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Posted on Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 1:28 p.m.

Watching Michigan's manufacturing history auctioned off, piece by piece, at GM's Willow Run factory

By Nathan Bomey

This is what the end looks like.

Somewhere, there’s a beginning, too - but not just yet. Not today.

Today, auctioneers are gathered at General Motors’ 5 million-square-foot Willow Run manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti Township, a 335-acre site that will be closed for good Dec. 23, displacing the 320 workers that remain.

The auctioneers are selling off 260 pieces of complex machinery, the second of two auctions for manufacturing equipment once used at this historic plant.

Two hundred sixty items. These machines are lifeless now, valuable only to a global audience of several hundred manufacturing executives who have come here to scavenge for bargains.

They’ll get what they came for. Hilco Industrial Co. and Maynards Industries Ltd. - the firms handling the sale for GM’s bankruptcy estate, officially called Motors Liquidation Co. - say they expect the sale to reap “millions.”

This auction is an emotional visual representation of what we’ve lost. These machines meant something to Michigan. They were our economy. They kept this plant running. They kept our people working.

At one point in the 1970s this place employed some 14,000 workers - and, during World War II, even produced bomber planes for the military.

By the time GM announced in summer 2009 that it would close the Willow Run complex as part of its bankruptcy restructuring, there were about 1,300 workers.

Those days are a distant memory now. Drive the loop around the complex and you’ll scarcely run into anyone. The dilapidated site offers a snapshot of our manufacturing heritage and of its decline.

I doubt the international bidding audience watching online and gathered in this expansive room - a smattering of prospective bidders milling about hundreds of stained chairs - knows much of this plant’s history.


Auctioneers Robert Levy of Hilco Industrial, left, and Taso Sofikitis of Maynards Industries sell off equipment from the GM Willow Run/Ypsi Township plant in a conference room this afternoon.

Melanie Maxwell |

The bidders are busy perusing the list of available items - such as fineblanking press lines and grinders - chatting on their smart phones with their industrial contacts and sipping free coffee that looks like it’s been here since GM bought the site in 1953.

“Usual crowd,” one bidder tells a colleague by phone. “Not a huge crowd. Most people bid online anyway.”

The auctioneer is speeding through items. One by one, machines find their way into new hands.

Item No. 1: Pratt & Whitney B-12 Inch S/N 54070 12-inch vertical shaper, rotary table 24-inch diameter, DRO, BT 211748/6984 (COL B-45/Balcony). Removal cost: $494.

The auctioneer describes the item and starts the bidding. Final bid: $300.

The next item: Pratt & Whitney 2A S/N 24748 precision jig borer, Table 22-inch-by-44-inch, BT 211641/12806 (COL B-49/balcony. Removal cost: $1,350.

It doesn’t sell.

Other items fare better. Item No. 22, a boring mill, sells for $105,000 after a webcast bidder and someone bidding from the auction room get into a bidding war. Item No. 29, a 175-ton hydraulic press brake, sells for $26,000.

This auction is going to last hours - maybe into the night. It takes time to disassemble an economy.

The bidders and the machines will soon be gone - off to boost someone else’s economy - and we’ll be left.

The Willow Run plant is just one of many of its kind. Abandoned auto plants litter Michigan - a physical and emotional reminder of what we’ve lost.

How do we make people care about Michigan again?


Auctioneers are selling off 260 items from GM's Willow Run plant today.

Melanie Maxwell I

What do we do with a complex so big you could fit 110 football fields inside of it?

We work. Just like before.

The same principles and work ethic that turned Michigan into a global economic powerhouse are the same characteristics that will dig us out of this mess.

The machines? We don’t need them. They’re relics of our past. No reason to look back.

Time to press on. Are we leaving manufacturing behind? Absolutely not.

Manufacturing is what made us great - it’s what made us who we are. Now, we will reconstruct our state, piece by piece, and manufacturing will play a significant role. In fact, a recent economic forecast by the University of Michigan suggested that the manufacturing sector will add a few thousand jobs over the next couple years.

Our manufacturing workforce, our engineering brainpower, our network of prestigious educational institutions, our beautiful natural landscape - they will propel us forward.

Wave goodbye to the machines. An era has passed. Opportunity dawns.

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.



Sun, Jan 9, 2011 : 11:35 p.m.

There have been many long debates on American Made versuse foreign made. Yes the transplants have some manufacturing plants in the U.S. and yes they have some homologation in the U.s. BUT their primary engineering centers and value added functions are in Japan. Toyota has a technical center in Ann ARbor, but the basic engineering for powertrains and platforms is done in Japan. The US employees can change some metal stampings but they cannot change the IAT, ETC, etc. (as we can see from the Toyota hearings all those deicisions are made in Japan. Putting leggo blocks together in Ohio does not increase value added activities in the U.S. GM For Chrysler etc. have their primary engineering, marketing and finance jobs/positions/functions etc. in the U.S.. These are the jobs that are value added and cannot be easily moved. These American companies have put their strategic functions and skills in America and concomittantly the high salaries. If people want to buy a foreign car because they like it... fine. but don't fool yourself and try to cloak it as an American car... because it is not.

Marvin Face

Thu, Dec 23, 2010 : 10:29 a.m.

I have a BMW and a Volkswagen. Each purposely purchased, with cash, for the reasons stated above by other commenters. I try to purchase as few union-made items as possible.

Alfred Boggs

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 12:11 a.m.

Rick, Thanks for a good comment. I worked at the assembly plant for over 2 years when I started with GM. Was laid off one day at the assembly plant and hired the next at Hydramatic. You are so right about the foreign cars at Hydramatic. These were the good ole days.I arrived in Ypsilanti at 4:30 in the afternoon and at 3:30 the next day I was working at the assembly plant. We worked hard but people were generally happier then.

Alfred Boggs

Sat, Dec 4, 2010 : 11:43 p.m.

As a retire and having worked here 28 years.Yes,It is sad to see GM leave this area of Michigan.So many of michigan people have brought this on themselves. Not realizine the consquences of their action by buying foreign companies products. The results of buying foreign products reguardless of where they are made still adds to the same results. No one has mentioned what happens to the profits the foreign companies are making and what they do with them. Every dollar of profits the companies make go to the home countrries and is used to benefit those countries and adds to our balance of payments deficit. This simply means less money our future generations will have to work for or with. This can only mean a lower standard of living for our working people.


Sat, Dec 4, 2010 : 10:50 p.m.

I've had the same experience as Ghost. I have always owned either Ford GM and one Chrysler and frequently had mechanical problems. My wife bought a 94 Honda Civic, and like Ghost's zero maintenance problems. On my 99 Chevy, made in Canada, the sunroof won't open, the interior plastic parts are breaking, one window switch had to be replaced, the engine had to be overhauled for gasket leaks........ The Civic, 15 yrs, did rust and was finally put to rest, for another Honda. So for me to buy a GM, it will take a few years to make sure they are going to survive. Chrysler? Not. Ford? Maybe likely my 1st choice but I wonder if I can get zero % interest like Toyota offers often. Now if GM or Ford would agree to fix the car for free if it breaks down, I would buy one. That is what I think they will have to do to stay in business.

Rick Haglund

Sat, Dec 4, 2010 : 10:34 a.m.

Nice story, Nathan. Two memories: I toured the assembly plant as a kid, courtesy of my cousin who was a salaried worker at Willow Run. They were building rear-engine Corvairs and front-engine Chevy IIs on the same assembly line. GM had flexible manufacturing plants back then! Who knew? Later, as an Ann Arbor News reporter, I toured the transmission plant, then called Hydramatic. I was surprised to see a variety of European luxury cars--Jaguars, Rolls Royces, BMWs, etc. in the testing area. Turned out GM sold transmissions to those automakers. Quite a place.


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 5:23 p.m.

The impact of the loss of thousands of jobs and a key facility and industry that was at the core of our community will be felt by not only all of us in the greater Ypsilanti Community and Washtenaw County but through the State of Michigan and our country for a lifetime. The announcement of the closure of both our General Motors/UAW plants ripped at the heart and soul of all the employees and many of us who know the heartache first hand of losing a job. The closures stung even more deeply to know that both of our GM plants built better quality products at a more efficient profitablity than other facilities that became home to our products. Our sorrow at the loss of these facilities and the jobs they provided for workers who are key members of our community will forever be remembered. The valiant efforts of a facility and a family of workers that was pivotal in stopping the ravage of evil that was positioned to destroy the democratic world in World War II, we shall forever be grateful to. Many of us are ashamed of leadership in our county that would allow the virtual destruction of our industrial manufacturing base in the name of short term profit. The GM/UAW Willow Run Plants, both Powertrain and Willow Run Assembly will sadly be a part of our history, which hopefully will never be forgotton!


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 11:08 a.m.

They can't use the building as it stands. They would have to tear it down? Have a mega mall? Fly in and fly out. Like a drive in? The huge parking lot is gathering weeds too. Wow. Can't believe it is an end of an era.


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 6:47 a.m.

"Yes, let's pay EVERYONE crappy wages." You helped that trend with your purchase. Get ready; it's coming back around...


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 6:42 a.m.

"Please tell me which of these is a "foreign" car." If a local company outsources your academic peers by bringing low paid foreign teachers into local classrooms, would that be 'foreign'?


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 3:21 a.m.

It hurts hearing it gone. My late Father was a Journeyman (Tool and Die) Maker at the plant for 37 years. I think back on many summers of being able to take a tour of the plant and Daddy was so proud to show me the various areas of the facility, the machines he repaired. The loud noses of the plant, is something that will never forget. Luckly enough, my kids (now grown) had the opportunity to experience the tour also. They can pass this story of their experience to their kids or grandkids, in the future. With this, a little history will live on. Still, another piece of my history is gone, like my beloved Father who passed away in 2007. I do wish that this plant could have been saved but, Michigan's landscape will be changing for the future. Can this area survive without Powertrain, formerly Hydro-Matic? Time will time. The Christmas parties at Local 735 will be a memory that will live with me forever. In the summer, the annual picnic with the live horse drawn tractors and the carnival rides will be close to my heart. Daddy loved taking me to both of these annual events, went I was a child. Goodbye Powertrain and of all the workers of Local 735, during the years. You will be missed.


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 12:27 a.m.

What are the plans for the building there?


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 12:13 a.m.

another piece of history gone.GM,though had a huge amount of overcapacity so some plants had to auto plant in my community thats been around as far back as i can remember (very soon to be 65)closed for good either 2 or 3 x-mas's ago.there was a huge impact in my town but we survived as far as foreign cars go they are here tom stay whether we like it or not so get use to it. is a Honda made by Americans in MARYSVILLE.OH. TRULY A FOREIGN CAR? Various auto companies make vehicles in Canada and/or Mexico,which the last time i checked were foreign r those foreign cars?so u c it's a mixed up messed up mess.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 10:30 p.m.

Who knows who built your car, where and with what is all a mish mash anymore. Cry about right to work but it all boils down to making it...Paying the rent. "You must pay the rent...I can't pay the rent". People need living wages, this next generation doesn't even have a hope for a living wage, much less benefits, they don't even think they deserve it. Sad indeed....


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 9:15 p.m.

@Rita, the other side of your argument, which you're not mentioning, is the way the Big Three totally blew it, making bigger and bigger cars, not caring one bit about fuel economy, and letting the foreign competition get a head start on the future of automobiles for year after year while never seriously considering a more diverse portfolio of cars to manufacture. They gambled and lost big time. I'd love to buy an American-made car (I try to go American-made on as much as possible), but until they make an affordable upgrade to my 2001 Prius, they're not even an option.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 8:51 p.m.

NO union workers that I know will shop at Walmart. However, most with a family are just barely beyond getting basic necessities met....

James Anderson

Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 7:36 p.m.

ffej440: You are mistaken. I do not shop at Walmart. I don't work with anyone who does. That was a rash assumption.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 6:06 p.m.

Another important piece in the Next American City online magazine, this one on rethinking (and not giving up on) manufacturing in the Detroit region:


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 6 p.m.

Andy... Don't forget the teachers union. They should get paid crap like the rest of us. Maybe we could import teachers for cheap.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 5:57 p.m.

The same UAW workers are at Walmart buying cheap import everything else. Until EVERYONE gets the difference between "Free Trade" and "Fair Trade" we will never have manufacturing jobs here again.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 5:56 p.m.

... and the Union days are over. Right to Work! Lets get working!


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 5:46 p.m.

It is a sad day for Ypsi. Say what you will about "those greedy unions"...that brought to you the concept of the "weekend". The bomber plant provided the planes that helped win WWII; it provided jobs to this community for 50 years or that swelled the ranks of the middle class. Workers were paid fairly regardless of their skin color and could afford to buy the cars they produced and send their children to college. Indeed a sad day.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 5:35 p.m.

....and the people of Ann Arbor this area question what the heck happened as they drive their Toyotas, Lexus, Nissan, Honda etc. foreign cars and wonder where all the jobs went.....