Motor City : The History of the Auto Industry in Detroit

The city of Detroit has become known for its lack of jobs and high poverty. This wasn't always the case, however, as it was once one of the most successful cities in the United States. It was considered a great place for families because of the availability of work and the potential to own a home and raise a family. The middle class thrived in Detroit because it was considered by many to be the heart of the American automotive industry. In fact, it was so important to the auto industry that it was given Motor City as its nickname. It was home to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, or the Big Three, which at the time were the most successful auto manufacturers both in the U.S. and around the world. Unfortunately, the success of Detroit could not last forever, and a number of factors led to its decline and current struggles.

One of the city's first and most famous brushes with the auto industry was in 1896, when Henry Ford test-drove his first automobile in the city. Several years later, Ford would help establish the Detroit Automobile Co., which would last only three years and produce two cars. In 1899, Ransom E. Olds opened Olds Motor Works, which would become the first auto manufacturing plant in Detroit. The Ford Motor Co. would follow in 1903. Ford built his famous Model T in Detroit in 1908, and he would later pioneer the assembly line, which would revolutionize manufacturing. Other automakers that made their homes in and around Detroit included the Packard Motor Car Co., which opened a 3,500,000-square-foot factory in the city; General Motors, which was founded in 1908 by William Durant and Charles Mott; and Chrysler Corp., which was founded by Walter Chrysler in 1925. By 1950, Detroit would be one of the top cities for manufacturing jobs and had a population of nearly 2 million.

Unfortunately, Detroit's decline would also begin with events starting in the 1950s. The Packard Motor Car Co. factory would go out of business, shutting its doors permanently in 1958. Racial tensions got increasingly worse as more African-Americans came to Detroit and were not accepted or treated fairly by white residents or police. This eventually led to large numbers of white residents leaving Detroit and the deadly riot called the Twelfth Street Riot that took place over five days in 1967.

Racial problems were just a part of the issues the city faced, however, as rising gas prices in the 1970s made it expensive to drive large, heavy American-made vehicles. Foreign cars from Japan and other countries made their way to American streets and were often smaller and more fuel-efficient. As a result, consumers were buying vehicles from Detroit's Big Three less often. The continued popularity of foreign-made vehicles and their improving quality made them more popular in general. As American automakers sold fewer cars, they made less money, which caused them to eventually fall into financial crisis. Workers who depended on the automotive industry to feed and care for their families began to lose their jobs as a result. By the late 2000s, both Chrysler and GM were forced to file for bankruptcy and reorganize, and by 2013, Motor City itself filed for bankruptcy in the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

Read more about the auto industry in Detroit by clicking any of the links below.


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