Auto Features

Motor City’s renaissance Continues — But There’s Still Work to be Done

Written by Norris McDonald

Norris McDonald recently paid a visit to Detroit with Ford Canada to study design and innovation — and noticed a lot of contrasts exist.

When Ford Canada took me and others to Detroit recently, the subject was design and innovation.

But other than what I learned from the formal program — the 3D Printing Lab, for instance, and a tour of the secret GT Design Studio (and more about that in a minute) — most of what I saw were contrasts: contrasts between the city I loved and knew well in the 1950s and the Detroit of today.

When you go to Detroit in 2017, you see a metropolis still struggling to get back on its feet. There is much that is good in that town, but there’s still an awful lot that’s bad. I sat with a colleague at Comerica Park, where the Tigers play baseball these days, and watched the sun go down over the downtown and we took note of the buildings where the lights came on and the ones that remained dark. The count was about 50-50.

And that’s the thing that’s startling about Detroit. For every tall building that’s been renovated to its former glory — and there are many of those, don’t get me wrong — there are just as many still boarded up and surrounded by construction hoarding with signs ordering everybody to Keep Out.

It wasn’t like that when I was a kid and would go with my parents to visit family. They all lived in houses a stone’s throw from each other in north Detroit, west of Grosse Pointe. Kids could play in the street and then go to the gas station at the corner to buy Popsicles. The grown-ups would take us to the magnificent J.L. Hudson Department Store downtown, where thousands were walking around, and to the baseball games at Briggs Stadium (before they renamed it Tiger Stadium), and if we were really good before or after, they’d take us to the nearby bar-restaurant Lindell A.C., where they’d drink Stroh’s and we’d tuck into ground-round hamburgers and Coca-Cola.

In winter, we went to the Olympia to watch the Red Wings, and the seats — and there were plenty of them — were right up behind the Detroit net. This is how long ago it was: Terry Sawchuk, the goalie, parted his hair with a comb and didn’t wear a face mask.

I have a friend who maintains that Detroit didn’t just fall off the face of the Earth one day. Many people point to the events of 1967 as the turning point, but, as he says, they had riots in other places — Rochester, N.Y., for instance — and they didn’t nearly become ghost towns. No, he says, Detroit’s fall was gradual over decades of neglect, corruption and racism, and the recovery, if you want to call it that, is more gradual but still taking a long time.

But recovering it is. The Ford folks took us around to places brand new — the Detroit Denim Co., for instance, makes an attractive line of men’s jeans in a small manufacturing facility right downtown; the Shinola watch company, named after a historic brand of shoe polish, was set up primarily to compete against Swiss watches but also to create employment, which it is doing. Next, we were taken to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation where the dreamers of generations past (Henry Ford himself, the Wright brothers, and others) are celebrated. If the museum is around in a hundred years, perhaps Eric Yelsma (founder of Detroit Denim) and Tom Kartsotis (he started Shinola Detroit) will be in there.

Three guys who are locks for induction into the museum are primarily responsible for the current resurgence of economic activity and urban-renewal enthusiasm that’s taken over the place. The late Mike Ilitch built a new arena for the Red Wings (his family owns the Wings and the Tigers) and pledged $200 million to create an entertainment district surrounding it; Dan Gilbert created and continues to head online mortgage lender Quicken Loans — he’s got 14,000 employees working in buildings he purchased and renovated in downtown Detroit; and Roger Penske considers Detroit’s renaissance to be his personal challenge ever since he was asked by Bill Ford to chair the 2006 Super Bowl committee. Penske puts his money where his mouth is. His $30 million Penske Tech Center is the home and maintenance centre of the 3.3-mile QLine streetcar system that opened just a few weeks ago.

Our little group heard about all these men and the renovations and the transportation and the general, all-round improvements the city likes to publicize and boast about. But there’s still work to be done.

On the way in from the airport, en route to the Ford Campus and the Product Development Centre where the 3D lab and the secret GT studio are located, where the grass is green and trimmed and you can hear the birds, you pass a four-unit apartment building near the side of the highway that was burned out years ago and it’s just standing there, on its own, and you think a strong breeze would just come along and blow it down.

But it hasn’t happened yet, and you get the sense that even though nobody else seems to care about that place, it somehow still has a sense of pride and it won’t go down without a fight.

Which is a lot like Detroit.

Now, at the Los Angeles Auto Show held last November, there was a 3D-manufactured car in the lobby just inside the main entrance. It wasn’t very big and nobody made all that much of a fuss over it, but it was there. As hard as it is to imagine, that 3D car is the future of the auto industry.

Ford’s lab in Detroit is the first to experiment with a 3D printer to create large-scale car parts, and while the focus will initially be on production vehicles, the process can also be used to personalize car parts. Since it’s estimated that you can print out an entire car in something like 48 hours, the implications are enormous so far as future employment in the industry is concerned as well as a manufacturer’s ability to produce custom-ordered vehicles. Just think: if your favourite first car was a 1955 Ford Fairlane, you won’t have to go looking for one in a junkyard to have it restored any more. It’s possible that Ford — using 3D technology — could build you a brand new ’55-model car.

The real thrill for me, so far as our visit to Detroit (and we missed a lot of the technical program because Air Canada cancelled our flight going down, and don’t get me going about what happened when they cancelled our flight back) was a visit to the Secret GT Design Studio — and yes, that’s now the official name of the place.

(An aside: there are negotiations ongoing to have the studio reproduced in the Henry Ford Museum because they are building another product development centre on the Ford Campus and the building where the top-secret project was carried out will be razed.)

As most of us know, Ford decided in 1966 to take Ferrari down a peg and did it by entering three GT40s that swept the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There had been rumours — always denied — that Ford had something up its sleeve to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that triumph, which was the first victory by an American company in the history of that iconic race.

More than one pontificator had suggested that Ford planned to enter the 2016 Le Mans and beat Ferrari again. The company responded to these suggestions by doing what it had been doing all along: shaking its head.

In 2015, at the Detroit Auto Show, Ford unveiled what it called a new production sports car for the street called the GT. It was driven right out on the stage at the Joe Louis Arena, and those of us who were a little more sharp-eyed than others noticed that Canadian race driver and long-time Ford test driver, Scott Maxwell of Toronto, was seen briefly in a short film that accompanied the introduction of the car.

Hmmm, I thought. Ford is still saying there is no sports-car racing in its immediate future, and yet, there is a sports-car racer in that film — and if you put two and two together, you really are going to get four. So, I called up Maxwell and asked him to dish, and he denied any knowledge of anything.

Well, it turned out that not only was Ford planning to go to Le Mans in 2016 to whack their old rival, Ferrari, one more time (which they did) but that the production car introduced at the Detroit Auto Show was really a cover and that the GT project had been a racing-car project all along.

As we were told just a few weeks ago, yes, the senior brass of the company knew what was going on but the work was carried out in complete secrecy by a dozen trusted employees as well as by a team from Multimatic Inc., a Markham-based company that was involved from the get-go and is busy these days building the GT for Ford-approved customers.

But where to do it to ensure that it would remain a secret?

There is a basement in the Product Development Centre. It’s a place that reminds visitors of their own basements — places where you put stuff that you don’t have room for anywhere else. A storage room was selected, and the top-secret work was carried out there.

Now, I love this bit. Like most modern buildings — office or otherwise — entry through locked doors is usually done with an access card. But access cards aren’t foolproof, and often, by design or accident, people can sometimes get into places where they shouldn’t be, and the last thing the top-secret GT project needed was some man or woman wandering in and saying, “Hey, what’s all this about?”

So, this is what they did. They called a locksmith and had an old-fashioned lock put on the door. Then they handed out keys to the people who should have them, thus ensuring that security could not be compromised.

There was another problem. You can’t take 12 high-profile Ford executives away from their regular jobs to work on something secret and not have people notice. So, every one of those dozen people — designers, engineers, and so on — had to continue with their own jobs and to work on the secret project whenever they could.

For instance, Craig Metros is Ford’s exterior design director for the Americas. In an interview, he told me what it was like to have that many balls in the air.

“At the time, I probably had two dozen programs going on,” he said. “I didn’t ‘live’ down here like some of the guys, as I was looking after multiple programs. I’d probably come down here once a day, catch up, go through a few things, take a look at the clay, and so on.

“The Multimatic team would fly down once a week and we would meet with them off-site, after eight in the evening, at a hotel. They didn’t come into the building because somebody might have spotted them and wondered what was going on. So, the hotel would have the bar and restaurant stay open late for us, and after our meeting, we’d have a bite, and the Multimatic guys would stay at the hotel and fly home in the morning, and the rest of us would go home.

“We had this joke that our wives all thought we were having affairs. We’re having meetings well into the night, then we’re going back to where they’re staying, and we’re going into a bar for a drink and something to eat, and so I’m coming home, and I’ve had something to drink and something to eat and …

“I told my wife we were working on a sports car.”

Metros said there were other funny instances, such as when they wanted to do a design review and had to take a clay model out of the studio. “We have these really, really long corridors in the design studio, and when we would take the model up to the courtyard, these models have to travel on (a pallet on wheels), and just in case someone was in one of those long hallways, not only would we cover the clay, we would put boxes over it to disguise the silhouette.

“So, if someone did see anything, it wouldn’t be this sleek, low, sports car silhouette going down a hallway. It would be a big lump.”

The studio today has the three original foam models of the GT as it evolved, and two clay models — one that looks like stripped wood and another one that’s so real, you swear you could open the door and just slide in. There is a sample cockpit (designed as a result of direct input from Maxwell) and various sketches and drawings. Buyers are allowed in to see the place but also to select from various finishes and materials to make their purchase more their own.

Ford’s people were involved in virtually everything to do with the project, down to the design of the race drivers’ firesuits.

“We designed everything,” said Chris Svensson, design director of the Americas, “from the driver’s suits to the pit boxes to the liveries on the car. We designed every single thing, from start to finish. It really was an all-encompassing program.

“We went to Le Mans in 2015, a year before we knew we were going to go. We benchmarked the very best. We benchmarked Porsche the way that they do the whole branding exercise. We set a target to be better than all of those guys.

“As a designer, it’s probably the most encompassing project we’ve ever done.”

One would think that the GT was a one-and-done project, but nothing could be further from the truth. The GT lives on, not just in the production car being built by Multimatic but also as a testing agent for new technologies and advanced lightweight materials that the company says will benefit future Ford cars, trucks, SUVs and EVs.

With 3D experimentation ongoing and new technologies being developed as the result of the GT success, Ford is positioning itself well for the future. Will the city of Detroit follow? Or will it wallow?