“This is the best-selling vehicle. This is the crown jewel,” says Douglas Plond, operations manager of the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn, as he stands on a walkway above the busy plant floor. The maze of orange and yellow beams, clattering pulleys, tracks, levers, gears and humans form an industrial ballet that produces 1,300 Ford F-150 trucks per day.

The Ford Rouge Factory Tour is Michigan’s only automotive factory tour—and a chance to see the beefy F-150 truck being built before your eyes.

The self-guided tour attracts 140,000 people annually. Visitors may linger as long as they wish on the one-third-mile elevated walkway, to watch trucks being born. Some don’t want to leave.

“We get people who stay here all morning or afternoon,” Plond says. Sometimes, staff must prod visitors out the door at the end of the day.

The Rouge tour is the most iconic, and one of only six vehicle factory tours in the U.S. (The others are Corvette and Toyota in Kentucky, Subaru in Indiana and Mercedes and Hyundai in Alabama.)

For decades, starting in 1924, the Rouge offered gritty tours of the busy complex on the Rouge River, near its confluence with the Detroit River just west of the Detroit city limits. Those tours ended in 1980. Fortunately, the company built a visitors’ center next to its new Dearborn Truck Plant at the Rouge in 2003, and reignited the tours. They operate in partnership with the nearby indoor/outdoor museum complex named for its founder, Henry Ford.

“I see us as a place that you need to see to understand what goes into making a vehicle,” Plond says. “[Ford Executive Chairman] Bill Ford, Jr. wanted to show the revitalization of this area. It’s an historic site, and they wanted to share it with everyone.”

It takes six hours for an F-150 to be built, start to finish. One rolls off the line every 52 seconds, and the line rarely stops. Glistening aluminum truck cabs, doors and boxes—painted white, black, red and silver— slowly move on tidy lines as workers install trim, doors, glass and more. Natural light floods in through high windows. Bright lamps shine down from above. That is part of the ergonomic design to make the factory comfortable for workers. Compared to decades past, the line is quiet and clean. The plant has about 4,000 employees.

Visitors may expect to see robots on the assembly line, but in the final-assembly department featured on the tour, they are not as prevalent as in the unseen stamping, paint and body departments. Instead, visitors see workers using robots for heavy lifting, checking rivets and other tasks, while humans assemble the complicated pieces. (And unlike robots, workers sometimes wave to children who are watching from above.)

The assembly line is the fourth stop on the Rouge tour. Visitors begin at the Henry Ford Museum visitors center, where they board a bus for a 15-minute ride to the factory. Then they see a short film about Ford Motor Company and its founder, Henry Ford, who revolutionized vehicle production.

Next is the multi-media Manufacturing Innovation Theater. Its explanation of how the F-150 is built includes jazzy flashing lights, lasers, pulsing music and the misty emergence of a completed vehicle.

After that, you visit the roof. It seems like an odd stop for a factory tour, but the 10-and-a-half-acre roof is Ford’s pride and joy. When constructed, it was the largest “living” roof in the world, covered with a plant called sedum, which absorbs heat and rainwater. It offers a vista of the entire Rouge complex, which opened in the 1920s. At one time—as illustrated in the 1947 photo above left— it was full of smokestacks belching fumes—but no more.

After visiting the assembly line, visitors exit through a lobby full of famous vehicles produced at the Ford Rouge complex. The 1929 Model A, 1956 Thunderbird and 1965 Mustang glisten like sweet sisters compared to the tough, glowering F-150 on display across the room.

“Even if you’re not a truck lover, there’s something for everyone,” Plond says. “This is about science, engineering, the environment.”

And history. Don’t forget history.

Car Talk

Tours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Plan to spend two or three hours. The tour is geared to adults and children fourth grade and older.

Tickets and Information: thehenryford.org

Tip: To ensure the assembly line is operating the day you plan to visit, check the website for a list of non-production days—and avoid those.

FUN FACT:  Mexican artist Diego Rivera studied the Rouge operation for his “Detroit Industry” murals that cover four walls of the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The monumental work was completed in 1933.


This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

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Author

Ellen Creager lives in metro Detroit and writes about Michigan travel destinations and other cultural topics. She is author of a new four-book series, “One Nation For All: Immigrants in the United States.”

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