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Detroit Chauvinism


Detroit History

There is a soft spot in my heart for the city of Detroit. I was born there and spent my boyhood in that city before attending college in another state. Detroit is geographically interesting. It is the only U.S. city that lies north of Canada. This city, whose name is derived from a French word meaning “the straights”, is situated along the Detroit river through which the waters of the upper Great Lakes flow on their way to the ocean. The Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario, lies on the other side of the river. In the middle is a park called “Belle Isle”.

Historically, the city was founded in 1701 by a Frenchman, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. His last name gives a hint to the city’s future occupation. The fort at Detroit was taken over by the British in 1760. Three years later, an Indian chieftain named Pontiac - another hint here - led an uprising against the British. The fort came under siege. But the uprising failed and Pontiac went west to Illinois where he was murdered.

After the war of American independence, the city of Detroit came under the control of the U. S. Government. The British captured it during the war of 1812, but the city was recaptured a year later by American armies led by William Henry Harrison. Detroit became a center of transportation and commerce during the 19th century. Shipbuilding and carriage manufacturing were two of its industries. One ought not forget the importance of waterway transportation in the years before railroads and paved roads came of age. The Great Lakes were an interior highway connecting many places.

I claim the great American inventor, Thomas A. Edison, as a resident of Detroit, or at least frequent visitor, before he moved to the east coast. Then came a gifted tinkerer, Henry Ford, who had grown up on a farm just outside the city. Ford moved to Detroit to work in a machine shop and later as an engineer at the Detroit Edison Company where he began working on a prototype of an automobile. By the end of the 19th century, Ford had organized his first automobile manufacturing company. His second, the Ford Motor Company, was founded in 1903.

The City's Main Industry

Henry Ford created interest in his product by racing it on the frozen surface of Lake St. Clair. He developed a standard, inexpensive model. His forte, however, was perfecting production techniques. With conveyer belts, the Ford factory brought materials and parts to points along a moving line where workmen performed the required labor. A finished automobile came off the end of the line. While repetitious and boring to the laborer, the assembly line was an efficient way to build automobiles. Its efficiencies allowed the product to be built at a low cost which led to low prices and increased sales. This, in turn, afforded high wages for the workmen and high profits for the company.

Henry Ford was not the only resident of Detroit who built automobiles. R.E. Olds was the first. Not only was the Olds automobile the first car produced in Detroit but it was first in the world to be mass-produced. Henry Leland supplied engines for this car. When Olds declined an improved version of the engine, Leland took it to directors of the first Ford company which was then being dissolved. Out of this contact came a new line of automobiles named not for Leland but for Detroit’s founder, Monsieur Cadillac.

Leland sold this company to General Motors and became a General Motors executive. Then, after a disagreement with other managers, he formed yet another company to build aircraft engines for use in World War I. After the war, this company produced high-quality automobiles with the name of Lincoln. The Lincoln company went into bankruptcy during the post-war recession and was purchased by Ford. Ford’s mass-produced Model T claimed half the automobile market during this time.

General Motors Corporation, founded by William C. Durant, was meanwhile purchasing automobile companies or component manufacturers from such persons as Henry Leland, Charles S. Mott, and the Fisher brothers. With the purchase of the Hyatt Roller Bearing company came a talented manager, Alfred P. Sloan. The Dupont family of Delaware became a major investor in General Motors. This company became and remains the world’s leading automobile manufacturer. For many years, its corporate headquarters were located on East Grand Boulevard near Woodward Avenue, in the heart of Detroit.

One of Ford’s former production managers, William S. Knudsen, became general manager of General Motors’ Chevrolet division. in the 1920s He improved Chevrolet’s horsepower and design and lengthened its wheel base. A Danish immigrant, he would hold up a finger on each hand and tell sales managers: “I vant von for von.” In other words, he wanted them to sell one Chevrolet for each Ford sold. When Ford shut down its plants in 1926 to convert to the Model A, Chevrolet raced past its competitor to become the first brand to sell a million cars. Ford was relying upon standardized products and low costs. General Motors was offering a variety of models and colors.

The “Big Three” automobile manufacturers were General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Walter P. Chrysler, a former General Motors executive, undertook to reorganize the Willys-Overland Company. In 1924, he brought out his own car, the Chrysler Six, which was exhibited in competition with other models at the Automobile Show in New York. Four years later, Chrysler bought out the Dodge brothers. Chrysler products were known for their speed, comfort, and advanced styling.

There were also other car makers. Sales of the high-quality Packard soared in 1925 when the company’s manager, Alvin Macauley, cut the price of its sedan by $800. Roy D. Chapin decided to price his open and closed models of Hudson the same, spurring the decline of the open model until convertibles came along a few years later. The Studebaker car was produced in South Bend, Indiana; the Nash, in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Willys, in Toledo, Ohio. Indianapolis was also a center of automobile manufacturing with exotic brands such as the Duesenberg. But most automobiles were built in southern Michigan. Nearly all the industry’s corporate headquarters were located there.

Detroit, termed the “Arsenal of Democracy”, played a major role in the Allied victory during World War II. William S. Knudsen resigned from the presidency of General Motors to coordinate that effort. Over $14 billion dollars of orders from the War Department were placed with automobile companies and suppliers. By 1942, nearly a million workers were employed in factories converted from autos to war production. The Sherman tank, produced by Chrysler, helped British turn the tide against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. A new vehicle, the Jeep, produced by Willys-Overland, gave the Allies increased mobility on land. General Motors also built weapons including machine guns. Ford specialized in the production of aircraft.

How I Fit in

My father came to Detroit in 1940 to take a public-relations position with the Automobile Manufacturers Association. Soon, as publicity director for the Automotive Council for War Production, he was involved with the industry’s conversion to production of weapons. He wrote and published a spy thriller about Nazis infiltrating a tank factory. In 1946, he was in charge of publicity for the “Golden Jubilee”, a civic celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the year when Charles King and Henry Ford first drove cars on the streets of Detroit. This event brought together for the last time industry veterans such as racer Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford. In 1948, he and my mother went to England to try to persuade Winston Churchill to come to Detroit to help celebrate the 100 millionth car produced in America. Then, in 1951, he was involved with a celebration of Detroit’s 250th anniversary.

My father’s boss at the Automobile Manufacturers Association, George Romney, took an executive position at Nash-Kelvinator which built the Nash automobile. In 1953, my father joined him. Nash-Kelvinator merged with the Hudson Motor Company to become American Motors. After Romney became president and chairman of that company, my father (in 1956) became vice president in charge of communications (and the company’s advertising budget.)

The fourth largest U.S. automobile manufacturer, American Motors was much smaller than any of its “Big Three” competitors and was not expected to survive. Instead, American Motors produced a small car, the Rambler, that gained increasing market share. The Big Three reacted with their own “compact cars”. The era of high-horsepower cars with large tail fins was slated to end. As AMC’s pitch man in commercials for the Disneyland television show, George Romney called them “gas-guzzling dinosaurs”, holding up a clay model of that extinct creature. I have one somewhere in a drawer.

I was too young to fully appreciate what was going on in my father’s world, but I did have a sense of the automobile’s importance to American society and of Detroit to the automobile. As personal mobility increased, millions were leaving large cities to reside in suburbia. The automobile became a focus of popular culture. Hit songs were written about particular models including the Rambler. Drive-in restaurants such as McDonald’s became fixtures of our fast-paced style of life. Young men and women made themselves at home in the back seat of cars.

That great institution, General Motors Corporation, was a model of business enterprise everywhere. Its chairman, Charles E. Wilson, became Secretary of Defense in Eisenhower’s cabinet. A Flint auto dealer, Arthur Summerfield, became Postmaster General. Joseph M. Dodge, a Detroit banker who had set up Japan’s postwar financial institutions, became director of the Office of Management and Budget. I myself shook Ike’s hand as he sat in a convertible in downtown Detroit waiting for his campaign motorcade to move.

Henry Ford II

In those days when Detroit seemed to be at the center of the political universe, it remained a one-industry town, an aging boom town that had attracted many migrants in search of work. Its “royalty”, so to speak, was the Ford family. Henry Ford himself had died in 1947, and Ford’s son Edsel four years earlier. But there was a new generation of Fords, headed by Henry Ford II, which took charge of the Ford Motor Company.

This company had fallen on hard times in the final years of its founder’s life. General Motors graciously loaned its competitor an experienced executive, Ernest R. Beech, to organize the corporate revival. Henry Ford II hired an FBI agent, John Bugas, to deal with the gangster element that was entrenched in Ford management. Ultimately, Henry Ford II was in a position to run the company himself; and he did so quite effectively over the course of three decades.

I realize that a man such as Henry Ford II attracted much sniping - from the auto workers union, of course, and from a former subordinate, Lee Iacocca, who unsuccessfully tried to replace Ford as chairman of the company that bore his name. Henry Ford II raised more than a few eyebrows when he dumped his wife of many years and the mother of his children to marry an Italian beauty queen; and, even more so, when he was arrested for drunk driving in California along with a young woman, later his wife, who had a blue-collar background and a foul mouth. Ford soon gave a speech before the Detroit Economic Club. In answer to the question on everyone’s mind, he said simply: “Never complain, never explain.” Club members reported stood up and cheered. Here was a man!

Henry Ford II was a presence in Detroit from the immediate postwar years until the 1980s when he died. He never shirked his duty either to the company or the community. He said what he thought and did as he pleased. He was Detroit’s own version of a robust monarch. The debutante parties he put on for his two daughters, Charlotte and Anne, attracted national attention. I myself was privileged to attend the one for Anne. Unbeknownst to the guests but not to the family, Ford had just told his wife that he was leaving her. Like England’s King Henry VIII who chopped off his wife’s head, this Henry could be cruel but at the same time a leader of strength and sagacity.

The Ford Motor Company was in excellent competitive shape when Ford retired. Henry Ford II also took the time to serve on committees to revitalize Detroit; the Renaissance Center was one of his projects. He even took the time to answer a letter that I wrote, urging him to support his grandfather’s policy of granting shorter work hours to Ford employees. He bluntly stated that he did not favor my proposal but gave his reasons at some length.

So, I like many others have a fond place in my heart for Henry Ford II who was there in Detroit, shooting straight, making the tough decisions, when he might have led a life of privileged privacy. He personalized the Ford Motor Company and the business community during that time when I lived in Detroit. While many others consider that city a grimy and unpleasant place, I developed a certain youthful pride in it and in its civic leaders such as Henry Ford II which remains with me after many years.

Some Non-Business People

Admitting that my views on Detroit reflect the situation of my parents at that time, I admire the leaders of the automobile companies who had developed such a successful product and made lots of money. I also admire those in the labor movement and elsewhere who were critics of the automobile industry. One recalls that Ralph Nader came to national prominence as the author of a book, Unsafe at any Speed, which told of product defects in the Corvair. General Motors hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on Nader; but, when this was discovered, the company apologized. Nader now had stature. I admired Ralph Nader and still do. But I also acknowledge the decency of General Motors in promptly admitting its mistake. There was a civility in top political and business circles which, I think, has been lost.

Organized labor was the nemesis of the automobile industry in those years when I lived in Detroit. Walter Reuther, head of the United Automobile Workers union, was a tough negotiator with national political clout. It was the combination of personal shrewdness and ideological commitment which made Reuther a much-feared figure in Detroit business circles. He was boss of a political machine that dominated Michigan politics for many years. While anti-communist, Walter Reuther indulged in some of the same harsh anti-business rhetoric, or so it seemed.

Yet, upon second thought, the strength of Reuther’s ideology was that it was rooted in a broader view of community. He shared the view enunciated many years earlier by the first Henry Ford that business would remain strong only if the consumer market remained strong; and that the working class could become a strong component of the consumer market; and, therefore, auto workers had to be paid well so they could afford various products and have enough leisure to consume them usefully.

I once had a chance to meet Walter Reuther at my brother’s high-school graduation from a school which Reuther’s daughter attended. Sitting across from him at a picnic table, I listened to his views on Civil Rights efforts in the south. He spoke German fluently and took an interest in Germans living in the United States, including an exchange student from Berlin at my own high school. One could also see that he was intensely proud of his daughter, and she of him. So this was the human side of Walter Reuther that did not seem to fit so feared a person.

Then, many years later, I also met Victor Reuther, his brother, again a kindly man with a variety of interests. Now an outsider in labor circles, Victor Reuther was writing a book on Americans who had lived in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. This was the same man who, together with Walter, had organized workers at the Kelsey-Hayes plant in the 1930s by staging a phony illness and shutdown of the assembly line. The event has become legendary.

Another Detroit labor figure whose fame rivaled Reuther’s was the Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa. He was a comparatively nonideological union leader known for his rough and tough organizing tactics. Yet, Hoffa was respected by business managers as someone who, after an agreement was reached, kept his word. I never met Hoffa but have heard that he frequented the Sanders ice cream place at the corner of Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard, about a mile from my home. Then, of course, he made the mistake of dining with some persons of dubious character at the Macchus restaurant in Bloomfield Hills and was probably murdered, though his body has not been found. Hoffa’s son “Jim” today leads the Teamsters.

The automobile industry attracted, besides union organizers, black migrants from the south. Today, the city of Detroit has a predominantly black population while its suburbs are predominantly white. The African American presence in that city has included certain notable personalities. The first in a line of superstars was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion in the 1930s and 1940s. Louis’ bouts with Max Schmeling, a one-time favorite of Adolf Hitler, were the ultimate in racial symbolism. Detroiters of all races were proud that he came from our city.

Then, in the 1960s, Detroit became known as the center of the “Motown” sound. The Motown label, featuring the Supremes, “Smokey” Robinson, and others, created a distinct type of rock n’ roll music with black performers. Gordy Berry, the head of the company, bought the old Van Lennep house in Indian village; I used to walk by that house on my way to grade school. Aretha Franklin, “the queen of soul”, is another Detroit singer of superstar stature. I think her father used to be the pastor of a church on Mack Avenue.

One could also mention that Rosa Parks, mother of the Civil Rights movement, lived in Detroit for many years after I left the city. She was employed in the Congressional office of Rep. John Conyers. I often visited Conyers’ Washington, D.C. office when he was promoting shorter-workweek legislation, but not the Detroit office.

At the time when I lived in Detroit, there was a black religious personality named “Prophet Jones” who captured people’s imaginations through his flamboyant lifestyle. He held regular services at a theater downtown that started at midnight and lasted most of the night. Prophet Jones’ main claim to fame, however, was that he convinced his followers to give him things. Two school teachers gave him a fur coat valued at more than $10,000. He lived in a mansion once owned by a General Motors executive. Anyone who lived in Detroit in the late 1940s and early 1950s would have heard of Prophet Jones.

The City that Used to Be

In other words, Detroit in those days was a place of some vitality. That huge population - then the nation’s fourth largest city - which the automobile industry had attracted included individuals of great talent and creativity. It was not planned but grew out of a dynamic situation created by that industry and its job opportunities around which the community developed. What it lacked was the elegance and reputation that some other cities had such as Boston, Philadelphia, or New York.

The priesthood, both educational and religious, did not look with favor on Detroit and the things for which it stood. Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian, attacked Henry Ford for his paternalistic attitude toward workers. How could such an ignorant man be allowed to become so powerful? Detroit did not have the cultivated traditions of other cities. It had a social elite made rich from the automobile industry and certain cultural aspirations that the nouveau riche customarily pursue. But I would say, Detroit also had an authenticity that other cities would find hard to match.

Sadly, Detroit is not what it was when I lived there as a boy. I have visited my old neighborhood in on the east side of town and it strikes me as a ghost town. Vernor highway, which used to bustle with traffic all day long, has become a quiet thoroughfare. The neighborhood, called “Indian Village”, has a pastoral quality about it. The same slums surround it as when I lived there except that they, too, seem depopulated. There are many vacant lots.

Going further to Van Dyke and East Grand Boulevard, one finds houses in advanced states of disrepair. The old Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard, where my Dad used to honk when we were driving in our 1946 Packard, has evidently been vacant for many years, if not decades, though it is still standing. Even the General Motors building farther up the boulevard has a different feel to it now that the company’s headquarters have moved to the Renaissance Center along the river. The city’s hopes for economic revival now rest upon gambling casinos rather than automobiles.

I realize that this crumbling city may be a metaphor for my life as I grow old and frail. It may be a metaphor for the times in which we live. Our nation has become deindustrialized. It has become and remains racially divided, even as greater Detroit is divided between the white suburbs and the black inner city. Today, we live more under the thumb of an insistent priesthood - in education, religion, politics, and the media - which tells us what to think and how we must live. An ignorant, uneducated tinkerer such as Henry Ford would not be allowed to succeed.

I realize that my view of Detroit is filtered through the optimistic lens of youth and privilege. There are some who say that this city has always been a dirty, unfortunate place to live. Yes, but I have my memories. What I remember of Detroit is part of my own positive identity, even if it is merely an idea. That city was real.

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