Hooniverse Asks – How Important is ‘Detroit’ as an Automotive Icon These Days?

The North American International Auto Show is opening shortly, and as you all know, the media (and Hooniverse) have been there for the pre-show getting to know the 30+ new models and booth models who are visiting the Motor City for a couple of weeks. And that last bit – about Motor City – is what we’re wondering about today. This show has been in the past the preeminent auto show in the U.S., despite the fact that not too many people in Detroit are buying many cars these days. Michigan’s unemployment rate rivals Arlington Cemetery, and many of the those who used to work there in the auto industry and supporting businesses have just plain left. In fact, many of the companies that used to employ them have also left, Pontiac and Mercury being a pair of the most notable.
So the question arises, is Detroit still the Motor City? Sure GM, Ford (Dearborn) and Fiat’s bitch still call the city home, but each of those companies has found elsewhere to design, and build most of their wares. And new entrants into the American manufacturing ranks seek warmer, less crime-ridden climes for their factories -VW in Tennessee, Subaru in Illinois, and soon Tesla in California, man.
What do you think, is Detroit still relevant as an automotive icon these days, or is it fading like a Carolina-built Bimmer’s tail lights in the distance?
Image source: [NAIAS]

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  1. Ben Avatar

    As a local and former auto industry employee I'm bias, but I say yes. The big OEM's are pared down to fighting weight and have a strong product pipeline set up for the future, Toyota and Hyundai have recently built development centers in the area, there are countless factories still up and running, and we haven't even begun to discuss the universe of suppliers that compose the backbone of the post-outsource binge. The actual city of Detroit is hurting in a bad way due to an oppressive taxation load, but the metro area is certainly an automotive powerhouse like few places in the world.
    And just as a reminder, VW moving the US isn't their first attempt. Their first US manufacturing was at the Westmoreland plant in Pennsylvania and was a breathtaking failure, lasting only ten years after opening in '78. Shit cars can be built anywhere.

  2. Maymar Avatar

    If nothing else, Detroit is unique in its concentration of automotive corporations, right? They may not have the overwhelming power they used to, but they're still there and aren't just rolling over and giving up.

  3. engineerd Avatar

    I didn't grow up here, but I've been here almost 12 years. So, I call this area home now and, like Ben, might be a bit biased.
    Is Detroit the automotive powerhouse it was in the '50s? Maybe not quite. Is it still the "Motor City"? Absolutely. No other city in America rivals the Detroit area for automotiveness. Sure, SoCal sports design studios and the southern states have been the darling of companies looking to build factories. However, even though most of Nissan's manufacturing is done in Tennessee, their technical center is in the Detroit area. Even though Toyota looks outside the Dirty Mitten for plant space, they, too, have a technical center in SE Michigan. Nearly every major supplier is located in the Detroit area, with Chinese suppliers opening up shop recently.
    So, while the automotive universe in the US may not be all clustered in and around Detroit, this area is still the center of that universe.

  4. Age_of_Aerostar Avatar

    I usually appreciate the tone of the articles here on Hooniverse, but I'm not really thrilled with this one. It seems often you are taking the poorer qualities of the City of Detroit, and expanding that out to each of the Automakers.
    GM, yes headquartered in Detroit, but massive engineering center is in Warren. Ford is based around Dearborn. "Fiat's bitch" is in Auburn Hills.
    The size of a modern full production assembly facility generally means that it will never be located within the city limits of Detroit, so, locating them to "less crime-ridden climes" does not really make sense to me, as the suburbs of Detroit are very safe.
    And what about those transplants? Yes, there are manufacturing facilities located across the country, but: Nissan Engineering? Farmington Hills, MI Toyota ? Also in Southeast MI.
    At any rate, no where else in America is there as large a concentration of automotive companies head quarters, engineering and test centers and supplier engineering and commercial sales offices as there is in Southeast lower Michigan.

    1. Age_of_Aerostar Avatar

      I am a native Detroiter, so yeah, biased for sure, and tired of feeling picked on, but I know you guys here are capable of much better writing.
      <img src="http://profile.ak.fbcdn.net/hprofile-ak-snc4/hs322.snc4/41570_2231461734_5551_n.jpg&quot; width="200">

      1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
        Peter Tanshanomi

        I know how picked-on you must feel, but Detroit doesn't exactly send out positive vibes to a watching world. All we ever hear about Detroit are news stories about the high crime rate, and how houses there are selling for $1000 because entire blocks are standing empty. Add the whole auto industry bankruptcy and bail-out drama on top of that, and all sounds pretty extreme and scary.
        Growing up in Buffalo, NY, in the '60s and early '70s, it seemed like nobody outside the area had anything pleasant or charitable to say about The Queen City. But after being away from Buffalo long enough now, I realized that it deserved all the berating it got at the time, and since. Residents and politicians there were (and to a large extent still are) so dug-in, defensive and micro-focused that they have largely refused to admit that heavy manufacturing is no longer a viable foundation for Rust Belt cities to base their economic well-being on. My sister and many of my relatives still live there, and I can only say that Buffalonians in general continue to view their crumbling hulk of a city in unrealistically rose-colored hues. I only hope that Detroit does not perpetuate the same addiction to failure that Buffalo still exhibits today.

      2. SSurfer321 Avatar

        Unfortunately most national news coverage of Detroit shows the blight and despair. In truth, it's far different than that. Detroit, from my vantage point, has a booming economy. It's turned the corner and is well on the rebound.
        Check out Palladium Boot's documentary for more inspiring Detroit news. http://www.palladiumboots.com/exploration/detroit
        As a native of Toledo, we are tied into Detroit and the Big 3 pretty tightly. Jeep and GM Powertrain (Transmissions) are the two big factories in Toledo. We also have suppliers and distribution centers here. So we feel Detroit's pain and are hoping to ride their coattails in the economic turn around.

      3. mad_science Avatar

        It must get old having to defend a city that's generally labeled as a total shithole when you've got a connection to it and know it's good parts as well.
        It's obviously easy to be juvenile and pick on Detroit (the greater Detroit metro area, to be clear), and easy to retort that it's got plenty going for it.
        Unfortunately, if we get down to the numbers in Round 3, there are some very serious structural, social, economic and political problems with Detroit that will make recovery, let alone any real growth, very difficult to achieve. There is no "we just need to _______" for Detroit.
        That said, I do root for the place. In many ways it most closely resembles a real frontier. Costs are low, opportunities abound, but life will be harsh and no one's coming to save you things get hairy.

  5. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Detroit. Sure, why not. It doesn't matter if it's relevant or not, really. Detroit was pretty much ground zero for the development of the motor car in the US, and you can't take that away from it.
    In the UK the equivalent would have been Birmingham. Tradition dictates that Birmingham is still the heritage centre of our motor industry. Of course it isn't any more, the small amount of vehicle manufacture we still have is scattered around our various industrial areas. Importantly, though, it still gives Birmingham residents something to cling to. Pride is a difficult thing to have when you're Birmingham.

  6. muthalovin Avatar

    I think the decline of Detroit has turned a corner. The aughts were hard on all Big 3, but I think they have all turned their respective corners and are making Detroit important and relevant again.

  7. Tripl3fast Avatar

    I think the Detroit mystique is a burden for the Major American car companies. Should they stay there just because that is what they have always done? Hell yes. It will take some doing to make it the leader it once was, but can be done. One car at a time. It is a very heavy burden to carry and the competition is very good. So c'mon Detroit! You took the standing eight count, now let's come out swinging.

  8. lilwillie Avatar

    I think it is just due to the historic value it brings to the automotive world. It literally built this country by mass producing the freedom to get behind the wheel and choose where you go and where you live.
    I'd love to see Detroit make a comeback and lead the automotive world again.

  9. SSurfer321 Avatar

    Just look at sales numbers, market share gains, product quality ratings, etc. from the past few years. I think Detroit is well on its way to leading the automotive world again.

  10. TheRedCar Avatar

    I'm in my ringside seat at a Metro Detroit hq'd tier one supplier and all I'm hearing is we're winning business hand over fist. We're now grapling with the fact that we lost too much talent through the downturn. I wouldn't be surprised to hear soon that Michigan is luring back workers from out of state. It's either that or the offshore outsourcing won't be a choice based on cost, but of need to just get the orders filled.
    To the point though, Detroit city itself doesn't and never really did mean anything to the cog in the machine that I am. Most Metro Detroiters simply watch the shenanigans from a far and wish them the best.

  11. Deartháir Avatar

    I'd like to root for Detroit, I really would. I just don't see it happening. In much the same way I wanted to root for my hometown of Trail, BC to become a metallurgical powerhouse once again, it just ain't gonna happen, realistically. Similarly for Detroit, I think many people have high hopes that it will somehow "bounce back" and have a glorious renaissance. I just don't see it happening.
    Partly, that is due to the fact that engineerd lives there. That's never going to bode well for a city. The other part of it, however, is that the Formerly Big Three have a very, VERY long way to go before they can be considered "safe". They're walking on egg-shells, no matter how much they'd like to tell us they're healthy and doing well.
    And even if they do improve dramatically, it's likely going to be easier and cheaper to invest in regions other than Detroit. In this dramatic downturn, a huge percentage of their population fled like frightened birds at a gunshot. Now the city's infrastructure is in poor shape, and any companies trying to lure in outside talent would probably have to pay a further premium to convince people to relocate there. Why bother, when you can just expand your operations to a city that already has things like functioning roads? Like any city, I'm sure it has its positive sides — hell, even Calgary might have something positive going for it, somewhere — but like Calgary, those positives are completely glossed over by the image of being a total shit-hole. It's that image that has to be fixed before you can start to draw people back there, and that image can't be fixed until there are more jobs there, and there can't be more jobs until they have some more people, and there won't be more people until they fix the image.

    1. engineerd Avatar

      I keep hoping more people leave so I can launch my nefarious plan to take over, establish my own kingdom (and, of course, state religion) then take over Canada.

      1. Deartháir Avatar

        I don't think you'd be able to do it all by yourself, and let's be honest, there aren't enough people in Detroit who would be able to find Canada, never mind try and take it over.

        1. Eggwich Avatar

          Go as far south as you can in the city, look for the gigantic bridge, cross. It's pretty easy for most folks. Any Detroit smoker knows how to get to Canada, or anyone who wanted to drink when they were 19. Which was most of us. (There's the tunnel, too, but that doesn't work with my "scan the horizon" instructions.)

          1. engineerd Avatar

            What Eggwich said. Every 19 year old in the greater Detroit area knows exactly where Canada is. Every lonely man in the greater Detroit area knows where the Windsor Ballet (conveniently located in Canada) is, as well.

  12. TheRedCar Avatar

    I had a thought not too long ago that Detroit would be better off if they splintered off the outlying section of the city to their own townships and shrunk the city proper to the downtown. In time the new townships would develop back up and people would be much closer to the downtown. There's just far too much land in that city for the small amount of folks still there.

    1. From_a_Buick_6 Avatar

      I believe Detroit's current mayor has proposed to do essentially that. Shrink the city limits and bulldoze the rest. Sad, but probably effective.

      1. engineerd Avatar

        Essentially. He is proposing unincorporating major areas of the city. There are swaths of land where there are only one or two [legally] inhabited houses on a block. The city must still provide water, power, trash services, snow clearing, police protection, and fire protection to areas that are basically urban deserts. So, Mayor Bing wants to unincorporate these areas and shrink the city. These areas would then be the responsibility of the county. Residents, obviously and justifiably, will resist and they are probably going to have some people that stay put and others who accept assistance to move into the new city limits.
        It may not be a perfect plan, but it is the best way possible, I believe, for Detroit to start to get back on its feet. The city has lost more than half of its population in the last 50 years and providing city services to uninhabited areas is a waste of money and resources. This plan lets Detroit focus on the areas that are still alive or are salvagable.
        The idea for the newly unincorporated areas would be to raze the buildings and start urban farms. There are already several groups — both for and non-profits — that are interested in this. It would provide jobs and help to, at least somewhat, diversify the economy.

  13. From_a_Buick_6 Avatar

    It's important, in the sense that the Big Three and many suppliers are still headquartered in the region. But it's a relic. It's no longer the center of the automotive world that it was in the '50s and '60s. Everything's so globalized and homogenized that I think the car industry as a whole is pretty bland and faceless.
    Southern California played a big role in Honda Toyota and Datsun/Nissan's early U.S development, in addition to being the mecca of hot rod and custom car culture. But now Honda's U.S. operations are largely centered around Marysville, Ohio and Nissan moved its headquarters to Tennessee near its primary plant. Hyundai and Kia set up shop in the Southeast, as did Daimler and BMW.
    I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. It's a poster child for failing rust belt industrial towns, much like Detroit. Dayton's big claim to fame is being home to the Wright brothers. But Charles Kettering and Delco also started out here, so it's an auto industry footnote in its own right. Today, the local economy relies Wright-Patterson AFB and its support contractors for survival; GM's Moraine Truck Assembly finally plant shut down in '08, and NCR (Dayton's other big corporate landmark) relocated the last of its operations to Georgia in '09.
    Point is, many once-thriving industrial cities have been hit hard by recession and urban sprawl. Some have rebounded, some haven't. Detroit's nothing special in that regard, it's merely been hit harder thanks to the chronically boneheaded Big Three. But Detroit, like Dayton, is unable to move beyond its past glory into the 21st century, thanks to idiotic, business-crippling local government.
    Despite what the brave locals will tell you, Detroit proper is a lousy place to live or do business, just like Dayton or my current hometown of Macon, Georgia. Sure there's cultural and architectural interest, but do you really want to raise your kids there? Or run your multinational corporation there? No probably not.
    Yeah, it's sad to see Detroit crumble. But this country keeps evolving, and big cities like Detroit need to lead, follow or get out of the way.

  14. Eggwich Avatar

    Yes. Detroit is still an important automotive icon. No way around it.
    Detroit's been fucked up since 1968. The recent economic downturn and the carpacolypse hasn't done much of anything to Detroit, it's hit the metro Detroit area and the rest of the state a lot harder. I suppose Detroit's been hurt in that those that couldn't afford the burbs before now can, thus leaving the city and shrinking the tax base all the more.
    Detroit's been basically empty my whole life. (I'm 59….p!) The ruins porn that has become so popular in national media make it seem like a new thing, but it isn't. The real story, the real shocking part, is the empty strip malls and the empty houses in the surrounding rings of suburbs, that were expanding outward my entire life, and which I never expected to contract. But empty strip malls and neglected lawns don't photograph as well as buildings that have been rotting for forty years.

  15. Eggwich Avatar

    Also, to hell with Slows Barbecue. I'm not saying it isn't delicous, and I will live in Corktown again one day, but people act like it's the only restaurant in the city and that the owner is some kind of hero because he moved to Detroit from Europe. I know this rant is unrelated, but anytime people (The Evil Media, for simplicity's sake I'm putting Hooniverse in that boat lol jk lol) talk about the death and rebirth of Detroit, they somehow tie Slows Bbq into the solution. So the guy has a nice restaraunt and bought a shit ton of real estate around it, bfd, bro, bfd. (And for the record some of my friends know him pretty well and say he's a great guy, which really detracts from my haterade.)

    1. engineerd Avatar

      It's quite delicious, though.
      The reason why people point to Slows is because he could have built his restaurant anywhere and he chose one of the neighborhoods that was languishing. Even before Tiger Stadium was closed Corktown wasn't all that great an area, and it just got worse after baseball (and it's fans from the 'burbs) left. Now there is a bright spot in the shadow of the train station and that gives people hope.

      1. Eggwich Avatar

        Definitely delicious. The food stands up on its own right. But the media story of "young entrepreneur saves Detroit" is just too easy to write, like the ruin porn stories, and has thus been written way too many times. He is a good guy though, and the food is good. His story just appeals to the "Detroit is ruined by the crooked city insiders" angle too much, though there is truth to that angle.

        1. engineerd Avatar

          Ah, I see where you're gettin' at.
          Now I'm craving some brisket and the mac and cheese. Oh Lordy, that mac and cheese…

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