Welcome 2 Detroit

Detroit ranked as America’s poorest and most dangerous big city for years. Now it’s reinventing itself – once again. A drive from the past into the future, through all the highs and lows of the automobile industry.
Text Georg Kacher
Photo Tom Salt

Detroit, January 1987. It’s snowing hard and it’s bitterly cold outside. Mayor ­Coleman Young has officially opened the first North American Auto Show, ­organized by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association with support from the exhi­biting manufacturers. The premiere is a flop, as the recession has the city firmly in its grip. These are bad times for the Big Three, whose automobiles are cast in an unfavorable light in the huge, poorly lit Cobo Hall. We count two show cars: the Chevrolet Express and the Oldsmobile Aurora Aerotech. Fifteen years later, there are seventeen concepts vying for the attention of more than 300,000 visitors. Which just goes to show that decline and recovery go hand in hand here between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

Few other automobile manufacturers have experienced and suffered through the roller coaster of success and struggle as thoroughly as Ford. In mid-September 2022, the company unveiled the seventh generation of its Mustang: old school V8 muscle reinterpreted with a tried-and-true formula. At the same time, reservations for the all-electric F-150 Lightning are going through the roof. Instead of 20,000 as originally planned, 150,000 vehicles are now scheduled to be produced every year. Not just anywhere, but at home, in Detroit, right next to the ­historic Ford River Rouge Complex, in the city where Henry Ford launched his Model T in 1908 and the history of Motown began. On the freshly built F-150 line, present and future run side by side: big-block eight-cylinder engines and 580-hp electric motors.

GM had to file for bankruptcy in 2009, Chrysler only survived with state aid, and Ford has also been in financial difficulties several times. Of course, it was always the others who were to blame.

Eric works in Team Lightning, earns $25 an hour, almost forty percent above the standard rate, and gets a kick out of beating the specified processing time of fifty-three seconds. Eric and his co-workers put in lucrative overtime hours plus weekend shifts, all thanks to the Lightning. But not even thirty miles to the west, Ford recently shuttered an old plant in Ypsilanti and showed the workforce to the door. The family has decided that it’s better to invest in Kansas and Tennessee, where lawmakers are beckoning with huge tax breaks and subsidies. If Detroit is anything like the hub of the automotive world, then really only for the Henry Ford Museum, the company headquarters and the product development center.

Back in the winter of 1987, we checked into a waterbed motel in Inkster for $80 a week, halfway between Arby’s and a gas station, where a few days later someone was arrested for shooting a traveling salesman just two rooms down the hall from us the night before. On the weekend of August 27–28, 2022, the press also reported three violent crimes resulting in death. Just another day in Detroit, and although it was a slow news day, the story wasn’t hot enough for page one. It still pays to be on your guard around the downtown area after dark; if in doubt, it’s safer to see the red light as green. But Detroit has seven lives, it has at least three of them left, and the city is currently experiencing another gold rush.

While one shabby shopping mall after another is closing down in the suburbs, the center is thriving. Gucci recently opened a second boutique downtown, and the 1920s Wurlitzer Building is now a trendy hotel.

Even the tight corset of vacant wasteland that edges the few skyscrapers like the backdrop of a dystopian Cormac McCarthy novel is in the process of renewal. Artisans, small businesses, newly created affordable housing, artists’ co-ops, pop-up pubs, revitalized green spaces and even a new streetcar line symbolize the spirit of optimism in the city, which is heavily indebted to the tune of seven billion dollars.

GM had to file for bankruptcy in 2009, Chrysler survived only with government aid, and Ford has been in financial trouble several times itself. The blame always lay elsewhere, of course: the lax protectionism, strict environmental regulations, the fragile economy, the circus in Washington. First it was the Japanese automakers who rattled the Big Three with their promise of quality, then the Koreans came along, and now fear of the Chinese threat is making the rounds. What happened?

The brains behind the combustion engine had learned nothing from the energy crisis nor have they been taking climate change seriously. Instead they opted to appease their slowly dying clientele with zero-sum leasing deals and cheaply produced trucks until the bird in the hand was no longer enough to survive and the two in the bush had long since flown away.

Fifteen years after Tesla, more than a century after the Detroit Electric, and following a spate of clueless executives, the realization that the planet can only be saved with a zero-emission offensive has finally taken hold even in Dearborn, Warren and Auburn Hills – especially as the unimaginative and uninspiring product range of the American manufacturers has scarcely any appeal anymore. Sedans, once a symbol of prosperity, have become shelf warmers even in America. With the exception of Lexus, the premium segment is firmly in European hands. Alternative technologies such as the fuel cell are developed elsewhere. And pickups are a purely American phenomenon. SUVs and crossovers, on the other hand, which are enjoying growing global popularity, are a completely different story. As an export product developed in Detroit, they would be a real hit if – yes, if – they at least promised ethical and moral absolution in the form of a carbon-neutral powertrain.

Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram now belong to Stellantis, which pulls the emissions strings from Europe. GM is once again fighting alone against the world, with Europe, following the divorce from Opel, currently just a white spot on the map. Ford has been experimenting like crazy, bought and sold first Aston Martin then Jaguar, made a mess of the Americanization of the Europe-produced Sierra and Scorpio, sacrificed Mercury for Lincoln, fell for Mazda, flirted with VW, brought Jiangling on board, and briefly considered co-development with Rivian. What came of it?

→ You can read this in the complete text by Georg Kacher, which appeared in ramp #59 "Tomorrow is yesterday". As well as the author's impressions when the Ford F-150 Lightning accelerates through electrically - and his assessment of how American mobility is currently developing.

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