On Water Street, in Flint Michigan, was factory one of the Durant-Dort Company. The mother of the General Motors Corporation was located in a former woolen mill, built in 1880. Over on Hamilton Avenue, the company opened it headquarters in 1904, including engine manufacturing, parts and Buick Automobiles. This was only the beginning, eventually, this site covered over 235 acres.
The AC Delco Spark Plug facility on Industrial Avenue was added in a building constructed before 1912, replacing its original facility, inside the Buick Building from 1908. In the mid 1920’s AC took over the Dort Automobile plant, manufacturing air, fuel and oil filters, becoming known as Flint East. The Flint Manufacturing Division opened a plant on Chevrolet Avenue before 1913, building engine assemblies and engine parts manufacturing. I could go on for days with lists of GM facilities and this is just GM, GM had thousands, if not, tens of thousands of vendors and suppliers.
When you look at a classic car, it seems impossible to fully understand it all. To take all the parts and sub-assemblies, putting them all in the same place, available at a particular instant, to bolt on to your car. Somewhere in this maze of building and factories, someone was paid by GM to design window moldings or ash-trays or headlight switches. Say you’re building 350 small-blocks at the rate of a hundred an hour, how many gallons of Chevy orange paint will you need, for an eight-hour shift? You’d need 6,400 pistons and that might sound easy enough. Only, even standard pistons, aren’t all standard, manufacturers allowed for boring variances by having a .001 over standard and a .002 over standard. Technically, three standard pistons.
Head bolts? 17 per head x 2 = 34 x 100 per hour now, allow for shortage and waste. How much room will they take up, how much do they weigh, how are they packaged? This army of workers in all of their functions, built these great cars. Someone stamped the fender or the hood, your steering wheel was sitting in a bin, with all the other steering wheels. It was ordered months before, by staffers and engineers who worked at designing your car for two years. These designers fought battle royals over costs, materials and styling. Everything had to be checked and re-checked, lab-tested, road-tested, each part meticulously designed, until the day it was assembled on the line, destined to become your car.
From the Buick City blogspot; “The combined factories of Buick City were known as Factory #86. The tank farm was where the chemicals for the paint shop were off loaded, held in tanks then piped to the appropriate places. Factory #44 built in 1974 was the paint dept. Factory #84 was still division #78 Engineering. Old #40 first floor was the tire and wheel room, with the other 3 floors belonging to maintenance. New #40 first floor north end was engine dress, midway south was the body marriage, the south end was all the other things like car pamphlets, floor mats, and front and rear fascia’s. From there the car proceeded to the second floor for all it’s trim, tires /wheels and such then back down to the first floor, before either going to repair or the final audit. The cars were then reloaded onto a carrier for the long overhead trip to the first floor, north west corner of factory #94 for shipping either by truck or rail. The second floor of #40 was always like my home away from home. At the end we were just considered another trim department, the second floor was connected by four bridges, 2 going to factory #04 and one that crossed Division st. going to factory #02 plus one going to old #40. You could also go all the way over the tracks to #94 second floor or to truck repair in factory #17, you could also exit onto Division st. At the end of Buick City our fork truck repair was located on the second floor factory#02. Factory #44 first floor when first built was the engine line but after Buick City was created the first floor was all large tanks filled with primer which the cars body was submerged in. The second floor was (mostly) robots spraying paint. The first floor of factory #04 was where the seats and other interior parts came together, with the second floor south-end being the sealer line. The north end was another trim dept, with the extreme north end for management office’s. The third floor was mostly where the cars just ran around kind of in a holding pattern until they were sent to final assembly, with the north west corner being the Buick crib/stores. The fourth floor may have still contained the ovens but I don’t remember. The body shop #12 was where the Robogate was located, then what was called the five line were smaller presses but still huge for stamping numerous smaller parts. The #12c annex was the home of the giant presses, welders, side buildup, floor buildup, doors, hoods, deck-lids, everything you can imagine. Annex #12c still had an inside rail dock. Factory #02 first floor south-end was for welding operations (day shift only), the north-end for fascia storage(where I worked), the old train shed, was for A.G.V. setup (automated guided vehicle). Factory #29 was from start to finish the tool makers plant. Old factory #11 was now #31, building oil and water pumps but previous to Buick City was the axle plant and before that the famous engine plant. That building still survives. Factory #85 was now used just for metallurgy and we held meetings there on different matters. Buick personnel had the hospital and fire department on the first floor. The Union hall is self explanatory. Last but not least Oak Park is still surviving even today.”
We take it all for granted, unless, we’ve rebuilt a car or two. Then we begin to have an inkling of production differences, different supplier’s, early, middle or end of the model year. These things happen on the fly and they can’t stop to figure it out. Like the railroad, if you stop a train outside of Denver, all the trains behind must alter their schedules, until the delays stretch to Saint Louis.
Even though the cars were built to be the same, somehow each one was a little different.
Each one, built by hands and heads in an unfathomable myriad of industrial jobs, pressing wheel bearings on spindle’s or making engine block castings. Keeping up with time-cards or documenting production. The Buick City facility was an industrial powerhouse, thousands of workers, each doing specific tasks and like magic, a new car. A new car destined to become a classic, capturing our imaginations or reminding us of our pasts. Built with thousands of hours of labor and know-how, by people we’ll never know, people whose work survives the factories and speaks to us still.