"Powerful As The Nation"

Photos date from 2005 to 2007.

Because of my location on the west side of town the ruins of Continental Motors was something that I learned about slowly, and it was even later before I got over to there to see it, as if because it was even further east than the Packard Plant it was like it was some far-off land that could only be reached by a concerted effort. I don't think I had ever even been to Grosse Pointe yet by that point.


These first few photos were shot on 35mm back in the summer of 2005. The plant has since changed quite a bit since then; specifically, almost everything that is metal in these photos has now disappeared:


Among the metal theft victims was the sawtooth-style machine shop, designed by Albert Kahn and Ernest Wilby:


Allegedly Kahn modeled it after his famous Pierce-Arrow Plant in Buffalo. It used to extend all the way up to Jefferson Avenue, but was demolished up to this point many years ago. The plant was leased in the 1940s-'50s by the Kaiser-Frazer Corp.

The watertower has also been claimed for scrap metal:


The other remaining original building was the powerhouse. Inside were the remnants of a boiler, which today...


...have been dismantled for scrap. You saw that one coming, didn't you?

The third remaining building was the tall, oddly shaped test-cell building, where aircraft motors were tested in later years.


The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) notes that this plant came into being in 1912, across the street from the Hudson Motor Car Co. plant. Located in Muskegon since 1905, Continental opened this plant in Detroit as well when it became obvious that this was where the auto industry would be centered, and they soon grew to be one of the largest independent engine suppliers to the auto plants. Continental's engines have been used in everything from early automobiles to busses, trucks, tractors, military tanks, and aircraft.


Though it is omitted from its own company history, Continental Motors was originally founded in Chicago by Ross Judson and Arthur Tobin, who built a two-cylinder engine to display at the 1903 Chicago Auto Show, detroit1701 says. Many of the small entrepreneurs and inventors trying to get a foothold in the auto-making business in those days lacked capital to start up a full manufacturing operation, so many of them bought the higher-dollar parts such as engines and transmissions from established firms, and assembled their cars from these components. Even the great Henry Ford started out this way.


In 1905, Continental Motors' production base was established in Muskegon, Michigan. Studebaker had just ordered 100 Continental engines for their 1906 model. The location of the Continental plant in Muskegon was perhaps not ideal, but was still conveniently located between the center of the auto industry in Detroit, and their main customer Studebaker, in South Bend, Indiana. As mentioned in another post, Muskegon aggressively courted new businesses to set up shop in their port city after the demise of the lumber industry, and that was mainly how Continental ended up getting established there. They were Muskegon's largest employer for most of the 20th century.


Detroit-based Hudson Motors placed a huge order for 10,000 engines in 1910, and with that Continental decided to build this plant in Detroit. As a matter of fact it was built directly across the street from the Hudson plant itself, though the latter was demolished long enough ago that many readers might not even remember it. They sat so close together that they were almost indistinguishable as two separate enterprises, thanks in part to the fact that both were designed by Albert Kahn. Eventually, the large factories in Muskegon were dedicated to making solely truck and bus engines, while the Detroit plant was dedicated to automobile engines, detroit1701 said.


Benjamin Tobin, Chicago-born founder and president of Continental, eventually moved to Detroit with the company's headquarters, and is buried in Woodmere Cemetery, according to a book by A. Dale Northup. He was one of the better-known automobile magnates and was eulogized as having "pushed forward the wheels of progress and Detroit stands as a greater city by reason of his activity."


This hallway is lined with engine testing chambers, which account for all the square vents on the roof of the plant seen three photos above:


Inside, a cement base for mounting engines to be tested...the walls and windows were designed to be blast-proof so that the motors could be run at full capacity to find their breaking point:


As mentioned earlier Continental Motors was never an automaker, but interestingly enough they eventually ended up doing so briefly in the 1930s, almost by accident. They had acquired a financial interest in the DeVaux-Hall Automobile Co. of Grand Rapids, who started building cars in 1931. That small company quickly went bankrupt by 1932 however, which might explain why Continental ended up owning them.

In order to protect their investment Continental was forced to make the DeVaux-Hall Co. profitable, so they took over and continued building their cars using the Continental brand name. They produced three models for the 1934 model years, one of which sold for a mere $399, making it the least expensive vehicle on the market. One would think that this would have been a smart move in the Great Depression, but for whatever reason the cars didn't sell, so Continental called it quits in 1935 after assembling about 4,200 cars (mostly in Grand Rapids).


There were certainly other independent engine suppliers besides Continental, but they claimed the lion's share of that market by far--an article from Hemmings Motor News claimed that by the 1920s up to 90% of the independent U.S. automakers dropped Continental's bullet-proof "Red Seal" engines into in their cars.


There were many controls rooms like this throughout the test cell building of the plant, for monitoring the various testing chambers:


The article said that Continental was "never a company with innovative, dramatic or particularly powerful auto engine designs;" they instead focused on simplicity, stalwart reliability, and aggressive sales. They succeeded because they focused on doing just one thing, and doing it right--over and over and over again. That business model seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, unfortunately.


According to the Hemmings article, Continental did however tinker with a number of experimental engines that never made it to production, including an overhead-valve V-12 in the mid-1910s and an Argyll-licensed single-sleeve-valve six-cylinder.


Some of the independent auto-makers who made up Continental's customers included Chalmers, Selden, Stutz, Auburn, Checker, Durant, Graham-Paige, Moon, Reo, Willys, Blackhawk, DuPont, Jordan, Peerless, and Ruxton. Even Locomobile employed one of Continental's only overhead-valve production engines. Some of the lesser-known marques who used Continentals included Bay State, Cardway, Darling, Howard, Kleiber, Leach, Luverne, S&M, and Woods.


All told, Continental had about 100 different auto companies using their engines, which tallied up to about four million produced cars during the mid- to late 1920s, Hemmings reported. This was Continental's heyday, and they employed up to 6,000 workers between their Muskegon and Detroit plants. It was during this time that Continental became known for their slogan, "Powerful as the Nation."


In the distance, the Hotel Winston pokes out of the jungle canopy:


I shot a rather cool zoom photo of this plant in 2014, from the roof of the Hotel Winston.

All the charred planks that my friend is walking on are the remnants of a structure on the roof that can still be seen in the first photo at the top of this post.


Looking down on the roof of the old machine shop section, whose supports were being cut out so that scrappers could harvest it with the help of gravity:


In 1926, a former company secretary and assistant treasurer named William R. Angell ascended to Continental's board of directors. Through him, Continental forged ties with William Durant's second automotive empire, supplying engines to his Star, Durant, and Flint brand automobiles, as well as with Peerless Motors. In fact, Hemmings said, Continental became so closely tied with Peerless that there were even rumors swirling in 1927 that they might merge.


As I outlined in an earlier post, William Angell eventually became president of Continental, and bought up almost the entirety of North Manitou Island, which I explored in 2009. He used it as a personal retreat, as well as a hunt club for Continental's various corporate guests.


Thanks largely to Charles Lindberg's successful trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the aviation industry started to pick up speed. According to the book All Our Yesterdays, "Detroit began to think of itself as the emerging aviation capitol of the world," since as some pointed out, much of the same skilled labor and tooling that made it the automotive capitol could readily be applied to airplanes as well. Henry Ford was messing with his Flivver, built Ford Airport, and established the world's first commercial airline route.


Aircraft manufacturing companies were formed in Detroit, notably Buhl Aircraft Co., Verville Aircraft Co., and Stinson Aircraft Co. Other companies naturally formed as suppliers only and Continental Motors was quick to get into this business, producing their first airplane motor in 1929. Most of the airplane-builders of Detroit never lived past the Great Depression, but Continental continues today.


The Great Depression decimated the independent automakers and the "assembled-car" industry, which was Continental's bread-and-butter; it was the era that forged the "Big Three," since most other marques were forced to consolidate or die out. Continental actually bought out Divco, the makers of the iconic American milk truck in 1932, but divested itself of it four years later.


These massive exhaust vents have large concrete counterweights hanging from their edges that open the flapper doors when an engine is being tested below:


Thankfully Continental could ride out the hardship of the 1930s on the life raft of its aircraft, truck, and agricultural engine sales, but the Depression lasted so long that Continental almost didn't survive.

By 1939, they had laid off 90% of their workforce and even closed this Detroit factory as things began to look truly bleak. Allegedly the company was on the brink of being auctioned off when World War II was declared. Had that not occurred when it did, there might have been no Continental today.


With the kick-starting of the U.S. war machine, contracts suddenly began flooding in and Continental Motors roared back to potency. They were called upon to assemble an endless stream of engines for trucks, ships, tanks, and planes.


Specifically, the book Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II by Charles K. Hyde says that Continental manufactured 7-cylinder radial engines for Chrysler-built tanks such as the M-3 Stuart, as well as a 9-cylinder radial engine for the M-18 "Hellcat" tank destroyer built by Buick. Continental also built some of the Merlin engines for the P-51 Mustang fighter planes under license from Rolls Royce, according to detroit1701.

A classic military vehicle enthusiast friend of mine tells me that the M-8 and M-20 armored cars were also powered by continental six-cylinders, as well as the M-5 High Speed Gun Tractor.

Continental continued automotive engine manufacturing after WWII, though aircraft engines began to take precedence in the company's portfolio as Continental reinvented itself in the postwar period, and the aviation industry took off. They introduced a new line of air-cooled engines in 1948 in hopes that it would revolutionize the automobile industry, but according to Hemmings "Detroit seemed to hardly notice the new engine," and their L-head straight-six soldiered on as the motor of choice for production automobiles for decades.


As mentioned earlier, Kaiser-Frazer leased part of this plant after WWII in order to make their own engines under license from Continental, when Continental couldn't keep up with the demand. According to one source, Kaiser-Frazer went on to become the best-selling independent car brand in 1947. Checker Motors was the last carmaker to use the classic Continental, in 1963.


It hardly mattered however, as Continental was a leader in aircraft engine production by that point, and in 1964 they were bought up by Ryan Aeronautical of San Diego. The Hemmings article explains that Ryan later sold Continental to a conglomerate by the name of Teledyne, which in turn split it into five separate companies that were subsequently scattered across Alabama and Tennessee.


Continental Motors, Inc. still exists today, but sold off its last Muskegon factory in 1994, and donated their old engineering records to the Muskegon County Museum. Their own company website says that in the 1950s, Continental's aircraft division developed their 100-horsepower C-200 airplane motor, which was used to power one of the most important airplanes ever, the Cessna 150.


Turbocharging, and fuel-injection were two other engine concepts that were introduced to the world of aviation by Continental in the 1960s, and in 1986 Continental set another aviation milestone when the Rutan Voyager became the first piston-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without refueling; it was powered by Continental engines.


This plant closed in 1965, though it was eventually reopened as "Continental Aluminum, Corp.," though I am not sure that this implies any direct familial link to its Continental Motors corporate heritage; I think it might simply be due to the fact that whatever business entity that moved in here afterward chose to adopt the "CONTINENTAL" name gigantically emblazoned on the smokestack rather than go to the trouble of having it covered up.


According to an old post from Detroitblog, Continental Aluminum Corp. smelted over six million pounds of scrap aluminum each month, and were cited "dozens of times" for emissions violations by Wayne County after residents complained of health problems from their fumes.


The Detroit Fire Department made "routine visits" to the plant Detroitblog said, "culminating in a 1992 fire that sent four firemen to the hospital for exposure to ammonia gas." Sounds kind of like these guys were just as conscientious corporate citizens as Sybill Oil was. Continental Aluminum still operates today, out in New Hudson.


Detroit1701 and corroborates that Continental Aluminum moved in afterward, noting that they were in fact a distinct company from Continental Motors.






Somewhere I have photos of this place from 2012 showing how much of the plant was scraped away, but I can't find them.




Sometime around 2008 if I recall correctly, a rather unofficial-looking "guard" was stationed on the grounds of the plant to "prevent" scrappers from continuing to tear away at it. By that point most of it had vanished anyway. After the last bits of iron had walked away, so too did this guard disappear.



References:
Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1976)
Albert Kahn, Architect of Ford, by Federico Bucci, p. 34-35
The Legacy of Albert Kahn, by W. Hawkins Ferry
Designing for Industry, The Architecture of Albert Kahn, by Grant Hildebrand, p. 55
All Our Yesterdays, by Woodford & Woodford, p. 290
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 3, by Clarence Monroe Burton, p. 230
Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, by A. Dale Northup, p. 104
http://wwii.detroithistorical.org/locations/continental-motors-corp
http://www.hemmings.com/hcc/stories/2008/12/01/hmn_feature13.html
Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II, by Charles K. Hyde, p. 119, 121, 130-131
"Continental Drift," Detroitblog.org, October 7, 2004
http://detroit1701.org/Continental%20Motors.html
Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, by A. Dale Northup, p. 104
http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/kaiser-frazer-part-1/4/