Wins & Losses

Jim Fets

Automotive journalism’s most prestigious award is named for Ken Purdy, the author of the seminal 1949 automotive book “Kings of the Road.” Purdy was editor of Parade and True in the 1940s and ‘50s before he became a freelance writer who contributed both fiction short stories and automotive pieces to Playboy magazine. The winner of the International Motor Press Association’s 2013 Ken Purdy Award is contributing writer Lawrence Ulrich, for this feature story, first published in the November 2012 issue of Automobile.

The judges said this about Lawrence's feature: "The road trip is an all-too-familiar journey for automotive writers that frequently dead-ends in truisms and cliche. But Lawrence Ulrich weaves nostalgia for the past with a realistic understanding of the economics of the present into a rich account of a city and an industry. With a deft touch, Ulrich allows the car he is driving play a supporting role to memories from his youth and his thoughts about the future."

We almost lost Detroit.

And with it, dozens of other cities, from Belvidere, Illinois, and Lordstown, Ohio, to Claycomo, Missouri, and Bowling Green, Kentucky. The last is home to the Chevrolet Corvette, the very symbol of American sports cars, which is now blowing out sixty candles in the form of the Corvette 427.

The fact that the Corvette can deliver a lustful, Viagra-free performance at age sixty -- and that the Big Three are minting money and hiring again -- seems worth celebrating, whatever your opinion of the $80 billion government rescue of the homegrown industry. What Detroit does with its umpteenth and perhaps final shot at redemption will determine whether American cars like the Vette are still around twenty years from now. (You think losing Mercury and Oldsmobile and Plymouth and Pontiac was sad? Imagine the funeral for the Corvette.)

So instead of catching Sun Belt rays in this convertible version of the Z06, I chose to make a pilgrimage through the Rust Belt. This is a homecoming of sorts, including the Detroit where I grew up and walked into an automotive factory, like my grandfather, father, and brother before me.

That's "Detroit" in all its usages: The city and the largely blue-collar denizens that the name instantly conjures. The industry that has nurtured those people, bitch-slapped them, and broken their hearts, depending on its mood. And, finally, a nation of domestic manufacturers, suppliers, admen, dealers, body shops, diners, and strip clubs on the factory margins -- "Detroit" being the deceptive shorthand for the whole shebang -- that still get a cold when this Midwestern city sneezes.

Detroit isn't known for strong first impressions. San Francisco has the Golden Gate, Saint Louis the Arch. Motown has the Tire, an eighty-foot roadside monstrosity built from the 1964 New York World's Fair Ferris wheel. Its rubberesque facade greets visitors as they navigate chuckholes along the eastbound Ford Freeway (I-94).

This towering Uniroyal also greets the national media when it parachutes into town, working one of two angles. There's the urban handwringer, the northern version of the post-Katrina New Orleans potboiler, bubbling with barely concealed schadenfreude: Aren't you glad you don't live here? Next, the equally suspect "comeback" story, a blinkered, desperate mission to photograph a new restaurant or neon-lit anything to show that Detroit is trendy and mend-y again. For either story, the acceptable adjective to describe the city is "gritty," which is a nice way of saying "hellhole."

Fortunately, the Corvette is waiting for me at the airport curb, a marketing move that tourist boards might consider to lure folks from, well, New Orleans. The Chevy's first impression is stronger, with the flare-hipped body from the Z06 and its 505-hp, 7.0-liter V-8, rebranded here as the 427 for maximum, big-block 1960s nostalgia. (The LS7's displacement actually rounds up to 428 but is close enough for Boomer rock 'n' roll.)

Just in time for the torch-passing to a seventh generation, General Motors has finally gifted a C6 convertible with everything you ever wanted from the Z06 coupe, including its rear axle, six-speed manual transmission (no automatic here), and river-wide, twenty-inch rear wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport tires.

Standard Magnetic Selective Ride Control comes in handy throughout the journey, smoothing cratered Michigan pavement in a way that a cash-strapped city and state cannot. And although I lived in Detroit's shattered, spookily lifeless downtown for years, for now I do what most visitors do: head for the suburbs.

Since the 1967 riots that sent whites fleeing and accelerated the city's decline, the region's gospel has been that the suburbs could thrive despite the cancerous cell at its core. Ignoring that inner-city disease or its treatments, in part by shunning anyone and anything south of 8 Mile Road -- the famous, Eminem-enhanced demarcation line between city and suburb -- became a way of life for suburbanites. For decades, it mostly worked, even as foreign competitors ate the Big Three's lunch and market share.

Not anymore. Even for a region that greets boom-and-bust cycles as stoically as sunrise and sunset, this time feels different. Michigan's double-digit unemployment rate has eased to 9.0 percent, barely above the national mean, thanks in part to new jobs from the industry's ongoing turnaround. Automakers and suppliers have added 200,000 new jobs nationally since the bailout, with more on the way.

But there's a disconnect between the cold numbers and what things actually feel like in Detroit. The old middle-class compact seems broken, the old saws dulled. If what was good for General Motors was good for the country, that went tenfold for Detroit. Today's cruel reality is that "success" for GM -- or any automaker -- can mean shuttling jobs out of town or overseas faster than you can say "tax break" or "cheap labor." Volkswagen spurned the government graft from Michigan, Alabama, and other states, going with Tennessee's winning bid of $577 million in tax breaks to build a $1 billion Passat plant, where the nonunionized beginning hourly wage is $14.50.

Such pay is roughly on par with the lower of the two-tier wages that the United Auto Workers reluctantly swallowed to help Detroit compete. UAW newbies earn from $15.80 to $17.50 an hour, or about $500 a week take-home -- often not enough to afford the new cars they help to build. Currently, the base wage covers only about 9000 of the Big Three's 118,000 hourly workers nationwide. The rest earn nearly double that. (Even world-class cost-cutter Sergio Marchionne, who leads Chrysler and Fiat, views a two-tier pay scale as unworkable in the long term because of the morale-busting illogic of paying two employees such disparate wages to do the same job.)

And, of course, the automation that revolutionized carmaking requires fewer human hands. My own grandfather toiled at the old Dodge Main plant -- and had the missing fingers to show for it. The factory, located in the Polish enclave of Hamtramck, employed 40,000 people during World War II. Today, GM's Hamtramck facility builds the Chevy Volt with some 1300 workers and recently made news by announcing 200 new jobs to build the 2013 Malibu.

I rumble the Chevy through enemy territory, past the fabled Rouge Assembly Plant in Ford's hometown of Dearborn. In its '30s heyday, the Rouge employed 100,000 people, including 5000 just to clean, paint, and maintain the joint. These days, the entire Rouge complex employs 5700 people, including just 3200 to assemble the F-150. A $2 billion green showcase, the modern Rouge was the nation's biggest-ever industrial revitalization project -- and it is Ford's largest American plant. And while the Detroit Three have added 6500 jobs in Michigan since 2009 and may add 5000 more next year, that's a drop in a tearful bucket of more than 400,000 unemployed Michiganders. As in the rest of the nation, many of those unemployed have been out of work for years, exhausting benefits and hope, falling from the middle class in a national disaster that you'd think would be front-and-center in the current presidential race.

I bring this up at a rendezvous in Birmingham, as chichi a suburb as exists around here, with Jerry Burton. He's approaching thirty years with Campbell-Ewald, the local ad agency that in 2010 got its own life-altering pink slip: it lost the Chevrolet account it had managed since 1919, an unheard-of streak in the fickle ad business. In the go-go days, Burton created the famous "Heartbeat of America" slogan for Chevy, an account worth $800 million a year. Burton also looms large in the Corvette world as a confidante and biographer of the late Zora Arkus-Duntov. That Russian-born engineer and racer transformed the Vette from a wimpy fashion accessory to a legitimate sports car, flying one across the Daytona sand at more than 150 mph in 1956, creating Detroit's first fuel-injected car with the '57 model, defying the GM corporate ban on racing that he saw as critical to the Vette's competitiveness. Until the day he retired in 1975, Duntov fought to switch the Corvette to a mid-engine design, and while details of next year's C7 remain tantalizingly vague, this much we know: nothing so revolutionary as a mid-engine layout is in the works.

For me, Burton will forever be the man who gave me my first break as an auto writer, with the Corvette Quarterly magazine he had founded. Burton still recalls April 26, 2010, when Campbell-Ewald gathered employees in a parking lot to announce that its biggest account was gone. About 300 people were laid off, and many have drifted away or retired, Burton says, unable to find work. We talk about things our parents and grandparents had; the days when even line workers could afford a modest cottage "up north" or a muscle car for the weekend.

"For a lot of people here, it's become hand-to-mouth living," Burton says. "They're not worried about vacations and boats anymore, just a roof over their heads and getting their kids through school."

Leaving Birmingham, I soothe myself with a few stoplight brawls -- easy knockouts for this torqued-up brute -- on Woodward Avenue. That's the famed strip where another adman, the drag-racing Jim Wangers, first burned muscle cars such as John De Lorean's Pontiac GTO into America's consciousness. I buzz up to Pontiac proper, past my old, sturdy Tudor in the city's Seminole Hills historic district. Like nearby Flint, Pontiac is another gone-to-seed manufacturing town, having lost much of what forged its identity: its bustling factories and an entire automotive brand. Even the Detroit Lions ditched the city for new digs in downtown Detroit, leaving its inflatable eyesore of a stadium to rot. Pontiac auctioned that Silverdome for $583,000 in 2009, about the price of a one-bedroom apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I live today.

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Richard Edwards
I lived in Detroit in the late 70s and visited in 2002. It reminded me of Pottersville in "It's A Wonderful Life". I was sad.
Robert Wantin
Fantastic read. I returned to the area a couple of years ago, and this captures part of what I missed so much. It is good to be home.

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