The city of Flint, MI, has had its share of poor publicity lately, due to its terrible water crisis. Although it has endured a string of bad luck, Flint has something that many other cities can’t brag about: a long, proud automotive manufacturing heritage.
Flint was once home to a bustling auto industry. For most of the 20th century, assembly lines in the city cranked out millions of AC Spark Plugs, Buicks and Chevrolets at large factories that employed thousands of people.
Flint was the site of the infamous sit-down strike in 1937. All 12 plants of the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. were surrounded by machine gun emplacements set up by National Guard troops. Hundreds of workers barricaded themselves inside the body plant and the engine plant.
The assemblers held their ground for more than 40 days until General Motors eventually made an historic agreement with the fledgling United Auto Workers of America. Union members received a 5 percent pay raise; piece work was abolished in favor of straight hourly rates; and there was mutual agreement on “speed of production,” among other concessions.
Flint was also in the spotlight back in 1953, when the first Corvette rolled off the assembly line. Chevrolet began mass-producing the iconic sports car the following year at its St. Louis plant (today, the vehicles are assembled in Bowling Green, KY).
And, Flint was the site of a bold manufacturing experiment in the 1980s. When a 123-acre complex comprised of old plants formerly operated by AC Spark Plug, Buick and Fisher Body, was scheduled to be shuttered, a group of Buick managers and union leaders devised a bold plan to save the assembly operations. They sold GM’s top management on their idea, which involved grouping smaller plants around the central Buick assembly plant.
The vertically integrated complex, called Buick City, was patterned after Toyota City in Japan. The goal was to apply lean manufacturing principles, such as kanban and sequential, just-in-time parts delivery, to save money.
Buick City could produce the same volume as much larger GM plants in only one-third the amount of space. And, unlike the automaker’s other final assembly plants, the new complex included dedicated engine, powertrain and metal stamping facilities.
Unfortunately, the last Buick built in Flint, a LeSabre sedan, rolled off the assembly in June 1999. However, GM still operates a 70-year-old assembly plant there that builds Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.
Although I’ve never stepped foot in Flint—I’ve driven past it a few times on I-75—the next time I find myself in that neck of the woods, I plan to stop. That’s because General Motors recently restored Durant-Dort Factory One, considered to be the company’s birthplace and epicenter of the global auto industry.
The brick building was once home to the Flint Road Cart Co., which assembled horse-drawn carriages. It was established in 1886 by Billy Durant and his business partner, Josiah Dort. Today, the preserved facility houses event space and an archive dedicated to early auto industry history.
“Factory One sparked the global auto industry and was a catalyst in the formation of General Motors,” says Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, who championed the renovation project. “It preserves the stories of the early visionaries who built a brand-new industry in this city, within the very walls of where it happened.”
The Durant-Dort Carriage Co. grew to become one of the world’s largest carriage makers. Eventually, Durant gained control of the Buick Motor Co. and leveraged his Durant-Dort resources to grow the fledgling automaker into the largest car manufacturer in the world.
Durant used Buick’s success to create General Motors in 1908 and then turned to his friends from Flint’s carriage industry to form Chevrolet in 1911.
Carriage sales eventually eroded with the rise of the automobile and the Durant-Dort factory ceased production in 1917. Dort then formed the Dort Motor Co., which closed in 1924.