DETROIT – When the word reached the Orion Assembly Plant, it spread along the serpentine assembly line like news of a death or natural disaster: General Motors, the biggest automaker in the world, had filed for bankruptcy protection.
On that grim day in 2009, Chevrolet and Pontiac sedans kept rolling down the line. And 1,700 worried workers stayed at their stations even as GM announced it would close the plant in a desperate bid to survive.
“The unknown was the scariest part,” recalled Gerald Lang, who had worked at Orion for two years installing dashboards and doors. “We really had no clue what was going to happen.”
There was something else that the workers didn’t know: They were witnessing the opening act
of one of the greatest recovery stories in American business.
Nearly four years later, Chevrolets are still moving down the assembly line under the plant’s 82-acre roof. Lang and his co-workers now build the Sonic, the best-selling subcompact car in the nation. It’s a vehicle no one thought could be made profitably in the U.S., by a company that few people thought would last.
But GM has not only survived, it has earned $16 billion in profits in the past three years. And the industry is on track to make this year its best year since 2007.
Detroit’s improbable comeback is the work of many: President George W. Bush, who authorized the first bailout loans; President Barack Obama, who made more loans; workers who took
lower wages and focused more on quality to compete with foreign rivals; and executives and designers who developed better cars amid the financial maelstrom happening around them.
To be sure, there were victims: shareholders, auto-parts makers and other suppliers who went out of business, as well as taxpayers who will never get all their money back.
But there is no denying that American carmakers have made a remarkable recovery. Nearly 790,000 people now have jobs building cars, trucks and parts, up 27 percent from the dark days of 2009. The story of the Sonic shows how the industry, along with a community in a downtrodden state, got there.
Detroit has seen many booms and busts in a century of auto making. There were 41 car companies in the city in 1913. Almost all failed or were consolidated into the Big Three. Chrysler nearly went bankrupt in 1980 before being rescued by the government. Sales ebb and flow with the economy, gas prices and even the weather.
But industry experts say things have changed. The reforms Detroit undertook make it less prone to financial disaster. Car companies have closed plants, laid off workers and sold or closed entire brands. GM now has 12 U.S. assembly plants and 101,000 employees in North America. A decade ago, it had 22 plants and 202,000 employees.
“You literally can’t do as many bad things because of the smaller workforce and the smaller portfolio of plants,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The vulnerability to stupid things is not as great as it used to be.”