Detroit in High Gear

By Dan Kloeffler

Jan 9, 2012 8:06pm

Drive around Detroit, and you’ll likely find a few bumper stickers and T-shirts that read, “Detroit Hustles Harder.” It’s quickly becoming the new motto for the Motor City, which has been fighting a weak local economy and a public image that Detroit’s ability to dominate the car industry is in jeopardy.

Like many manufacturing cities around the country, Detroit has suffered massive layoffs and plant closings during the recent recession and has had to grapple with unemployment numbers that are above the national average. But “The D,” as it’s affectionately known among locals, is putting up a scrappy fight to defend its title as past, present and future home of the American automobile.

According to company figures, U.S. sales of domestic autos — those manufactured by Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — fell by more than 50 percent, between 2005 and 2009. It was during that period that all three suffered financial instability, forcing General Motors and Chrysler to accept taxpayer money to stay afloat.

Industry analysts say it was the wakeup call that Detroit needed to evaluate how they conducted their business.

Designers and engineers started focusing on midsize and smaller vehicles, and put greater resources into hybrid and electric technology, all to bring the customer back into the American showroom. It wasn’t just the product that got an overhaul; manufacturing plants went through a transformation, reducing shifts or cutting them altogether as the overall industry downshifted in hiring and expansions.

One manufacturing plant, just outside Detroit, faced a critical moment in the summer of 2011 when it was announced that some vehicles would no longer be manufactured there. Auto Alliance International in Flat Rock, Mich., was a joint venture between Ford and Mazda that built the Mazda 6 and the Ford Mustang. But after a partnership that lasted nearly a quarter of a century, the Japanese automaker decided to build the next generation of Mazda vehicles in Japan. Workers on the assembly lines worried the move would mean the plant could be shuttered, and the fabled Mustang would be built somewhere other than the Motor City.

But after a major commitment from the United Auto Workers and Ford, the plant announced that it would keep the Mustang in its current stable and bring on the production of the Ford Fusion. While the midsize vehicle is manufactured in Mexico, Ford opted to move the model’s overflow production to the Flat Rock facility, alongside the Mustang. Adding the production meant adding more than a thousand new jobs to the plant, whose future was once uncertain.

Those jobs were part of a major employment boost among Ford, General Motors and Chrysler after all three signed contracts with the UAW that would yield more than 20,000 positions across the country. For an industry that appeared to be on the ropes just a few year ago, the new jobs, the new models and the new way of doing business seemed to mark a significant new commitment from Detroit in keeping more American cars on the road.

And even without those bumper stickers, more cars from the Motor City shows indeed, “Detroit Hustles Harder.”

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