On September 3, 1900, the first car ever made in Flint, Michigan makes its debut in the town’s Labor Day parade. Designed and built by a county judge and weekend tinkerer named Charles H. Wisner, the car was one of the only cars built in Flint that did not end up being produced by General Motors. In the end, only three of the Wisner machines were ever built.
Wisner’s car, nicknamed the “Buzz-Wagon,” was a somewhat ridiculous contraption: it was “very noisy,” according to The Flint Journal; its only door was in the rear; and it had no brakes. In order to stop, Wisner had to collide with something sturdy, usually the side wall of his machine shop. At the Labor Day parade, however, he didn’t have a problem with the brakes; instead, in front of 10,000 spectators, the car stalled and had to be pushed off the parade route.
Wisner’s lemon notwithstanding, Flint soon became the cradle of the American auto industry. GM was formed there in 1908, and the city quickly became known for all the Chevrolets and Buicks–not to mention the engine parts and electronics–produced and assembled there. The sit-down strikes at Flint’s GM plants in 1936 and 1937 won union recognition for autoworkers along with a 30-hour workweek and a 6-hour day, overtime pay, seniority rights, and “a minimum rate of pay commensurate with an American standard of living.” These victories guaranteed a middle-class existence for generations of autoworkers. In fact, for a long time, Flint had the highest average per-household income of any city in the United States.
But GM has been declining painfully since the 1970s, and Flint has suffered along with it. The 1988 film Roger & Me, which told the story of 30,000 layoffs at one of Flint’s GM plants, made the city’s woes famous. In July 1999, GM closed its Buick City complex, the last assembly plant in the city. And in the beginning of 2009, as a financial crisis enveloped the auto industry and the nation as a whole, Michigan’s Genesee County (which includes Flint) had an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent–higher than it had been in 18 years and almost twice the national average.