This Budd's For You

December, 2011.

Unbeknownst to many Detroiters, there is another old 1920s-era auto plant nestled within the white sheetmetal-clad expanses of Chrysler's more modern Jefferson-East Assembly and Mack Stamping Plants. It is not that readily visible to passing motorists, though if you looked closely and peered into the complex, you could easily spot it. In recent years some of the white metal cladding has peeled off of the disused portion of Chrysler's fading empire, revealing the classic Albert Kahn-style factory beneath. 


These are pretty much the closest shots you can get of it without going through the fence and actually trespassing; the still-active Jefferson-East Plant is to the right:


This 86-acre plant's name is Budd Wheel, but it was originally built by the Liberty Motor Co. in 1920.


As you can see, the sea of asphalt that now surrounds the fortified compound is used as a holding pen for freshly-assembled cars off the line at the Jefferson-East Plant. This is not the classic style of Detroit auto plant where, like the Packard for instance, the buildings go right up to the streetcurb. There is a vast surround protecting the modern suburban-style auto plant within a tall fence, making them seem like self-contained fortresses. The fact that one whole side is also guarded by an active rail yard is an additional buffer.

The cars here are basically just waiting to be loaded onto the railroad trains to be shipped to distribution points across the country, and from there on to the dealerships. Aside from GM's Poletown Assembly Plant, Jefferson-East is the last remaining auto-manufacturing plant in the city of Detroit.


After leaving a party in Hamtramck, Chisel and I decided to cruise by the Budd and check on the potential access point we had been scouting. It was 4am on Christmas Eve, we were full of liquid courage, and a sudden heavy snow squall began hammering the city as we were driving...we could not have asked for a better combination of conditions to pull off such a risky mission, and we knew it. It was now or never, so we commenced to lay down our attack with an extremely firm pimp hand. Why wait 'til Christmas morning to open your presents?

Over the previous months we had spent some time sitting across from the plant's front gate staking out the security guards to note their habits, and their patterns did seem exploitable.


Dodging the security vehicle, we ran about 500 yards across mostly open ground with occasional cover to the gaping bay doors at the north end of the building. The snow was already falling fast enough to hide any tracks we made, and better yet, it would tell us how often the guards made rounds in their car.

Panting in the frosty air, we halted just inside to rest and listen for any activity, and make a cursory check for any motion detectors or cameras, though it was highly unlikely that there would be any in here.


Once inside we decided to make a beeline for the upper levels in case a foot patrol came after us, and where we would be less likely to encounter any alarms or cameras. We would also be able to look out the windows to see what the guards were doing.

Even though it was highly unlikely that other taggers or explorers had been inside this plant yet, we did find some graffiti in the stairway:


Looks like some employee needed to blow Budd Co. a goodbye kiss. After awhile it became evident that we would most likely find no security systems installed in this place.

Handheld low-light photography while drunk at 4am proved to be more challenging than initially thought, so sitting the camera down on an object and using the timer quickly became the preferred method.


The tendency is to automatically ascribe any auto factory in Detroit to Albert Kahn, and one must avoid this common fallacy, but I am definitely leaning in that direction in the case of Liberty / Budd, at least for the oldest parts of this complex. A hit I found in the online photo archives of University of Michigan's Architecture & Engineering Library seems to point to this plant being designed by Kahn, and that it was built in 1920.

But the concrete-constructed buildings here were rather unfamiliar to me, in that unlike the Packard and other similar plants I was used to, this one had high ceilings and a large space between two main rows of columns. As it would turn out when I visited the abandoned Budd Plant in Philadelphia some years later, this was a hallmark of Budd's facilities; both plants shared certain key characteristics that were almost identical. I have a hunch that some of these buildings were designed by Albert Kahn, but much of the complex may have even been designed by Ballinger Co., the architect who designed Budd's Philadelphia plant on Hunting Park Avenue.


The place was mostly empty, but I was rapidly getting the impression that in the daytime there are some phenomenal shots to be had inside this joint...place is f#$%ing vast. In this next shot, which mostly looks black despite the fact that I used the longest possible exposure time my point & shoot camera could do (15 seconds), you can sort of see an area where two massive bays of the press shop intersected:


For reference, the height in that shot is two or three stories tall, and the lighter area is about 300 yards away. It was where the mammoth stamping presses would have been housed. Clearly I just did not have the equipment to get usable shots in here at night. There are some photos of the plant and this equipment when it was operational in a pamphlet from 1972, found at http://digital.hagley.org.

We decided to make our way to the roof, to get an idea of the layout of the plant and where we were in it. Far away, we could see the clocktower of the "Independence Hall" front office building (CLICK for photo), and set our sights for it.


According to detroit1701.org, "Detroit is the only metropolis where you will find two full-sized and well executed replications of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall." One is the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, and the other is the front office of the Liberty Motors Plant. So naturally when Philly-based Budd Co. moved into the former Liberty plant in the mid-1920s, they probably felt right at home in this Independence Hall-shaped office building.


Liberty Motors was one of the multitudes of smaller Detroit automakers in the 1900s, organized by Percy Owens in 1916. Before founding his own car company, he had experience as the sales manager of Winton Motors, opened the first automobile salesroom in New York City, and in 1908 became the sales manager for Chalmers Motors (which was one of the main companies eventually merged to form the Chrysler Corporation). Owen also went on to a position as vice president of Saxon Motors, and upon leaving to form his own manufacturer, he installed several former Saxon employees in positions at Liberty Motors.


A very handy reference book by Robert Szudarek, entitled, How Detroit Became the Automotive Capitol says that the Liberty car was powered by a Continental 6-cylinder and in many ways was the first car designed around the preferences of drivers themselves. The first factory was at 101 Lycaste, with this one being built in 1920, though at the time it only covered 12 acres; the giant complex seen today was mostly built later, expanded by Budd Co.


In 1921, Liberty produced 11,000 cars, but they were in receivership by 1923 due to failures in securing the needed components from their suppliers in a timely manner. The assets were acquired by Columbia Motor Co., who also went bankrupt in 1924 after building a few more Liberty cars here from the leftover parts.


According to the book The Technology Century put out by the Engineering Society of Detroit, GM's acquisition of Fisher Body Co. in 1926, as well as Nash Motor Co.'s acquisition of Seaman Body Corp. spelled the end of the days when numerous independent coach-builders thrived in Detroit. One exception to this however was Edward G. Budd Mfg. Co., who moved into the old Liberty plant by 1925, in response to a growing demand for practical all-steel auto bodies.


The website coachbuilt.com says that by 1915 Budd Co. had been manufacturing bodies or parts for many auto companies, including Willys, Dodge, Buick, Reo, and Ford, as well as truck bodies for Packard and Peerless. What put Budd on the map however was producing the first ever all-steel bodies. They did it for Huppmobile in 1909, and for Oakland Motors (which became Pontiac) in 1912. 


According to Hupp's chief engineer, Emil Nelson, he could not find a single coach-builder in Detroit that would agree to produce an all-steel body (I'm thinking because it would have put too many carpenters out of work). So Nelson decided to travel to the "Workshop of the World" and contract with Edward G. Budd, who was apparently more than happy to expand into the "budding" Detroit auto industry.

During WWII, Budd Wheel produced rocket fuses, 155mm shells, brake drums, and truck wheels for the U.S. Army.


Budd moved into the former Liberty Motors Plant, and remained there for 82 years (though they were acquired by Thyssen-Krupp AG in 1978). Thyssen-Krupp used this plant to make bodies and parts until 2006, but in 2007 pulled up stakes, though they remained headquartered in Troy, Michigan. This plant's stamping presses were disassembled and shipped to Mexico at that time, and the complex has remained silent ever since.


An electrical substation within the plant, not yet ripped apart by illegal scrappers:


I am including even some of my blurry shots, because security has since been clamped down at the plant and Chrysler is using it to store new cars again, so getting back in for more photos is pretty much out of the question.


By looking at the 1929 Sanborn maps of this plant, I don't think these back buildings shown here in the next photo had been built yet by that time:


This taller concrete building that we were standing in was marked on the map as "Factory Building," with a "Paint Laboratory" on the 5th floor.


The long wing extending out from the left is part of the "Receiving and Shipping" department:


The taller building seen across this shed contained (in 1929) the "Wood Working" department on the 1st floor, "Upholstering" on the 2nd, "Painting & Dry Room" on the 3rd, and "Pyroxilin Spraying & Dry Room" on the 4th:


We did not end up making it all the way to the front office building, much to my dismay, as I really wanted to climb the clocktower of Independence Hall, but the late hour and the cold were really beginning to wear on us. Our beer buzz was fading, and we weren't really dressed for a protracted cold-weather mission, so we were forced to retreat.


Part of it was that we had a hard time finding a usable stairwell from the building we were in to get down into the next building, which would've been part of the original Liberty Motors complex. If I recall correctly, we may have ran into a locked door that we couldn't get around.


This part of the plant was definitely built after 1929.


The guard did do frequent rounds, and he seemed to like sitting in the huge barren lot out back with his lights off, which made us kind of nervous.


We noticed he drove around the entire building, sometimes in the interior courts, and probably inside the buildings sometimes too. He may have seen our (very faint) footprints, but I'm not sure. We had no problems, but when we were trying to leave he was sitting out in that field as if he was waiting for us. We skirted along the edge again and hustled out of there with no issues.


The road conditions on the way home however were nightmarish...out of all the idiots on the road, we were the only ones who could manage to avoid wiping the f#$% out. We saw more wrecks on that short drive home than we had all year long--one of which we only avoided becoming a part of thanks to Chisel's sharp winter driving skills.



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