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.
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.