It’s easy to look at the automotive industry, especially in Michigan, and cringe. Foreign automakers are slowly surpassing the Big Three, suppliers are going bankrupt and jobs are disappearing into thin air almost daily. Michigan’s pride and joy has entered a downward spiral with no end in sight. But a beacon of hope has appeared in the most unlikely of places – a small part of Ypsilanti known as Willow Run.

Jess Cox
A sign entering Willow Run stands dilapidated and rusted.
(EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)
Jess Cox
The Willow Run plant has been producing automotive and aeronautical parts since 1941.
(EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

Willow Run is home to the General Motors Powertrain plant, where the automaker produces transmissions for many of its production vehicles. In recent years, the addition of a new six-speed transmission has helped save the Willow Run plant. As factories elsewhere are continuing to downsize or close completely, the Powertrain plant has kept its head above water, preserving one of Michigan’s historical landmarks.

 

A flying start

A glance at the history of the General Motors Powertrain plant helps illustrate the significance of the Willow Run location.

As the United States entered into World War II, there was an increasing need for factories that could construct various war machines, especially aircraft. Assembly-line pioneer Henry Ford – knowing that he had the mechanical expertise and a tract of land near Ann Arbor – sold his farm to the government so that his Ford Motor Company could construct a B-24 bomber – more commonly know as the “Liberator”.

During the next five years, Ford manufactured some 8,000 of these planes, which were dispatched to the European theater and played a key role in the defeat of the Axis powers. But once victory was complete, Ford no longer needed the plant in Willow Run and began looking to sell the massive establishment.

While the automotive industry in Detroit was budding, Willow Run seemed out of the way in the 1940s. Remodeling into an auto plant would be a very involved project.

“The plant is five million square feet and one mile long from front to back,” said current plant manager Kingsley Wootton. “And the floor is sloped one-half degree so that the bombers could be easily pushed down the facility. This area is as long as 110 football fields.”

Willow Run was purchased by automotive moguls Henry Kaiser and Joseph Frazer at the end of the war. Kaiser’s company built their cars there until 1953 when they moved their operation to Ohio after a merger. The plant might have been empty once more, but circumstance brought the beginning of the General Motors era at the plant.

“In 1953, Detroit Transmission produced transmissions for GM,” Wootton said. “Their plant in Livonia burned down and they transferred production from Livonia to Willow Run.”

Since Detroit Transmission moved out to Willow Run, the General Motors operation flourished. But the sentimental value of a building with such a long history is not enough to keep it running. When many General Motors plants were closing and downsizing in the early part of this decade, a new product allowed the Willow Run plant to maintain its workforce.

 

New product, same results

While many people know General Motors’ final products, few know much about their components. At Willow Run, General Motors produces a wide range of transmissions.

“There are multiple plants within one site,” Wootton said. “We have the Willow Run transmission operation that produces a rear-wheel drive heavy duty transmission and a front-wheel drive heavy duty transmission. There is also a component site that produces components for other GM transmissions that are produced at other sites.”

But as General Motors’ stock plummeted in recent years, demand for the automakers’ vehicles also fell. This might have spelled doom for the Willow Run plant, but the plant’s efficiency caught the eye of General Motors’ decision makers, and the operation was awarded a new product.

“About two years ago, we were awarded the new six-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission,” Wootton said. “This was awarded based on performance at this site.”

Just as it seemed that job cuts and/or shutdowns were imminent, the six-speed transmission allowed the plant to continue operating at full capacity.

“Productivity-wise, the plant is doing very well,” Wootton said. “It has enabled us to retain our workforce despite the difficulties that the GM market shares have seen. (With the shares falling), demand for our other transmissions was declining, but the new six-speed product allowed us to move those people to the new facility.”

In all, the plant employs some 3,800 people, almost 15-percent of Ypsilanti Township’s populus. With this new transmission on the market, the plant remains one of the area’s top employers and looks to stay that way in the coming years according to Wootton and six-speed Launch Manager Don Morand. The transmission currently appears in a dream lineup of cars, including the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac’s STS-V and XLR-V. But in the coming years, as General Motors makes an effort to improve the fuel economy of its large vehicles and trucks, the six-speed transmission will also find its way into the Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon.

A two-way relationship

Successful management of Willow Run depends on more than just productivity these days. With high wages, taxes and operating costs, a plant will often need help from the local community to plow through hard times. The most common form of community aid is tax relief, which governor Jennifer Granholm has toyed with to aid new business in the state.

The management of the General Motors plant has established a viable working relationship with the Ypsilanti Town Board, which has helped it earn key pieces of legislation and maintain its level of production.

“We have a very strong relationship with the local schools and with Ypsilanti Township,” Wootton said. “For any industry, especially automotive, you have to have tax incentives to invest money. We have gone to the town board for it several times and it has passed unanimously.”

Beyond working with the town board to create new legislation, the plant is also heavily involved in other community activities. The plant sponsors a high school robotics team at Willow Run High School, a team that won the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics National Championship in 2002 when competing against hundreds of teams from around the country.

The plant workers also produced a float for Willow Run’s 50th anniversary parade in 2003. True to form, the float resembled a key piece in the plant’s past history: A B-24 Liberator.

 

Looking forward

As the rest of Michigan’s automotive industry continues to struggle, the Willow Run Powetrain plant provides a refreshing sign that things might once again improve. Ever since its doors opened in 1941, the plant has consistently remained one of the industry’s key Michigan landmarks.

According to Wootton, the plant still employs several workers who made the move from Detroit Transmission’s 1953 fire in Livonia out to Willow Run. Like the plant itself, the workers provide an important link to a time when Michigan’s economy was on top.

Since its creation in 1953, the low-volume Corvette has provided Americans with a car to dream about at night; something for car-enthusiasts to enjoy as one of the vehicles America continues to master despite an increasing Japanese market share in compacts, sedans and minivans. Underneath the hood lies the key to the Corvette’s performance – a six-speed transmission built by a factory that, just like the car itself, continues to do things right at home.

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