Climbing into the dusty coolness of the Ford Model A is like opening the door to a self-contained time capsule. Beneath my fingers, the seats are a bristly velvet that triggers a fleeting memory of a green sofa in my grandfather’s house. From a slit in the car’s floorboards, the gearshift rises up. As I touch it gingerly, I’m overcome with a feeling that if I move the car into gear, we’ll drive out of this garage and into the past.
Detroit was a different city back in 1927. The Model A had just been invented as a bigger and better version of the iconic Model T. The mud streets were choked with Fords. The Great Depression wouldn’t hit for another two years, and Ford’s five-dollar work day had been introduced only a decade earlier.
But when we pull out of the garage, sunlight slants in the windshield and I can see that it’s still 2019. The Detroit I know is a little shabby—the roads may be dotted with potholes, but the city is buzzing with an energy of innovation that never left.
Lisa Stolarski sits in the driver’s seat beside me. She is the owner of this Model A and Antique Touring Company, a new business that offers vintage car tours of Detroit. She pounds the horn, and as the car lets out its characteristic “ahooga” sound, we set out on a tour of Detroit.
Detroit’s automotive boom
You can’t talk about Motor City without talking about cars. Beneath every Detroit storyline, there is a parallel to the automotive industry that defined it. When one grew, so did the other.
In 1903, Henry Ford founded the company that would revolutionize Detroit. The Ford Motor Company did not invent the automobile, but it did forever change the industry. With his dedication to low-cost, high-quality vehicles and livable wages, Ford not only employed Detroiters on his large-scale assembly lines, but he opened up the world of the automobile to the average person.
Thanks to Ford’s 1908 Model T, invented at the Piquette Avenue Plant in Milwaukee Junction, automobiles transitioned from a novelty for the rich to a practical necessity for the working class.
In 1927, Ford introduced the Model A—a sturdier, family-friendly vehicle with better safety features and twice the horsepower of the Model T. “Better cars for daily driving,” Stolarski calls them. It’s not a coincidence that by 1930, Detroit’s population had grown from just under 300,000 to more than 1.6 million, most of whom were automotive workers.
After the automobile boom of the early 1900s, the city’s workforce began to decentralize. Ford’s operation outgrew the Piquette Avenue Plant and moved to the Highland Park neighborhood. Here, the first-ever moving assembly line was introduced, and the seeds for urban sprawl were planted.
Throughout the 1900s, other factors—including increased gasoline prices, automation, fraught race relations among workers, and a near-singular industrial reliance on automobiles—led to the instability of Detroit’s auto industry, and subsequently the city itself.
When Stolarski moved to Detroit in 2013—the year the city declared bankruptcy—she expected to see vintage cars everywhere. “Towns that make things are very proud of the things they make,” she says. But after a year of living in Highland Park, she hadn’t seen a single vintage car. In 2015, Stolarski struggled to find an old, Detroit-made car for her wedding, and she saw a business opportunity.
Two years later, she entered a Michigan Women Forward business competition with her idea, and Antique Touring was born. In Highland Park, Stolarski says the former assembly plant “looms large”—both in its physical and historical presence. “I wanted to do something socially and economically meaningful in the community where I lived,” she says.
Driving through Detroit
Driving the Model A through Detroit, “I feel like I am in a one-car homecoming parade,” Stolarski says. “People wave, they shout kind words, they honk if they are driving.” Vintage cars “speak to the souls of Detroiters whose ancestors literally built the car I am driving, or cars like it,” she says.
I can feel the velvet seat, the jolt in the road, and the flat roof so close to my own head. As Michiganders, we’re fed a version of the American Dream that is inextricably bound with the automobile. I think of my grandfather, a lifelong, devoted employee of the auto industry. He worked for GM, not Ford, but his story is universal: He started as a paper pusher and worked his way up to management. My uncle and cousins—all from Michigan—also work in the auto industry. Stolarski says she had great aunts who lived in Detroit during the heyday of the Model T.
“Towns that make things are very proud of the things they make.”
“On the assembly line, thousands of people touched each car every day,” Stolarski says as I run my hands over the Model A’s dark interior. “This person bored the cylinder holes, that one tightened the body down, and so on. Driving vintage-era cars on the streets of Detroit honors those people and the work of their lives.”
Stolarski hopes that Antique Touring will become more than just a tour company—she sees the business as a social enterprise. “As we grow, we are trying to hire from Highland Park and surrounding communities where the unemployment rate is very high,” she says.
Stolarski plans to implement profit-sharing, carbon offsets, and eventually worker-ownership of the company. She hopes to have a dozen or more drivers and vehicles, with tours encompassing the entire 16-county MotorCities National Heritage Area in Michigan.
Riding around Motor City in a Model A, listening to Lisa’s history lessons, it’s easy to envision Detroit as it once was—one of the most prosperous cities in the country, fueled by hard work and gasoline. “Everywhere we go, our presence is greeted with joy and excitement,” Stolarski says. “We help tourists and locals alike understand that Detroit is a joyful and safe place to visit.”
If you go
Antique Touring offers tours of Detroit six days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tours are two hours and cost $75 per adult and $65 for children. Advanced booking is required.