The Cradle of the Arsenal of Democracy

What do the Batmobile, Notre Dame football, Arabic food, the Doolittle Raid, the New York Knicks, Pope Pius XI, the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and the birth of the Arsenal of Democracy all have in common? This factory on the border of Detroit and Dearborn.

Read on...

The old Graham-Paige plant, I had driven past it hundreds of times. The series of signature Albert Kahn "M"-truss roof monitors were a familiar landmark along Warren Avenue.

Then one day I noticed that it was in the process of speedily being torn down. I was nervous about inviting myself in past the fence, because this was Dearborn after all, and I couldn't imagine there not being guards for the equipment that was sitting out. If there was any kind of security alert, police would be on scene in mere seconds.

After nervously biding my time for a while, I noticed demolition work seemed to languish or stall out, as it has on so many similar recent projects like Fisher Body 10Northern Engineering Works, and the Brewster-Douglass Towers. I made my move.

There is actually quite a pedigree to this lesser-known Detroit auto plant...behind the Packards and Dodge Mains and Ford Rouges that everyone recognizes, were these second-level plants that often played just as much of a role in history. In fact, it was here in this very building where one of the key events to forging the industrial alliance known as the "Arsenal of Democracy" occurred, earning Detroit its laurels as the "engine" of America.

Clarence Burton says the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. was incorporated in 1908, with Harry M. Jewett as president, but I have two other print sources that say the company was founded by Harry Jewett with Fred O. Paige as president. In either case the book How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by Robert Szudarek, notes that Fred Paige had previously been at the head of the Reliance Motor Car Co., which specialized in building trucks, but had lately been bought up by General Motors.

Fred Paige had hired the engineer Andrew Bachie to design him a new car, and when Harry Jewett met Paige in 1909 he liked it enough to go into business with him that fall, after using his connections to secure investors for the venture. According to detroit1701, Harry Jewett had only distinguished himself to this point as the first athlete to score a touchdown for Notre Dame in intercollegiate football.

The Paige-Detroit car was first displayed in 1910 at the Palace in New York Szudarek says, and was declared to have the "most perfect two-cycle engine ever built for an automobile." By spring of 1910, Jewett was no longer pleased with the car, and had Fred Paige removed from the company, taking over the presidency himself. Jewett redesigned the car, and by 1913 had five factories going and was building a sixth at Fort & McKinstry while simultaneously acting as president of Lozier Motors. They originally used the old Stearns Pharmaceutical plant on 21st Street near Baker (Bagley).

Paige was the first affordable automobile brand to include an electric starter as standard equipment in 1912. Clarence Burton wrote that by the year 1919 there were 1,534 men on the company payroll. In 1921, driver Ralph Mulford drove a Paige 6-66 roadster at Daytona Beach and set a new one-mile straightaway record of 102.83mph. The company played on this fame by introducing a model called the Daytona in 1922. Another model was introduced that same year, called the Jewett.

That was around the same time Paige moved into this plant at 8505 West Warren Avenue, or at least when they began expanding it to its present scale (I am still not sure whether there was already an existing building on site). According to the MotorCities, in 1923 the company invested $1.5 million in expanding this facility and in 1924 added the sleek front office building.

The December, 1920 issue of The Architectural Record indicates that Albert Kahn was the architect, and A.J. Smith Construction was the builder. Sanborn maps indicate the name of the facility was the "Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. Plant #2." The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record shows that by 1946 the plant had swelled to a full one million square feet in size.

Meanwhile in Indiana, the Graham brothers (Joseph, Robert, and Ray) built a factory at Evansville in 1916 to build a truck that Ray had started designing in 1908. J. Haynes, president of Dodge Bros. Motor Co. felt that Dodge could get into the heavy truck business by partnering with the Grahams, and in 1921 reached an agreement for the Grahams to use Dodge drivetrains exclusively in their trucks, which would henceforth be sold through Dodge dealers.

A new Graham plant was built on Meldrum Street in Detroit, with additional ones being opened out of state, and eventually also on Conant Avenue and Lynch Road in Detroit. Under this deal Graham became the largest truck manufacturer in the world by 1926, cranking out 37,000 units per year. The Graham brothers also purchased the former Harroun Motor Car Co. plant in Wayne, Michigan in 1927, and used it for production of Graham bodies from 1928 to 1936.

The book The Technology Century from the Engineering Society of Detroit says that Paige-Detroit sales performance was mediocre until 1923 when they produced 43,556 units, and though Szudarek notes they were ranked 10th place in the auto industry for sales in 1925, they had begun to seriously lose ground in 1927. Harry Jewett "tired of the automobile wars," and accepted a buyout offer from the Graham brothers that year.

The brothers Joseph, Robert, and Ray had lately sold their very successful truck manufacturing business to the Dodge brothers in 1926, having become less content with their subservient role within Dodge. But afterward they found themselves "with too much time on their hands," so they got back into the business by buying Paige from Mr. Jewett for $4 million, and had their own new model ready for 1928.

According to the Mopar fan site, the 1924 Sanborn automobile was also made at this plant, "presumably in leased space."

The Grosse Pointe Historical Society says that Mr. Jewett lived at 625 Lake Shore Drive and had a retreat in Ogemaw County called Grousehaven that is now known as Rifle River State Recreation Area. Another book by Matt Dellinger notes that the Graham brothers had a "family compound on the northern tip of the lower peninsula of Michigan."

Their new 1928 model was designed by LeBaron Studios of Briggs Body Mfg. Co., and the front-end was inspired by the Hispano-Suiza. Though it was never really advertised, Graham-Paige also used Continental Motors six-cylinders in their cars. Joe Graham was unconvinced by the drawing they submitted to him initially, which prompted them to make a clay model of the design for him--one of the first instances of clay modeling being used in the auto industry.

They called it Graham-Paige and debuted an all-new vehicle lineup, which set an all-time production record for a new startup, at 73,195 units. The car was so successful that plant production was raised from 300 to 700 cars per day, and employment more than doubled. According to Szudarek, even Pope Pius XI honored the Grahams "for their contributions to church and humanity by introduction into the Roman Catholic Order of St. Gregory the Great." In turn, the brothers bestowed a LeBaron town car upon his Popefulness, which was later displayed at the Vatican Carriage Museum.

In 1930, the brothers decided that their cars should be known as Grahams, rather than Graham-Paiges. They were going to use the name Paige for a line of trucks. However according to detroit1701, as they developed their truck Walter Chrysler had to remind the Graham brothers that when they severed their connection with Dodge, part of the deal was that they promised to stay out of the truck business for five years.

Though the company continued to be a strong performer in the design and engineering department, the Great Depression took a toll, and production dropped to 12,967 units for 1932. Ray Graham eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide, but Joe and Robert continued on.

According to the book The Automobile in America by Stephen Sears, there was an attempt in 1934-35 to merge the Great Depression-afflicted marques Reo, Hupp, Graham, Pierce-Arrow, and Auburn in order to consolidate and strengthen them, but the idea "came to nothing." Nonetheless in 1934, Graham introduced supercharging for the first time on a medium-priced car.

Graham also was a pace-setter when they were in the vanguard of carmakers experimenting with "streamlining" in automobile design, the idea of rounding off the hard corners found on the typical 1920s car. Reo and Pierce-Arrow also pioneered this, and the "shark-nosed," supercharged 1938 Graham won acclaim in gas economy trials as well as for its ostentatious art-deco styling, but they were all outshone however when Chrysler introduced its landmark "Airflow" design.

Unfortunately, though these pioneering styles were quite the attention-getters they may have been a little ahead of their time, and a conservative public showed lukewarm interest in owning a flashy car with high style, at least until after the Depression was over. Remember, people were still throwing rocks at rich people's fancy cars back then, so it was wise to drive something plain-jane.

In 1937 Graham also introduced the Graham-Bradley farm tractor, for distribution by Montgomery Ward's.

Despite its confounded sales figures, the Graham "Sharknose" was still extremely influential on the hearts and minds of an easily-dazzled (but shallow-walleted) Depression-weary public. Even if car buyers couldn't quite make the leap to purchase one, many still thought the "Sharknose" was just the sexiest thing they had ever seen, and it exemplified the Art-Deco concept of motion--it looked like it was going fast even when it was standing still (actually I believe the company itself called the car the "Spirit of Motion," not the "Sharknose"...that is probably a word the public came up with).

There is even a convincing argument that the 1938 Graham could have served as the inspiration for the first Batmobile in the original Batman comic in 1941, and it appears as though the "shark nose" concept also made its way into railroad styling as well, with the futuristic Pennsylvania Railroad's T1 locomotive, which debuted shortly after the '38 Graham.

Though the aforementioned super-merger of 1934-35 failed, there was still a merger attempted later between Hupp and Graham-Paige that resulted in actual car production. The result, apparently, was the Hupmobile Skylark:
At first blush, the Skylark looks like a 1936-1937 Cord 810 or 812 sedan, which is not surprising. The prototype Skylark built by Hupp was made from an unfinished Cord body acquired by Hupp from the receivers of the bankrupt Auburn Automobile Company. 

"What prompted a formerly respected, long-term auto manufacturer to introduce a car copied from a three-year-old design of a defunct car company?" According to Hupmobile's Last Stand, virtually all independent auto manufacturers closed their doors during the Great Depression, and Hupmobile and Graham-Paige just barely survived into late 1940, so it made sense to attempt a merger in order to stay in existence.

At first Hupp's execs were not happy with the design, which was too heavily dependent on the "Cord look," so they hired John Tjaarda (designer of the famous Lincoln Zephyr) to redo the front end. When it debuted at the 1939 Detroit Auto Show, it was a big hit. Unfortunately, the Skylark was dogged with manufacturing complexities that slowed production to a crawl, hurting sales.

Hupp's body work had always been supplied by the Hayes Body Corp. in Grand Rapids, and they found working with the leftover Cord dies to be tedious; then there was of course the added cost of shipping the bodies from Grand Rapids to Hupp's Detroit plant for completion.

So the Grahams offered to help Hupmobile out by allowing the Skylark to be built in this plant for a small royalty under a simplified, cost-saving plan. All of Hayes Body's tooling for the Skylark was moved here into this plant and a new assembly line was set up.

Part of the deal was that Graham-Paige would be allowed to build a knockoff of the Skylark under their own name, called the "Hollywood." This more conservative model would hopefully offset the losses suffered from the lack of sales for Graham's ostentatious shark-nose.

Unfortunately it took so long to set all this up that by 1940 when cars were finally rolling off the line, the initial consumer excitement over the Skylark had faded. Hupmobile was forced to fold, and Graham-Paige was forced to take another financial hit.

The future wasn't looking good at all for Graham, but the declaration of war in 1941 at least promised their temporary survival via war contracts. Which is where the story of this plant takes another interesting and historic turn.

According to the book All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit, by Frank and Arthur Woodford, the gears of wartime production "began to mesh" about a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor even occurred. William Knudsen, then-president of General Motors, became the chairman of the U.S. National Defense Council, which was tasked with coordinating manufacturing efforts between the war department and the various captains of industry. He was eventually made a Lieutenant General in the army, because military men were often loathe to take orders from a civilian.

At any rate, it was key that he find out which manufacturers were best suited to what specific manufacturing tasks the military needed fulfilled in order to most efficiently begin war production. The solution to this was worked out by Knudsen and a famous pilot by the name of James Doolittle. They decided that the easiest way to do it was to lay out an exhibit with examples of each and every item that the military needed produced, and the heads of the many Detroit auto-makers and suppliers would then peruse the display and figure out what items their company could mass produce.

This "sort of museum display," as Woodford & Woodford termed it, was set up in this very plant, at 8505 West Warren. The representatives of over 1,500 industrial manufacturers then came to peruse the display, to choose which parts they could produce for the military at their plants. Lieutenant General Doolittle then went on to conduct the historic "Doolittle Raid," the first American counterattack on Japan, and Detroit went on to earn the title as the "Arsenal of Democracy."

The MotorCities says that the first actual war work that took place in this plant was in 1941 under Chrysler, who leased 600,000 square feet of the plant for producing airplane fuselages. Which leaves about 400,000 or so square feet of the plant that I must assume Graham-Paige itself used for war work. The Detroit Historical Society lists them as producing "Articulating rods, connecting rods, cylinder heads, valve assemblies, cartridge guide plates, operating levers," and a breech housing for machine guns.

According to a guide to Michigan tourism compiled by the WPA Writers' Program, that year (probably before the onset of war) the plant held tours at 10am and 2pm, occupied a 45 acre site, had the capacity to manufacture 33,341 vehicles per year, and employed a peak of 3,500 men.

Here are some c.1930s aerial shots from the Wayne State Virtual Motor City Collection, showing the plant's full extent: 12.

According to, Chrysler was assigned to build sections of the B-26 Marauder (the nose and center fuselage) in this plant in 1942, despite the inherent size constraints of the structure (namely ceiling height). Nonetheless Chrysler was all fired up and banged out the first order well ahead of schedule, prompting the Air Force to ask the plant to restrict production to only 65 sets per month.

The Army changed the pattern of the B-26's wing flaps and moved their production to this plant as well. Also in 1942, Curtiss-Wright asked Chrysler to build the foundation structure of the Navy's fastest and strongest dive bomber, the Helldiver. Chrysler built the right half of the Helldiver in this plant, while the left half was stamped in their Highland Park plant.

In 1943 the plants changed over to producing the new B-29 Superfortress, and assigned Chrysler the contract for the pressurized nose section, leading edges, and engine cowlings. The problem was that the B-29's nose was too large to fit in the plant, so Chrysler cut some of the bracing from the roof trusses and dug trenches to lower the level of the factory floor, but even then the nose piece had to stay between the cuts in the roof girders in order to fit down the assembly line.

Graham-Paige Corp. did not have plans to resume domestic automotive production after the close of WWII, but according to the book The Technology Century, in August of 1944 Joseph Graham sold a large share of his company's stock to Joe Frazer (the former head of Willys-Overland), who was made chairman of the board, and hired Howard Darrin to design a new car for postwar production. 

The book American Cars, 1946-1959 by J. Kelly Flory, Jr. says that in 1946 Graham and Frazer were approached by "famed ship builder" Henry J. Kaiser about combining efforts and producing a car. This came to life as the Kaiser-Fraser Corp. Originally the Kaiser was to be made in California and the Frazer was to be made at this plant, according to Robert Szudarek, but the UAW convinced them to build both marques side-by-side at the cavernous Willow Run Bomber Plant, which had been idle since the war ended.

Unfortunately Graham-Paige was to lose a great deal of its corporate identity in the shadow of its partners in this merger according to, even though it was the Graham designers who put in a great deal of the work for the initial 1946 model. That first Kaiser-Frazer car was a big success, but the public had already forgotten about the Graham-Paige name. Eventually the Grahams found that they were unable to produce the needed one-third of the capital to hold up their end of the Willow Run expenses, and backed out of the deal.

That was still not the end of the company however; in 1947 the Graham-Paige firm "returned to its roots," as an investment firm specializing in real estate. It was well known as the owner of New York's Madison Square Garden, as well as the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks sports franchises. Graham-Paige was eventually bought out by other investors and its descendents are now included in the present day Viacom empire.

The former Graham-Paige plant at 8505 Warren Avenue was initially to be leased to the government as collateral for their use of the Willow Run Plant, but it was instead sold to Chrysler Corp. in 1947 who set it up for use by their DeSoto division, whose main plant was nearby at 9400 McGraw. I am not sure if the two plants were connected by a rail spur, but they plausibly could have been at that time.

I have been informed however by a reader versed in Kaiser-Frazer history that the reason the government wanted to lease this plant from them was not for loan security on Kaiser-Frazer's use of Willow Run, but because they "needed a place to collect and show their surplus production equipment to prospective buyers after the war." Because car production was consolidated at Willow Run, "this plant was vacant so K-F leased it to the government to fill that need for a warehouse / showroom," he says. The book Built To Better The Best by Jack Mueller backs this up.

Anyway, Chrysler's acquisition of the Graham-Paige plant may, as a matter of fact, have presaged the Chrysler family's sale of their famed landmark Chrysler Building in Manhattan, which took place immediately afterward.

By 1959, J. Kelly Flory, Jr. notes, DeSoto sales were falling despite its epic tailfins, and production was moved to Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant. Imperial production was then moved into the old DeSoto plant on Warren. To curb costs, Chrysler Corp. merged its divisions as follows: Plymouth-DeSoto, Dodge, and Chrysler-Imperial.

The MotorCities indicates that in 1960 when DeSoto production in this plant ended, Imperial production began--and it was a finned beast of equally grotesque proportions. In fact there is a promotional photo of the 1960 Imperials on the assembly line, which is captioned, "America's Most Carefully Built Car." That photo seems to have been taken from this spot:

The 1960 Imperials were one of the most important cars that Chrysler ever launched; at the end of the 1950s the corporation's sales had suffered due to problems with build quality in their cars, and they needed to do something big and bold to regain customers. The Imperial, billed as an ultra-luxury offering, was their ticket to getting back an image of quality, and that "America's Most Carefully Built Car" line was no idle slogan.

If Chrysler didn't wow the market with this new model year, they could be in serious trouble. They needed the Imperial to put them in competition with the Cadillac and Lincoln products of GM and Ford. With Packard finally out of the way in 1958, Chrysler had a niche to fit into, but those were some pretty big shoes to fill.

A detailed article on says that when the decision was made to headquarter the Imperial here, this plant had not been set up to assemble complete automobiles since the Graham Hollywoods were discontinued in September 1940, so "everything inside the plant had to be redone. This included the installation of a modern assembly line, nearly four miles of conveyor systems, an up-to-date body shop, and six paint ovens."
With an enclosed area of more than 1 million square feet and a work force of 2,000 employees, the revamped plant had a capacity of a leisurely 27 cars an hour -- about 52,000 units a year based on a single eight-hour shift. Beginning with the 1959 model year, Imperials began rolling out of Warren Avenue.
Imperial's prospects looked good; production, however, was faltering. Just 16,133 units were built in the 1958 model year, followed by an equally discouraging 17,269 cars in 1959. The weak showing in '58 was attributed to the economic recession, and production of '59s was hindered by strikes at steel and glass suppliers. But sooner or later, Imperial had to make good on its promise.

Unfortunately, though the 1960 model was received well, the 1961 was not able to keep the positive momentum going. The '61 Imperial debuted essentially the same finny styling warmed-over from the previous year, at a time when the tailfin was jumping the shark so to speak, and the rest of the carmakers were getting rid of them.

Lincoln on the other hand came out with a very clean look that year, and it devastated Imperial sales. Rumor had it that one Texas dealer had the tailfins literally sawed off of his '61 Imperials to help them sell. For whatever reason the Imperial production line here at Warren Avenue was struggling continually, operating at one-quarter of its capacity.

This spelled the end of Chrysler's bid to turn the Imperial into a contender for Packard's old spot, and it was returned to regular production at the East Jefferson Avenue plant.

This plant was closed in December of 1961 and sold off.

Portions of it later became Arlan's Department Store, and the home of Shatila Foods (who operate the popular Arabic bakery nearby), though most of it has stood vacant for many years.

The astute reader will note that there was also an Arlan's location in Building 27 of the old Packard Plant in Detroit.

All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit, by Frank Bury Woodford, Arthur M. Woodford, p. 336-337
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by Robert Szudarek, p. 189, 354, & 358
The Technology Century, the Engineering Society of Detroit, edited by Mike Davis, p. 66 & 74
Built to Better the Best: The Kaizer-Frazer Corporation History, by Jack Mueller, p. 12
The Automobile in America, by Stephen W. Sears, p. 237 & 246
The History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Vol. II, by Clarence M. Burton, p. 1378
The Architectural Record, December, 1920, p. 85
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Vol. 77 (1946)
Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, by Matt Dellinger, p. 12

Note: If you're wondering why I have not referenced the two-volume book set The Graham Legacy by Michael Keller for this post, it is because: (a) it is out of print and costs over $100 on Amazon, (b) the nearest library copy resides at University of Michigan (a 90-mile round trip for me), and finally (c) because Mr. Keller actually contacted me recently by sending a rather rude series of emails berating my character and accusing me of deliberately distorting Graham-Paige history, because I did not consult his books.

Naturally I sought to do the best job on this post as I could with what sources I was able to get ahold of, but in our discussions Mr. Keller (who apparently was unable to grasp that this blog is "armchair history," as clearly explained in my FAQ section) essentially refused to be of any assistance on correcting any of the alleged errors he accused me of, despite claiming initially that he would help me fix them. I have corrected errors to my posts before and continue to do so. I remain open to suggested corrections at, or by commenting below:


  1. Just have one correction for you. William Knudsen wasn't nicknamed "Bunkie", his son Semon was. Awesome post btw.


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