When built in 1941, Willow Run was the biggest factory in the world, and maybe still is: 1.25 miles long, covering some 5 million square feet. It was here that Ford built the B-24 Liberator bomber in such quantities that one every 55 minutes came off the line.
That plane was instrumental in winning World War II, as Willow Run taught the world how to mass-produce complex machines with tremendous speed and accuracy. There’s a great video here of the process and the glory days, when some 42,000 people worked there.
The development of Willow Run played several roles in the history of the automobile as well. The foundations of lean production were created there, and after the war Toyota studied American methods, including those at Willow Run, and created a system that changed automaking forever.
Last Thursday, the plant closed for good. After GM bought the facility in 1953, it made the Corvair (right) from 1960 to 1969 (one of the company’s great cars, pace Ralph Nader), then Hydra-Matic transmissions, Fisher bodies, guns for the military in the Vietnam era and, in 2002, converted to produce six-speed transmissions.
Most of the running machinery is being sold at auction by Motors Liquidation Co., the “old GM,” while the plant and town of Ypsilanti are being pretty much left to die.
For a video on the last days of Willow Run, go here.
What will happen next to the facility is unclear, though there is work on an ambitious “Aerotropolis” plan for coupling the Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run airports to attract business.
The history of Willow Run is really an epitome of the history of manufacturing in the United States—at least from its peak to its present decline. It is a sad and frightening story, with no satisfying end in sight.
Can old facilities like Willow Run ever be reconstructed to serve new manufacturing (or other) needs?