Final Inspection

The Motor City Is Still the Motor City

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Cars and SUVs still are manufactured in the beleaguered city, which is emerging from bankruptcy and whose population has sunk to under 700,000, one-third that of its heyday in the 1950s.

A few days ago, I drove through Pontiac, MI, 25 miles (40 km) north of Detroit, where General Motors used to produce and engineer trucks. Much of the land is vacant and derelict.

I also drove by the former Ford Wixom assembly plant, 35 miles (56 km) west of Detroit, where Lincolns once were built. It closed in 2007 and was leveled last year. It’s now littered with concrete slabs and metal, getting ready for a new life as an RV center.

Cruising on Detroit’s east side, I passed the former home of Packard Motor, closed since 1957 and now acclaimed worldwide as the best surviving example of urban decay – a massive wasteland of tangled metal, broken brick and graffiti. It recently was purchased by a Peruvian businessman who vows to rehab it. Good luck, senõr.

Automotive plant closings are nothing new, of course. They are shuttered for a variety of reasons, including age, slipping market share, new ownership and so forth. U.S. automakers once operated nine assembly plants in California, for example. Only one survives: a former GM plant in Fremont, which went on to become a now-dormant GM/Toyota joint venture – New United Motor Manufacturing. It’s now the new home for luxury EV car maker Tesla.

For some reason, however, it’s generally thought the city of Detroit has been taking all the hits. But it’s simply not so: The Motor City is Still the Motor City.

Why? Because cars and SUVs still are manufactured in the beleaguered city, which is emerging from bankruptcy and whose population has sunk to under 700,000, one-third that of its heyday in the 1950s.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is the city’s largest-volume vehicle manufacturer. Based on WardsAuto data, the company in 2013 built 331,402 Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees at its Detroit Jefferson North Assembly plant, which opened in 1991.

GM’s Detroit/Hamtramck assembly plant, dating to 1985, produced only 73,466 cars last year, including the Chevrolet Impala and Malibu, and 22,507 Chevy Volt extended-range EVs. Clearly it has plenty of capacity to take on more work.

If you go not far beyond the city limits and include metro Detroit, the assembly pace soars into the millions.

In Dearborn on Detroit’s western border, Ford produced 357,927 F-150 pickups, the nation’s best-selling vehicle, in 2013. Further west in Wayne, Ford assembled 292,809 Focus models and 38,532 C-Max CUVs. In Flat Rock, 25 miles (40 km) south of Detroit, the No.2 U.S. automaker built 88,020 Mustangs and 29,277 Fusions last year.

FCA also has major facilities nearby. In Warren on Detroit’s northern border, it built 291,554 Ram pickups last year. A few miles north in Sterling Heights, FCA produced 129,685 Chrysler 200s and 121,944 Dodge Avengers in 2013.

If you include Windsor, ON, Canada, just across the Detroit River, FCA produced 326,877 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan minivans and derivatives there last year.

Stretching 60 miles (97 km) south, the company built 295,997 Jeeps in Toledo, OH, in 2013. The Toledo complex opened in 1997.

GM continues to make cars and trucks in Flint and Lansing, MI, where it has maintained a presence for more than 100 years.

However, its Orion plant 30 miles (48 km) north of Detroit is its closest to the city, other than Detroit/Hamtramck. GM manufactures the Buick Verano (53,646 in 2013) and Chevy Sonic (94,038) at the sprawling plant.

Orion opened in 1983 on a former country grass-strip airport. It’s only 5 miles (8 km) from Pontiac.

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

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