On this day in 1941, workers start clearing trees from hundreds of acres of land near Ypsilanti, Michigan, some 30 miles west of Detroit, in preparation for the construction of the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant, which will use Henry Ford’s mass-production technology to build B-24 bomber planes for World War II. During the war, Detroit was dubbed the “Arsenal of Democracy,” as American automakers reconfigured their factories to produce a variety of military vehicles and ammunition for the Allies.
When it opened in 1941, expectations were high for Willow Run, which at some 3.5 million square feet was called the world’s largest factory under a single roof. Early on, however, the plant was plagued by such issues as labor shortages and earned the nickname “Willit Run?” The initial problems were later ironed out, as workers were recruited from the South, women were hired and employee housing was constructed. Willow Run eventually employed over 42,000 people and by 1944, the plant was producing one plane every hour. By the end of the war in 1945, more than 8,600 B-24s had been built at Willow Run and the plant’s mass-production techniques were hailed as a symbol of American ingenuity.
Following World War II, the plant was used by the newly formed, independent automaker Kaiser-Frazer. In 1953, auto giant General Motors bought Willow Run and used the facility to make transmissions. Starting in 2003, GM spent a reported $600 million to renovate the plant in order to produce a new 6-speed rear-wheel drive automatic transmission. By 2008, GM, along with much of the auto industry, had been hit hard by the growing global economic crisis and the company was forced to ask the federal government for a multi-billion-dollar bailout loan in order to remain operational. Also that year, GM lost its title as the world’s top-selling automaker–a crown it had held since the early 1930s–to Japan’s Toyota. On June 1, 2009, GM announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. As part of its bankruptcy reorganization plans, the auto giant said it would shutter the (by then) 5-million-square-foot, 335-acre Willow Run plant. At the time, the plant employed over 1,300 hourly and salaried workers, down from a peak of some 14,000 employees in the 1970s.