple. It's been serving up sliders, fries, and sodas in the same white porcelain building since 1952. With tile floors, a stainless steel wrap-around counter with swivel stools, and a menu unchanged since the Truman administration, Hunter House oozes street cred, possibly more. Maybe not gourmet cuisine, but a fun trip back to one of the few surviving burger joints. Cash only. If you want to complete the Woodward cruising circuit, continue north to Square Lake Road, site of the famous Ted's Drive-In, and make a U-ee.
From Woodward, it's about a 45-minute ride out to the small, outlying town of Brighton, home of Kar Kraft, the assembly plant that built the Boss 429 Mustangs. The BlackJack makes a fine road car. Highway miles are tight and comfy, and the high-powered stereo makes the miles pass without having to shout down an overly loud exhaust.
We're going to see if we can find the old plant based on the decades-old memory of Charlie Henry, who used to make deliveries there. I take Exit 147, then turn right onto Spencer Road. The third right is East Main which becomes West Main past Grand River Avenue. Turn right on N. 4th St. and follow the bend to the right which becomes Walnut. Take a left on N. 2nd, and another left right away on Whitney. At the end of Whitney you'll see a long white building with two garage doors on the south end. These are the doors where the completed Boss 429s rolled out. It doesn't look like much today, but it matches period photos showing Boss 429 production.
I've found it. The Boss 429 plant still stands. I'm in a special place. It seems like there should be a plaque or something, but there's nothing here but neighbors wondering what I'm doing.