Detroit: Capital of the Automotive Age

Stefan Link, Dartmouth College

In 1913, Detroit’s Ford Motor Company made history when it introduced moving assembly lines into car manufacturing. In 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. A century ago, Detroit was a fast-growing metropolis, attracting immigrants from Europe and America’s rural South


Albert Kahn’s Ford Rotunda, built for the Chicago 1934 World’s Fair

into its burgeoning automobile factories. Today, Detroit is still reeling from the disaster of 2007-12 – a crisis that locals nicknamed the “third” Great Depression (after 1929-33 and 1979-82). Detroit has lost 1.4 million inhabitants since its peak population in the 1950s, leaving behind a poverty-stricken African-American city (more than 80% of Detroiters are black). Renewal efforts today are divided: while deep-pocketed investors shine up the attractive 1920s skyscraper landscape downtown, attracting a new – mostly young and white – creative class, thousands of residential houses in the surrounding black neighborhoods are earmarked for demolition.

Like no other city in the USA, Detroit reflects the triumph and tragedy of America’s automotive age, which dawned at the turn of the last century. In 1900, Detroit was a modest and fairly typical Midwestern town, firmly embedded in the vibrant “agro-industrial” economy of the Great Lakes Basin. Then came Henry Ford and the automobile: together, they launched Detroit onto a hundred-year trajectory of first astonishing rise and then equally stupendous decline. But Detroit’s arc is not a purely American story. At its peak, Detroit was a city whose industry and architecture radiated worldwide. And like a distorting mirror, Detroit reflects in strange but recognizable form the experiences of many other “car cities” in the age of the automobile: migration, labor strife, postwar affluence, and post-Fordist crisis.


General Motors Building (1923)

Detroit’s rise was swift. Between 1900 and 1930, the city’s population increased almost sixfold. By the time the Roaring Twenties came to a close, the automobile industry (carmakers and their suppliers) had relegated America’s former leader – steel – to second place in value-added and wages paid. The industrial center of gravity moved from the Northeast of the United States to the Midwest. The assembly line jobs so characteristic of automobile production were harsh, exhausting, and often degrading. But they required little skill and paid high wages, a powerful draw for sparsely educated newcomers, both white and black, from the declining cotton South. They were soon joined by immigrants from Poland, Hungary, and Russia. Then, after World War I tore apart the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese, Yemenis, and Greeks flocked to Detroit.

The boom of the auto industry ensured that Michigan soon led the United States in wages per capita, allowing the New York Times to exult in 1927: “Detroiters are the most prosperous slice of average humanity that now exists or that has ever existed.” [1] Detroit mushroomed into a humming multicultural city, cleft by ethnic differences but flush with cash. Said one young Southerner about the fruits of auto work: “Each time I closed my eyes, visions of hundred-dollar paychecks danced in front of them. Daydreams full of new suits and Saturday nights with a pocketful of dough to spend in the speak-easies floated through my mind.” [2]

As capital of the world’s rising automobile industry, Detroit originated a modern style of commercial and industrial architecture that spread like wildfire around the globe. Detroit architect Albert Kahn (1869-1942) designed not only the stunning skyscrapers of the automotive elite, such as the neoclassical General Motors Building (1919-23) and the Fisher Building (1928), whose expansive double-tier design and lavish Art-Deco interiors are echoed by Stalin’s Seven Sisters (1947-53).

Of lasting influence were Kahn’s industrial buildings. For Henry Ford, Kahn designed the iconic Highland Park plant, which became the blueprint for Fiat’s impressive Lingotto plant in Turin (begun 1915, completed 1923, closed in 1970).


Aerial View of Fiat’s Lingotto Plant, 1928

Kahn also designed the half-mile-long “B Building”, the productive heart of Ford’s massive River Rouge complex. But Kahn’s most pervasive – and, ironically, least well-known – legacy was the infrastructure of Soviet industrialization. During the First Five Year Plan (1928-1932), Soviets asked Kahn to design the factories that soon mushroomed across the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s, Kahn trained several hundred architects in Moscow. As a result, “several hundred factories in 21 cities” emerged in the Soviet Union based on Kahn’s design.[3] The most famous among them were the Stalingrad Tractor Plant – the site of protracted battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in World War II.

Kahn Stalingrad Tractor

Albert Kahn’s Stalingrad Tractor Factory

In the 1930s, nations like Italy, Germany, and Japan recovered from the Great Depression by breaking with world markets and pushing domestic industrialization. In consequence, engineers flocked to Detroit to learn the secrets of American mass production and begin to employ them at home. As part of the technology transfer underlying the First Five Year Plan, Soviet production specialists established a standing commission at the Ford Motor Company between 1929 and 1935. Backed by an industrializing Japanese state, engineers in the employ of the newly constituted Nissan and Toyota companies traveled to Detroit to sojourn at the factories of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Fiat sent its representatives, and Ferdinand Porsche hired hundreds of German-American skilled workers to help in building up the brandnew Volkswagen plant. Soon, new “Detroits” – massive automobile factories, surrounded by worker cities executed in the modernist style du jour – sprang up around the world: Gorky in central Russia (1932), Toyota-Koromo in Japan (1938), “Stadt des KdF-Wagens” (Volkswagen) in Lower Saxony, and Fiat-Miafiori in Northern Italy (1939) laid the infrastructure of global Fordism.

World War II lifted Detroit to its apex. Michigan’s automakers were the world’s leading industrial enterprises, and they vehemently threw their weight behind the American war effort – with crushing success. Though Nazi Germany’s and Japan’s industrial powers were considerable, they were no match against America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” once it hit stride in 1942. Famous was Ford’s bomber factory at Willow Run, a few miles west of Detroit’s city limits. Willow Run’s Kahn-designed “Enormous Room” – a 1.25 mile-long shop floor – put out bombers in line production, at its peak reaching one B-24 Liberator bomber almost every hour. Voracious for labor, Michigan’s arms factories triggered the “second” Great Migration of African-Americans from the South. Neighborhoods and workplaces remained mostly segregated, and employers often shrewdly exploited racial and class divisions among workers. These tensions erupted in 1943.


Interior of Fisher Building (1928)

Despite remaining a city fractured by racial and ethnic tensions, Detroit was at its peak in the immediate postwar period. Auto workers, organized in strong unions and backed by the federal government, negotiated solid wages and benefits packages, and successfully challenged employers’ hegemony over the workplace. Industrial workers arrived in the middle class. Steady productivity gains created the rare win-win situation of simultaneously rising wages and rising profits. This was classical ‘Fordism’: middle class purchasing power fueled economic growth. Similarly, automobile production became the linchpin of economic growth in advanced European nations after World War II. The technology transfers of the 1930s began to pay off for West Germany and Japan, who began exporting their cars into the US. In hindsight, Honda’s 1979 decision to open a factory in Ohio (the first Japanese carmaker move production to the US) marked the decisive inflection point for America’s once mighty – and, some would say, oblivious and self-satisfied – automobile industry.

Detroit’s current plight is owed to the industrial restructuring of the global economy, a process that began in the 1970s and has only accelerated since. Yet urban decline is not the inexorable fate of 20th-century car cities. In stark contrast to Detroit, for example, Wolfsburg – home of Volkswagen – was reported in 2013 to be Germany’s richest city. This contrast suggests that “creative destruction” is not a purely economic formula, but a process decisively influenced by social dynamics and political decisions. Detroit’s 20th century boom created an industrial monoculture in Southeastern Michigan that left workers few alternatives once crisis hit. Detroit’s poverty is also owed to “white flight” – the typical migration pattern that has eviscerated inner cities in the US since the 1970s: move beyond 8 Mile, Detroit’s northern border, and the white suburbs begin and average affluence rises. Without repeated political intervention, finally, America’s automobile industry would arguably have fared even worse. Chrysler received its first federal bailout in 1979; the pattern was repeated in 2009.

Even today, decades into post-Fordism, and in spite of recurring profitability crises, nations’ automobile sectors remain crucial sources of employment and export proceeds. But a global population explosion and the rise of East Asia has transformed the industry beyond recognition. China today has surpassed all other nations as the world’s foremost producer of cars, all of which it sells at home: a pillar in the Chinese leadership’s efforts to steer the economy from its export addiction towards domestic consumption. 15 years into the 21st century, the automobile industry remains one of the most important sectors of the world economy – in employment, value-added, and in its spill-over effects into construction, oil, and engineering. It is worthwhile to recall the unlikely locale where it all started: around 1900, in Southeastern Michigan, in an unremarkable Midwestern town called Detroit.

[1] Quoted in George Galster, Driving Detroit (Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2012), 81.

[2] Quoted in Joyce Peterson, “Auto Workers and Their Work, 1900-1933,” Labor History (1981), 222.

[3] Sonia Melnikova-Raich, “The Problem with Two ‘Unknowns’: How an American Architect and a Soviet Negotiator Jump-Started the Industrialization of Russia, Part I: Albert Kahn”, Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 36:2 (2010), 75.


Stefan Link teaches economic history at Dartmouth College. He earned his PhD at Harvard and has been a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute. He is working on a book that explores the global reception of Fordism, 1919-1945.

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