Detroit's road from reckoning to revival was shorter than almost anyone imagined. The wreckage left GM and Chrysler wards of the state and forced Ford to hock the founding family's name -- the actual Ford oval -- to get lifesaving loans. From that emerged three growing companies that earned $55 billion in the past three years and are selling more vehicles than at any time since 2007.
Back in 2006, when U.S. auto sales boomed, GM, Ford and Chrysler managed to lose money on every model they sold because of their crushing costs, according to the Center for Automotive Research. "That's the big change," said Kristin Dziczek, analyst for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CAR. "Selling fewer cars, making more money."
Those fatter profits come from leaner companies that radically restructured, reducing debts and employees, while paying their newest workers half what the veterans get.
The Detroit Three also overhauled their lineups to field their best cars in a generation, which now command higher prices than formerly formidable foreign offerings.
Ford's fashionable Fusion, whose looks draw comparisons to Aston Martin, has an average price of $27,444, which exceeds the Toyota Camry by $3,251, according to researcher Kelley Blue Book.
"It's flipped," marveled Lutz, 81, who served as a senior executive at all three Detroit automakers over the last half-century before retiring in 2010. "All of a sudden, the Japanese are behind."
The lessons of Detroit's downfall and recovery resonate for all American industry. It's a cautionary tale on the futility of believing size equals strength.
And it's the redemptive story of rediscovering the basic joys of design and ingenuity that originally inspired the industry's founding fathers.
"What happened to Detroit was emblematic of what has happened to American industry generally," Lutz said. "There was always this exaggerated sense of the importance and power of American industry, whereas in fact American industry was, decade after decade, getting weaker and weaker."
Detroit's new strength is embodied in Chrysler's reborn Jefferson North Assembly Plant. The Jeep factory has gone from barely breathing to bursting at the seams. Its future was in doubt when it closed during Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy.
Since then, employment there has more than tripled to 4,500, from fewer than 1,400 when Chrysler went bankrupt, and production has more than quintupled to 325,000 models this year, from 60,584 four years ago. It spits out Jeeps 20 hours a day, seven days a week and still can't keep up with demand for the Grand Cherokee.
Sales soared 21 percent for the hot model last year and are up 15 percent more this year through November.
Redesigned during the crisis into a lithe, fuel-efficient SUV, the Grand Cherokee is made only at Jefferson North, which exports it to 126 countries, including China, where a fully loaded model sells for $250,000. Analysts estimate Chrysler earns an average of $10,000 on each one, making Jefferson North possibly the single most profitable auto factory in the world.
The plant's prosperity is built upon a virtuous confluence of low labor costs, high productivity and a luxurious model that can command prices north of $60,000.
9 profitable quarters
The success of that facility is a key reason Chrysler has had nine profitable quarters in a row and 44 consecutive monthly sales gains in the United States, where deliveries rose 16 percent in November and are up 9 percent through this year's first 11 months.
Chrysler said it expects to make as much as $2.2 billion this year.
"Any car company in the world would be happy to have that vehicle," said Scott Garberding, Chrysler's top manufacturing executive until parent Fiat S.p.A. promoted him to purchasing chief in September, "and to have that plant."
How did Jefferson North, and the Detroit Three, come back so quickly? Look closely and you find it's not about George W. Bush, Barack Obama or any CEO. It's about Richard Owusu, Jason Ryska, Tyyonna Clark and Napoleon Wright. This is their story.