Is Detroit Still the Motor City?

This story starts at the beginning of the twentieth century. Henry Ford and Ransom Olds had relocated to Detroit from elsewhere in Michigan. The Model T was in production on Ford’s newfangled assembly line. The auto industry had become the heart and soul of the city. And it was flourishing.

In 1915, 13 of the country’s 15 most popular car brands were based in Detroit. Parts suppliers and skilled laborers followed the largest manufacturers there, making it hard for companies outside the city to compete. It was the undisputed automotive capital of the world.

Household names were born: Ransom Olds, Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, David Dunbar Buick, Walter Chrysler and the French explorer who founded the city, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. The cars that bear their names were becoming part of everyday American life.

By 1950, residents held nearly 350,000 auto manufacturing jobs and Detroit had been dubbed (for obvious reasons) The Motor City. The population reached 1.85 million making it the fourth largest city in the country. It was the golden age of the automobile, the glory days of Detroit. American incomes were rising and the population was growing. Everyone was driving. Including women. Americans had become two-car families. Optimism was at an all-time high. It was beautiful.

Then came the fall. It was gradual but ugly.

For the next 60 years, auto sales began to slowly decline. The ’70s ushered in the oil crisis, gas shortages and the high cost of gas. People wanted smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. And Americans fell out of love with American-made and fell hard for the foreign-made car. Production nearly ground to a halt, and car companies moved their plants to other locations, both in and out of the U.S. Many American companies outsourced to Japan or moved to Mexico. Buying American wasn’t as easy as it had been in the ’50s.

In 2006, Consumer Reports reported the 10 best cars, all Japanese-built.

The “Big 3” automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) who had rightfully taken credit for building Detroit into a grand city, were also responsible for bringing the city to its knees.

Both General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 2009. In 2013 the city of Detroit followed with the largest municipal bankruptcy to date: $18 billion. And like an old car, the glow on the auto industry was gone. In 2012, less than 27,000 were employed by the Detroit auto industry. The city arose from bankruptcy in 2014 but today, with only 680,000 city residents, devastating financial struggles are still the norm.

In the north end of the city, the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant closed, permanently ending a 22-year run of the Dodge Viper, a car built mostly by hand. The 51-year old plant was renamed The Conner Center and today is used as a meeting and event space, including a 77,000 square feet museum displaying historic vehicles from Chrysler, Fiat and other cars under the Fiat-Chrysler company umbrella. Across the museum, you’ll find the retro-concept Chrysler Atlantic and antique vehicles like an early Willys and the ’41 Indy Pacemaker car, the Chrysler Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton. A 1902 Rambler is the oldest model in the collection, and the ’24 Chrysler Touring, the first vehicle to sport the Chrysler nameplate, is one of the most significant. The last Viper off the assembly line, red with chrome wheels, has also joined the heritage collection.

Thanks to a short-term $15-billion government bailout, Chrysler had the funds to invest $1.8 billion in a new vehicle. The Grand Cherokee was already primed for production, so Chrysler decided to bet on it. Skilled veteran workers were available to jump right in.

The Jefferson North Chrysler assembly plant is a sign that Detroit is getting back on its feet. It employs more than 4,600 workers, assembling cars 24-hours a day, 6-days a week, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, one of the most profitable and popular vehicles on the market. Generating about $2-billion in annual profits, the vehicle is now the cornerstone of the Chrysler company, today the country’s third-largest automaker.

On August 13, 2013, Jefferson North employees celebrated the five millionth vehicle to roll off the line, a Billet Silver 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was donated to the USO.

The 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a 4 ½ star rating by Car and Driver magazine who calls it, “The most well rounded and most capable off-road in a crowded segment.”

Today, although surrounded by boarded-up homes and shops riddled with graffiti, and empty lots, overgrown with grass and weeds, the Jefferson North Chrysler plant is one of the most modern, successful auto factories in the world. As Detroit struggles to bounce back, its once beautiful, peaceful suburbs contain rows of empty, burnt-out homes with broken windows, scoured by scavengers. A section of Detroit, almost a third, about the size of San Francisco, has been abandoned.

There are strong signs of revival. But is it enough to bring the city back to its original glory?


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