MCM Spports Purdue Program

Pontiac West’s long, storied history is coming to an end
By Joseph Szczesny
Of The Oakland Press

General Motors Corp. Has begun to demolish an old manufacturing complex in the center of Pontiac linked to the city’s automotive heritage.

Janine Fruehan, GM spokeswoman, said Friday that GM has opted to move ahead with the complex occupying one of Pontiac’s oldest, most storied industrial sites. All the buildings on the triangular site bounded by Woodward Avenue, South Boulevard, Franklin Road and Rapid Street will be leveled over the next eight to nine months, she said.

“We are demolishing the buildings, and the site is coming down as we speak,” she said. “That has been part of our plan. As we make decisions to close facilities, we look at whether they would be any potential for reuse. There was no productive reuse of these buildings, so it was in our best interest to take them down.” Ninety-five percent of the material from the site will be recycled.

Fruehan said GM plans to promote the site for redevelopment next year.

The last group of GM employees to occupy the site were employed in what was called the Pontiac Validation Center, where parts from suppliers were checked for dimensional accuracy and for quality. The work was transferred to Warren during the winter.

Part of the site was once occupied by the Wilson Foundry, one of the first local companies to hire African-Americans. Pontiac’s largest African-American neighbourhoods sprang up within walking distance of the foundry.

The site has belonged to GM since before World War I, when the company acquired the Rapid Truck Co. Rapid Truck, which later became GMC, filled some of GM’s first military contracts.

Truck manufacturing was transferred to a larger plant along South Boulevard in the 1920s, and the site on Woodward was largely vacant until GM started producing military material during World War II. It built military material during World War II. It built military equipment through the Korean War.

The plant became surplus again in the 1950s but was put back into use in the early 1960s. GM began building some of its first vans and recreational vehicles there and moved to expand the site and close off a street running through it.

The van and RV business became a causality in the late 1970s, and GM retooled the plant again to build small pickups. They were a major success, and production boomed. The site expanded again in the 1980s. Employment there climbed past 2,500 as the small trucks were redesigned into some of GM’s first SUVs.

By 1990, however GM was rebranching in the face of competition from Asia and re-energizing Ford Motor Co., which had developed the first four-door SUV – the Ford Explorer. As GM moved to redesign its SUVs, the Pontiac West plant became surplus and closed for good in the mid-1990s.

The site was given a new lease on life as a prototype plant where new trucks were hand-built before undergoing crash tests and other evaluations by GM engineers.

Then GM closed the prototype plant in Pontiac and shifted the work to Warren. The move was completed last year after what was the last of a long series of battles with United Auto Workers Loval 594.

The last building standing will be a train shed erected in the late 1980s, when the plant was operating as an assembly point for SUVs, Fruehan said.

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