GM Centennial: 100 Years of Manufacturing Milestones

A timeline of key engineering and manufacturing milestones from GM's first century.

General Motors Corp. (GM, Detroit) has a unique manufacturing heritage. For most of the 20th century, the company ranked as the world’s largest manufacturer. Along the way, its assembly lines have mass-produced millions of cars, trucks, tractors, tanks, refrigerators, diesel locomotives and other products.

Engineers at GM pioneered many production tools and techniques, such as the use of interchangeable parts, annual model changeover and flexible assembly lines. In addition, they played a key role in developing robots, programmable logic control, automated material handling, computer simulation, machine vision and other types of production technology.

Here’s a look at some key engineering and manufacturing milestones from the past century:

              1909
  • Billy Durant arranges to have the wooden body of a Buick Model 10 cut in half. Engineers tinker with the design and create the Oldsmobile Model 20. It was the auto industry’s first use of shared components among different brands.

              1911

  • GM becomes the first automaker listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • A centralized testing and research laboratory is established.

             1912

  • The self-starter debuts on Cadillac vehicles.
  • Walter Chrysler is named works manager at Buick and begins a series of innovations to reduce the time and cost of final assembly. He streamlines production processes at the Flint, MI, plant by eliminating wasted time and materials, making Buick cars easier to assemble.

             1918

  • Chevrolet is acquired to compete head-to-head with Ford Motor Co.
  • General Motors Canada is established.

             1919

  • GM acquires Fisher Body Corp.
  • GM’s 1 millionth vehicle is assembled.
  • A new assembly plant opens in Janesville, WI. The plant is still in operation today and is GM’s oldest production facility.

 

             1921

  • The GM Building is completed in Detroit. At the time, it was the largest office building in the world.
  • Cadillac’s Clark Street factory opens in Detroit. It is called the “most modern plant in the industry.”

             1922

  • William Knudsen joins GM and begins to pioneer the concept of flexible mass production at Chevrolet. Each plant manager becomes responsible for purchasing production equipment.

             1923

  • Alfred Sloan is named president.
  • The first GM assembly plant outside North America opens in Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Four-wheel brakes are introduced on 1924-model year Buicks.

             1924

  • GM opens the auto industry’s first proving ground in Milford, MI.
  • A new quick-drying paint process called Duco is introduced. It helps shave 20 percent off the cost of a car body and 5 percent off the total cost of a car.
  • The “car for every purse and purpose” policy is created, dividing the market into price segments ranging from Chevrolet on the low end to Cadillac on the high end.

             1925

  • GM purchases Vauxhall Motors Ltd. and establishes its first production center in Europe.

             1926

  • GM’s 5 millionth vehicle is assembled.
  • Frigidaire opens a large, state-of-the-art plant in Moraine, OH.
  • The first Pontiac car is unveiled.
  • The General Motors Institute (GMI) is established in Flint, MI.
  • Buick unveils its “unified assembly line” in Flint, MI. It is hailed as the largest and most efficient car assembly system in the world.

             1927

  • New assembly plants open in Berlin, Germany, and Osaka, Japan.
  • The Cadillac LaSalle becomes the first car designed by a stylist.

             1928

  • The Sao Caetano do Sul plant opens in Brazil.
  • Cadillac introduces a clashless synchromesh transmission.
  • GM opens India’s first automobile assembly plant.
  • Chevrolet switches from a four- to a six-cylinder engine. Production changeover is accomplished in 3 weeks by using sequence lines.

             1929

  • GM acquires the Electro-Motive Co.
  • Frigidaire produces the first room air conditioner.
  • GM surpasses Ford Motor Co. to become the world’s No. 1 automaker.

              1931

  • GM Holden is established in Australia.
  • GM acquires Adam Opel in Germany.

             1933

  • Assembly line demonstrations at GM’s pavilion wow crowds at the Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago.
  • Frigidaire becomes a division of GM.
  • No-draft ventilation is introduced in all GM cars.
  • Individual front-wheel suspension, called Knee-Action, is developed.

             1934

  • Fisher Body’s revolutionary “turret top” debuts.
  • A two-cycle engine developed by GM engineers propels America’s first diesel-powered streamlined train, the Burlington Zephyr.

             1935

  • The Electro-Motive Div. opens a new plant in LaGrange, IL, to mass-produce diesel locomotives.

             1936

  • GM introduces the Unisteel body, which is formed by welding the steel inner and outer panels into a permanent, shock-resistant structure.
  • The Guide Lamp Div. develops the first manual turn signals.
  • The first Parade of Progress goes on a nationwide tour.
  • Fisher Body introduces dual windshield wipers.

 

             1937

  • Sit-down strikes at GM assembly plants in Flint, MI, cripple the company.
  • GM converts to all-steel bodies.

 

             1938

  • The Buick Y-Job concept car is unveiled. It eliminates running boards and features unique design elements, such as concealed headlamps, flush door handles, electrically operated windows and push-button door handles.

             1939

  • The GM pavilion is a highlight of the New York World’s Fair, featuring the Futurama exhibit, which depicts America in 1960.
  • Hydra-matic, the industry’s first completely automatic shift transmission, is introduced on Oldsmobile’s 1940 models.
  • The industry’s first rear-turn signals to use flashers are introduced by Buick.

             1940

  • GM’s 25 millionth vehicle is assembled.

             1941

  • Streamlined Futurliner trucks haul the Parade of Progress.

             1942

  • Production of civilian cars and trucks stops. GM factories become the “arsenal of democracy” and assemble aircraft engines, amphibious landing craft, cannons, machine guns, tanks, trucks and other defense products.

             1945

  • The Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac (BOP) Assembly Division is organized.

             1947

  • New assembly plants open in Doraville, GA; Fairfax, KS; Flint, MI; Framingham, MA; Van Nuys, CA; and Wilmington, DE.
  • The Train of Tomorrow goes on a nationwide tour.

             1948

  • Oldsmobile begins assembling the Rocket V-8 engine.
  • Buick unveils Dynaflow, the industry’s first torque converter type automatic transmission.
  • GM introduces the first car to be mass-produced in Australia, the Holden.

             1949
  • The Electro-Motive Div. opens a new plant in London, ON.

             1950

  • All GM models are available with an automatic gearbox.
  • Chevrolet introduces Powerglide automatic transmission.

             1951

  • A new Frigidaire assembly plant opens in Moraine, OH.

             1952

  • Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile offer the auto industry’s first power-steering system.

             1953

  • The first Motorama show is held in New York City.
  • The Chevrolet Corvette sports car debuts. It features the industry’s first mass-produced plastic body.
  • Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduce 12-volt electrical systems developed by engineers at the Delco Remy Div.
  • Charles Wilson, GM’s president, declares “for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
  • GM acquires the Euclid Road Machinery Co.
  • Buick opens a new plant in Flint, MI, that features “the world’s most modern engine assembly line.” Two 600-foot long lines turn out 1,200 V8 engines every day.

             1954

  • GM’s 50 millionth vehicle is assembled.
  • The Firebird I rocket-styled concept car debuts at the Motorama show.
  • Cadillac offers automatic windshield washers and power steering as standard equipment on all its vehicles.
  • The Allison Div. introduces the first fully automatic transmission for trucks and buses.

             1955

  • GM reaches its zenith. The company controls more than 50 percent of the market.
  • The outdoor Powerama exhibit in Chicago celebrates diesel engine technology. The Aerotrain debuts at the event, in addition to the world’s first solar-powered car.

             1956

  • The GM Technical Center opens in Warren, MI.
  • GM becomes the first corporation to report annual net profit of more than $1 billion.

             1958

  • Cadillac offers cruise-control on its 1959 models.
  • The first demonstration of an automatically guided automobile takes place at the GM Tech Center.
  • ASSEMBLY magazine debuts as Assembly & Fastener Engineering, with a feature entitled “Static Control for Assembly Machines.” The article explains how engineers at GM’s AC Spark Plug plant in Flint, MI, “have attained a considerable reduction of downtime on assembly machines using . . . static control logic elements to replace relays.”

             1959

  • GM opens a new Euclid construction equipment plant in Hudson, OH.
  • The iconic Cadillac Eldorado sports huge tailfins.

 

             1960

  • A new line of small cars debut: the Buick Special, Oldsmobile F-85 and Pontiac Tempest.

             1961

  • The world’s first industrial robot application occurs at GM’s Ternstedt plant in Trenton, NJ. The Unimate’s 4,000-pound arm sequences and stack hot pieces of diecast metal.
  • Buick unveils the first American V-6 engine.

             1962

  • GM’s 75 millionth U.S. built vehicle is assembled.
  • Heaters and defrosters become standard equipment on Cadillac cars.

             1964

  • The GM Pavilion, featuring the Futurama II exhibit, is a big hit at the New York World’s Fair.

             1965

  • The B-O-P Assembly Division is replaced by the GM Assembly Division (GMAD).

             1966

  • A major breakthrough for robots occurs when GM orders 66 Unimates for its new Lordstown, OH, assembly plant.
  • GM introduces the first energy-absorbing steering column and front-seat shoulder belts.

             1967

  • GM’s 100 millionth U.S. built vehicle is assembled.

             1969

  • The world’s first programmable logic controller (PLC) application occurs at the Hydra-Matic transmission plant in Ypsilanti, MI.
  • GM manufactures the guidance and navigation systems used on the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission.

             1970

  • A controversial plant opens in Lordstown, OH, to build the Chevrolet Vega. It was touted as the most automated automotive plant in the world. Thanks to state-of-the-art welding robots and computer-controlled automation, the plant boasts the fastest assembly lines in the world.
  • A 10-week UAW strike cripples production.

             1971

  • GM engineers develop a pneumatic tool control system at the Fairfax Assembly Plant (Kansas City, KS). The computer-based device guarantees that the correct torque value is applied to 30 critical fastened joints on Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac sedans.
  • GM manufactures the mobility systems used on NASA's Lunar Rover.

             1973

  • The Quality of Work Life concept is unveiled. The controversial program is intended to “provide employees with greater opportunities for meaningful participation and decision making at all levels within the company.”
  • GMC starts assembling motor homes.
  • GM builds the first car equipped with an air cushion restraint system.

             1974

  • Design engineers begin using computer-aided tools to create illustrations of new GM vehicles and components.
  • GM begins assembling catalytic converters, a technology it developed in the 1960s. All 1975 model year cars are equipped with the device to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act.


    1976
  • The world’s first automotive laser welding application occurs at GM’s Dayton, OH, plant. It uses two 1.25 kilowatt CO2 lasers to join valve assemblies for emission control systems.

             1977

  • SIGHT-I, the first industrial computer vision system on a U.S. automotive production line, is installed at the Delco Electronics Div. plant in Kokomo, IN.

             1978

  • The world’s first programmable universal machine for assembly (PUMA) robot is used at GM’s Rochester Products division.

             1979

  • A new assembly plant opens in Oklahoma City.
  • GM sells the Frigidaire division to White Consolidated Industries.
  • GM announces a $2 billion European expansion program that includes new assembly plants in Aspern, Austria; Eisenach, Germany; and Zaragoza, Spain.

             1980

  • GM unveils a standardized computer language called Manufacturing Automation Protocol (MAP) to communicate with PLCs, robots, conveyors and other plant-floor equipment.
  • A new corporate-level position, vice president of quality and reliability, is established.
  • GM announces that it will spend $40 billion over the next 4 years to redesign its vehicles and modernize its assembly lines.

             1982

  • GM launches a major campaign to increase productivity through automation.
  • GM forms a joint-venture with FANUC Ltd. to create GMFanuc Robotics Corp.
  • The truck manufacturing and assembly operations of GM Assembly Division, Chevrolet Motor Division, and GMC Truck and Coach Division are merged to form the Truck & Bus Manufacturing Division.
  • Programmable paint robots are installed at the Doraville, GA, plant.
  • The Pontiac, MI, truck and bus plant begins installing MAP to run communications and data exchange off a coaxial cable network capable of electronic dialogue with equipment from many different vendors. The result is better control over the manufacturing process because proprietary data systems are eliminated.

             1983

  • GM and Toyota Motor Corp. form a joint-venture called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI).
  • The Orion, MI, assembly plant opens. It features 22 unmanned forklift trucks that follow wires buried in the floor and bring parts to the assembly line.
  • GM embarks on the innovative Buick City experiment in Flint, MI. The $300 million project transforms one of the oldest automotive assembly plants in the world into a state-of-the-art facility.
  • GM announces the $3 billion Saturn project. The goal is to develop a new brand and a different way of building small cars to compete against Japanese automakers.

             1984

  • GM unveils its “Factory of the Future” project. The ambitious goal of the project is to increase robot deployment in assembly plants from just 302 units in 1980 to 14,000 by the end of the decade.
  • GM eliminates its standalone car divisions and creates two integrated groups: Chevrolet-Pontiac-GM of Canada (CPC) and Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac (BOC). The goal is greater efficiency and speed-to-market among various brands and nameplates.
  • Fisher Body is eliminated as a business unit. Its 23 stamping, assembly and trim plants are merged into GM’s larger manufacturing operation.
  • The first NUMMI automobile, a Chevy Nova, rolls off the assembly line in Fremont, CA.
  • The Fisher Body plant in Livonia, MI, receives a PAT (Productivity through Assembly Technology) Award from ASSEMBLY Magazine. The plant is cited for implementing a flexible assembly system using state-of-the-art robotics technology, including machine vision systems.

             1985

  • The Buick City manufacturing complex opens in Flint, MI, and applies lean manufacturing principles.
  • The Detroit-Hamtramck plant opens and begins assembling Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile sedans. It features 2,000 programmable devices, including 260 robots.

             1986

  • The Vanguard axle plant opens in Saginaw, MI. The controversial “factory of the future” is hailed as being among the most technologically advanced in the world.

             1988

  • AC Spark Plug and Rochester Products Div. are consolidated into the AC Rochester Div.

             1989

  • The joint-venture CAMI plant opens in Ingersoll, ON.

             1990

  • The first Saturn is assembled in Spring Hill, TN. The new plant features self-directed work teams, flexible assembly lines and skillet conveyors, in addition to both electric- and battery-powered fastening tools.
  • The Hydra-Matic and GM Engine divisions are merged to create GM Powertrain.
  • All 1991 Cadillacs come equipped with standard anti-lock brakes.
  • A new assembly plant opens in Eisenach, Germany. It is GM’s most advanced plant and serves as a template for future facilities.

             1992

  • The trendsetting Saginaw Vanguard plant closes quietly.
  • GM returns to China after an absence of more than 50 years when it establishes a joint-venture called Jinbei GM Automotive Co.

             1995

  • Annual vehicle sales outside North America exceed 3 million units for the first time.
  • GM establishes a joint-venture in China with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.
  • The Synchronous Math-Based Process is launched to digitally design vehicles, components and production processes.

             1996

  • The Lansing Craft Centre begins assembling the EV1 electric car.
  • GM begins offering OnStar, an in-vehicle safety, security and communication service.

             1998

  • GM embarks on the controversial “Project Yellowstone” project, which focuses on modular assembly.
  • The first Buick made in China, a Regal sedan, rolls off the assembly line in Shanghai.
  • GM announces plans to spinoff its parts-making divisions into Delphi Corp.

             1999

  • GM’s parts-making operations become Delphi Corp.
  • The last car (a Buick LeSabre sedan) rolls off the assembly line at Buick City. Earlier that year, the facility was recognized as the highest quality producing automotive plant in the world by J.D. Power and Associates.

             2000

  • New assembly plants open in Gravatai, Brazil, and Rayong, Thailand.

             2002

  • The flexible Lansing Grand River factory opens. It is GM’s first plant built in the 21st century and is located on the site of the original, 100-year-old Oldsmobile complex.
  • A new assembly technology called C-Flex is unveiled. The programmable body shop tooling system replaces body style-specific tooling. It allows multiple body panels to be robotically welded with the same set of programmable tools and robots. Model-specific tooling is not required.

             2003

  • GM’s Global Manufacturing System (GMS) debuts. Flexible layouts and production processes are designed around providing support for operators and teams on the plant floor so that they can build high-quality vehicles at a competitive cost.

             2004

  • The last Oldsmobile (an Alero sedan) is assembled in Lansing, MI.

             2005

  • GM operates three of the top-five vehicle assembly plants in the annual Harbour Report. The Oshawa, ON, plant is ranked #1 as the most productive plant in North America.

             2006

  • The Lansing Delta Plant opens. It is GM’s fastest-built assembly complex ever. Thanks to 3D design software, assembly lines are laid out digitally before actual construction began.

             2007

  • GM unveils the Chevrolet Volt, which features a plug-in battery electric propulsion system called E-Flex.
  • Robots appear in a GM advertisement aired during the Super Bowl. The controversial TV commercial depicts an assembly robot that loses its job because it “made a mistake.”
  • A landmark labor agreement is reached with the UAW.
  • The Moraine, OH, plant is a runner-up in the 4th annual Assembly Plant of the Year award sponsored by ASSEMBLY Magazine. It is lauded for applying error-proofing technology and continuous improvement efforts.
  • More than half (52 percent) of the 9.4 million vehicles GM assembles worldwide are sold outside of North America.
  • GM and its joint-venture partners sell more than 1 million vehicles in China for the first time.

             2008

  • GM announces that the Chevrolet Volt will go into production within two years. Assembly is expected to occur at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
  • GM announces record-setting sales in China and Eastern Europe.
  • As gas prices skyrocket, GM shifts its focus from large pickups and SUVs to small cars. As a result, it plans to close assembly plants in Janesville, WI; Moraine, OH; Oshawa, ON; and Toluca, Mexico.
  • Approximately 19,000 hourly workers in the U.S. take advantage of GM’s attrition program. They are replaced by new assemblers who earn entry-level wages and benefits.

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