Built across the nation
Some brands had a flagship location; Chevrolet said all of America was its home
Cars and trucks bearing the all-American brand, Chevrolet, were built all across America.
Other brands have had a single flagship assembly factory. Think Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge plant; Buick City in Flint, Mich.; and Volkswagen's Wolfsburg.
Chevrolet, though, never had a single flagship plant. Instead, it claimed hometown loyalties across the United States and beyond.
Over the years, Chevrolet had factories assembling cars or trucks from Wisconsin to Louisiana. It had two assembly plants each in New Jersey, Texas and Georgia; and three in New York, Ohio, and Missouri. California and Michigan had four or more.
In all, 17 states -- or one out of every three of the lower 48 states -- hosted a Chevy assembly plant.
The first plant opened in July 1911 at 1145 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Just two years later, Chevrolet opened an assembly plant in New York City.
Establishing plants in various parts of the country made sense in the days before the interstate highway system and dedicated car carriers on railroads. Built-up cars then were shipped inside boxcars. Windshields and wooden bodies often were damaged in transit. So it was easier to ship major components by rail and then build the cars locally for regional markets.
In 1916, Chevrolet opened the auto industry's first West Coast assembly plant in Oakland, Calif. Production of the 490 began on Sept. 23, 1916. The plant remained in continuous service until the summer of 1963. Others weren't as long-lived: A factory in Fort Worth, Texas, operated only from 1917 to 1921.
Officials in Oakland, Calif., used the area's Chevy plant in an ad portraying Oakland as a good place to do business.
Plants with a past
Several plants began their careers building something other than Chevys. Indeed, Chevrolet's second factory, on West Kelsey Street in Flint, Mich., was a former Little Motor Car Co. plant. It was rechristened Chevrolet Flint Plant No. 1 after Chevrolet took it over in 1913. Flint Plant No. 2 -- previously an Imperial Wheel Co. plant -- followed soon afterward.
Other Chevrolet factories with a non-Chevy history included Janesville, Wis., a former Samson Tractor plant; Tarrytown, N.Y., a former Maxwell Motor Co. plant; Moraine, Ohio, which opened as a Frigidaire appliance factory; and, among numerous General Motors-owned plants that supplied parts for Chevrolets, the Inland Plant in Dayton, Ohio, which had been a Dayton Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. factory.
As Chevrolet grew and evolved, so did its plants. Consider St. Louis.
Production moved to the corner of Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Road in 1920, from a former Gardner Buggy Co. plant, and continued there until the factory closed in 1987. A wood mill there that initially made wooden car bodies later became a plant within the larger plant and the second of three factories that have built the Corvette. St. Louis eventually had almost 3 million square feet of floor space spread over three floors -- including a complete truck plant with its own body shop -- and for a time was the largest assembly complex in the U.S. industry.
But in terms of volume, it wasn't any single Chevrolet plant that stood out so much as Chevy's enormous collective manufacturing reach.
In the late 1960s, Chevrolet had 16 plants making full-sized cars. "Manufacturing volumes in those days were absolutely incredible," recalls John Hinckley, a retired manufacturing manager who worked at both the St. Louis and the Lordstown, Ohio, factories.
Volumes were so high, he says, that "most stampings were double-sourced because no one company could make them all." Most Chevy assembly plants got hoods from Budd Co., a major stamping supplier; and a GM-owned stamping plant in Flint, Mich.
Likewise, a V-8 engine plant in Flint made 5,500 engines a day; and another engine factory in Tonawanda, N.Y., matched that number.
Chevrolet's massive volumes may have dictated one of the features that distinguished the brand's assembly plants from assembly operations at GM's other brands. "All the Chevy assembly plants had a companion Fisher body facility right there on the same piece of land with them. In most cases, they were only separated by a wall," Hinckley says.
At other divisions, the assembly plants and Fisher body plants were dispersed. Car bodies were trucked across town -- or farther.
Those distinctions disappeared in 1965, when Chevrolet's plants were absorbed into the General Motors Assembly Division and in 1984 when the bow-tie brand became part of the Chevrolet-Pontiac-GM of Canada Group.
GMAD was a none-too-subtle maneuver designed to thwart antitrust officials who were hinting that GM, which in the 1950s had ruled half of the U.S. market, should be broken up. If every factory built cars, trucks and parts for every brand, the government would by stymied if it tried to order GM to spin off a division -- say, Chevrolet.
That merger diluted any uniqueness Chevrolet's factories had vis-a-vis other GM plants. But the sprawl of the Chevrolet manufacturing empire was already starting to shrink. Improved transportation and the appeal of economies of scale led to consolidation.
GM closed its Oakland, Calif., assembly plant in 1963, a few years before opening Lordstown closer to its Midwest supply base.
In the 1970s and '80s, the rise of import brands and the resulting shrinkage of Chevrolet's market share hastened the closure of Chevy factories. The era of Chevy assembly plants scattered across the nation was over. Today, 11 factories in the United States, about half in Michigan and Ohio, build Chevrolet cars and trucks. One of them, in Shreveport, La., is scheduled to close in 2012.
You can reach James B. Treece at firstname.lastname@example.org.