I spend the evening on the east side with a lifelong friend, a Chrysler worker whose son is just heading to college. The son and his friends are duly impressed with the 427 and the shotgun-blast V-8 that I rev for everyone's benefit. I find myself hoping they'll have the opportunity to own a similar car someday.
Morning brings a tour of Jefferson Avenue, a concrete microcosm of the city and its troubling divisions. It carves south along Lake Saint Clair through suburbs thick with postwar tract housing that harbored fleeing Detroiters. The city's population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950, dropped below a million by 2000, and didn't even meet the worst predictions when it plummeted to 713,777 just ten years later.
Jefferson Avenue briefly moves up a class to become Lake Shore Drive through the Grosse Pointes, the old-money paradise where the auto barons held sway, including the Cotswold-cottage-style Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. Yet even in one of America's most graceful locales, for-sale signs and plummeting home values have dented the Stepford-wife imperviousness to reality.
And that's directly related to what happens when the Corvette enters Detroit at Alter Road, possibly America's most literal intersection between rich and poor. In the time it takes the Corvette to hit second gear, broad mansions are replaced by the urban-porn blight and return-to-prairie landscape that have become Detroit's signature curse -- so surreal that it's like being wrenched into a new dream in Inception. Only this time, it's real.
Amid this squalor, this snow-white Corvette -- wearing optional sixtieth-anniversary trim and decal stripes -- looks fairly obscene, as out of place as a Rolls-Royce in the slums of Mumbai. On an otherwise deserted street, a large man pedals a two-place bicycle in the stuporous heat.
"Nice car, man," he says, with real sincerity.
Yet as with every sports car -- these are flush-times toys, after all -- the mighty Corvette couldn't outrun the recession. In 2005 and 2006, the C6 was purring along at about 37,000 sales a year, its best performances since 1985. Then the bottom dropped out. The Corvette tumbled to 13,934 sales by 2009, its second-worst showing since 1961. Sales have limped along ever since.
Rocking performance aside, it's hard to be optimistic about shell-shocked Detroiters shelling out $91,320 for this Corvette, or even its base fare of $76,900. That ticket includes an interior "luxury" package whose features, and gut-clenching $9500 price, can't hide the paucity inside: Thin leather papered over the dash. Flimsy seats as well-bolstered as a whoopee cushion and roughly as embarrassing to sit on.
No, the C7 can't get here soon enough. And we can pray that C7 designers have the wherewithal to bring the cabin up to par with the rest of this marvelous machine. For GM, however, the bigger issue is that Corvettes, especially higher-end models, may be pushing the limits of a traditional Boomer audience. This is a Heartland sports car, the aspiration of successful people -- including many whose paychecks involve the auto industry -- with blue-collar roots and Midwestern values. If those people don't have the jobs, money, or confidence to splurge on a sports car, who will be left to buy a Corvette? (In this climate, it's no surprise that the relatively affordable and practical Camaro and Mustang are doing quite well.)
Just off Jefferson on Conner Avenue, we tiptoe around broken glass at the abandoned Continental Aluminum plant, a site that still reveals ruins of an older Continental Motors facility. Across the street is the Budd Company stamping plant where my father worked. It was dismantled around 2007 after more than eighty years in business, its lines shipped to Mexico and Brazil. But next door to these sad relics is a success story, Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly, where a Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls off the line every 48 seconds. And if the Corvette wants a fair street fight, that's here, too -- workers are refurbishing tiny Conner Avenue Assembly to hatch Dodge (sorry, SRT) Vipers after a two-year hiatus.
We hang a left off Jefferson on the bridge to Belle Isle, the bedraggled, 983-acre island park (like Manhattan's Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) that sits smack in the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. Let's not forget our neighbor to the north (or south, in this case). Chrysler's massive minivan plant across the river in Windsor, Ontario, is a complex that dates to 1928.
Neglected by a broke city, Belle Isle returned the favor last June with another Detroit black eye, when IndyCar's grand prix was halted for hours of embarrassing repairs when chunks of the disintegrating surface began flying hither and yon.
At least Detroit earns an occasional spotlight, for good or ill. Smaller factory towns barely penetrate the national consciousness, dizzied by the shell game of today's global manufacturing: will they stay or will they go?
Moraine, Ohio, lost that game. The final GMC Envoy rolled off Moraine's line in 2008, done in by withered demand for old-school SUVs. Under GM's bankruptcy deal, its 2500 nonunion workers were barred from being rehired at other plants.
Lordstown, Ohio, on the other hand, gained an unlikely reprieve. The plant in northeastern Ohio was long a symbol of the worst of GM and the UAW, with virulent labor battles, imaginative employee sabotage, and forgettable small cars from the Vega to the Cavalier. In 2007, GM threatened to move small-car production to Mexico. The plant's future looked bleak when most of its 4500 workers were idled by the brutal industry slump in 2008 and again in 2009, when GM slid into bankruptcy. Roughly 70 percent of the city's tax base comes from the GM plant, fed by dozens of regional suppliers and drawing workers from as far as Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Glenn Johnson, the president of UAW Local 1112, had seen this script. The resilient folks of the Mahoning Valley, once better known as Steel Valley, had watched that industry collapse -- and virtually entire towns with it. "Recent arrivals don't know the struggles and heartache that happened here," says Johnson, whose summer job at GM turned into a thirty-five-year career. "To see it happen again would have been a catastrophe."
Today, after our stealthy cruise across the Ohio Turnpike, an enormous Chevy Cruze mural looms from the factory wall, as good a symbol of the "New GM" as any. Easily the best small sedan in company history, Lordstown's sheetmetal savior now rolls off the line on three shifts, 280,000 cars a year.
Plant manager Bob Parcell moved here from Bowling Green and seems a bit wistful about the Corvette operation he once ran. "When you're plant manager for Corvette, you're like a rock star," he recalls. "People would ask me to sign anything, their hood or engine covers."
Parcell talks about the estimated one million jobs that almost certainly would've been lost nationally had the industry gone under and the approximately nine spin-off jobs created by every auto position.
"If this place wasn't here, there'd be trouble in northeastern Ohio that ripples all the way to the Dairy Queen," he says.
Dave Green, an engaging man who's president of Lordstown's UAW Local 1714, typifies the workers you meet at today's factories: accountable, well-educated, and proud of the competitive cars they're building. "When I got here, it was like, 'You don't get paid to think, just shoot the damn screw,'" he says. "Now, if you have an idea that can save the company money, they'll listen. And we've realized that the company isn't the enemy. The enemy is the competition."
Johnson says that coworkers often keep eyes peeled for Cruzes on the streets. "Members will ask owners how they like their car or show them the part they built," he says. "I don't mind thanking people for buying our car; we're all salesmen now."
Johnson recognizes that the days when you could walk out of high school and into a guaranteed job at a plant are over. Still, "Maybe there's been a little awakening, that we still need to build things in this country."
Shooting back to Detroit, we look for hopeful signs. Like it or not, we can't forget the "foreign" automakers, which now make more than 40 percent of the cars built in America and directly employ at least 95,000 people. Hyundai and Kia have a technical center on former farmland near Ann Arbor. The Toyota Technical Center is here, too, leading its North American R&D.
The next morning, we meet Jim Tetreault, Ford's North American manufacturing chief. He's at the Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, along with the mayor (a forty-five-year retired autoworker) and union leaders. A press conference touts a $220 million investment and 225 new hires to build a new hybrid continuously variable transmission that's destined for five Ford models -- including hybrid and plug-in versions of the new Fusion and C-Max, all made in Michigan. That hyperefficient transmission replaces a weaker unit supplied from Japan. American-sourced lithium-ion batteries replace cells from Mexico.
Asked to assess the future of made-in-America, Tetreault says that UAW concessions have been critical in reducing Ford's all-in labor costs (including benefits) from $77 an hour to $58 today. "This is an expensive place to produce, and we have to somehow come together to find a way to make it work," Tetreault says.
In the evening, as ever, I'm drawn to my old stomping grounds downtown. We scalp tickets for Florence and the Machine at the Fox Theatre, a restored rococo marvel. It's among the most visible of the city's fragile charms, stubborn beacons that refuse to be snuffed: Jewel-like historic neighborhoods such as Indian Village. A terrific underground-music scene that occasionally bursts into the national limelight.
And while it's Kentucky-made, the Corvette's badass song is also bred in Detroit. Top down, the Vette delivers one last Motown blast, topping 88 mph in second gear, 122 mph in third. Whoa, that's enough -- even on a Lodge Freeway on-ramp.
At the concert, the English chanteuse Florence Welch surprises the crowd, talking about that day's visit to Detroit's Heidelberg Project. (Most visiting celebrities would be afraid to unlock their limos.) Artist Tyree Guyton's luridly decorated abandoned houses, the subject of an HBO documentary, started as a political statement and a cry in the wilderness in his withered neighborhood. Two different city mayors razed parts of the project. Yet, after twenty-six years, Heidelberg Street has become a drawing card and a symbol of a resilient, defiant Detroit -- stirring the ashes, hoping something can rise again.
"Thank you for showing us beauty where some people might say there was none," Welch says. The crowd roars. These are Detroiters, and they get the message. This city, and its people, are worth saving. Maybe other people will get that message, too.