Five years ago, Stacie Steward thought she was out of a job.
An electrician at Chrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, she had been laid off as her company careened into bankruptcy. A few months later, she learned her plant was going to close.
“I was scared,” Steward said, recalling how she struggled to accept the fact that she was going to have to move to another state if she wanted to keep working in the automobile industry. Chrysler was bankrupt. So was General Motors. Ford Motor Co. had saved itself only by mortgaging everything, including the Blue Oval.
“I thought that my whole life was going to be turned upside-down,” Steward said.
But today, the 42-year-old Macomb Township resident is celebrating as the wraps come off the all-new Chrysler 200, the car that saved her plant — and her life in Michigan.
The Chrysler 200 is proof of just how far the state’s auto industry has come since its brush with death in 2009. Chrysler and its new owner, Italy’s Fiat SpA, have invested almost a billion dollars and added 900 new jobs in a factory that was supposed to have been boarded up or torn down by now.
And it is not alone. Two of the other most important new products being unveiled this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Center — the 2015 Ford F-150 and the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe — also are designed, engineered and made in Michigan. Like the 200, they tell the story of the remarkable comeback of the companies, and the state, that produced them.
“It’s a huge American success story,” United Auto Workers President Bob King told The Detroit News in an interview Friday. “There’s a tremendously positive impact on the whole economy.”
Leveling the playing field
Much of that success is due to the sacrifices made by King’s members during painful contract negotiations in 2007, 2009 and 2011. UAW members gave up the security of jobs banks, company-funded retiree health benefits and agreed to close factories all over America to help keep General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC in business. But he said vehicles such as these and the jobs that have been added to build them make it clear those sacrifices were worth it.
“At the time, some people wondered whether it was worth it,” King said. “I don’t know how anyone can argue with the evidence today.”
David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, says those concessions eliminated what had been a $2,000-per-vehicle labor cost gap with foreign automakers operating in the United States.
“They leveled the playing field. And when you level the playing field, this industry is pretty good,” Cole told The News. “These new vehicles are a testament to that. It’s a reaffirmation of how good this country is and how good Detroit can be.”
Ford aims high
The new F-150, which also is being unveiled today, will help guarantee 4,300 jobs at Ford’s River Rouge manufacturing complex in Dearborn. Both the Dearborn Truck Plant and the Kansas City Assembly Plant, which also will produce the new pickup, already are running at three shifts.
“It’s securing their future. It’s so important to the state as a whole,” said Bruce Hettle, Ford’s new head of manufacturing for North America, noting that the F-150 has been the best-selling pickup in the United States for 37 years running. “We’re committed to the truck. We’re committed to the volume. We’re committed to staying on the top of the heap.”
To make sure the F-150 remains number one, Ford has invested $359 million at the Dearborn Truck Plant and another $484 million at the Dearborn Stamping Plant and Dearborn Diversified Manufacturing Plant, which are also located at the Rouge.
General Motors has invested more than $200 million and added more than 500 new jobs at its Lansing Grand River factory, which produces the Cadillac ATS and is getting ready to start building the ATS Coupe that will be unveiled Tuesday.
“I would consider this plant in Lansing to be the hub of the Cadillac renaissance,” said Tony Francavilla, who manages GM’s plants in Lansing. “The resurgence of manufacturing has really led the way back for the American economy, and we’re an important part of that.”
Tyree Minner can see that resurgence in the test vehicles already rolling off the line at Chrysler’s Sterling Heights plant. When he took over the factory in March 2010, he thought he was going to be the guy turning the lights off.
Instead he has watched it flourish, thanks to the concessions of the UAW and the leadership of Fiat.
“A lot of times you don’t get a second chance in the auto industry. We were given a second chance,” he said. “Our story is a story about people coming together and seeing that the people here deserved a second chance and giving them a second chance”
Steward said she and her co-workers are determined to show those people that it was worth it.
“Most everybody, they see this product as our future,” Steward said, adding that she plans to buy a new Chrysler 200 as soon as they go on sale this spring.
“It’s everything. It’s my job, its my livelihood, it’s my future. It’s our chance to prove we’re worth all the money that was invested here.”
Automakers from the U.S., Europe and Asia are expected to introduce more than 50 new models at the North American International Auto Show, whose press days are today and Tuesday. An estimated 5,000 U.S. and foreign journalists have registered to attend.
What the automakers introduce is crucial because sales growth is starting to slow and new models tend to capture more buyers than older ones.
Here’s a look at what’s expected from the show, which opens to the public on Saturday:
■Ford will introduce its long-awaited remake of the F-150 pickup — the best-selling vehicle in America. It will challenge GM’s recently redesigned Chevy Silverado. Ford will make widespread use of aluminum so the new truck is lighter and gets better gas mileage.
■General Motors: GM is showing off the new GMC Canyon, one of two small pickups it hopes will win back buyers who’ve shunned the segment in favor of bigger trucks and SUVs. It also has some high-performance Corvettes to show.
■Chrysler: Jeep SUVs and Ram pickup trucks have helped Chrysler return to profitability. But the company’s aging midsize cars have trouble competing in the biggest piece of the market. Today, it unveils a revamped Chrysler 200, with hopes of going grille to grille with the segment’s top-sellers.
■Japanese: Honda is expected to unveil a redesigned Fit subcompact; Nissan’s Maxima concept car will hint of what the next generation full-size sedan will look like; Toyota will show a new sports car and likely a new sporty Lexus; Subaru may introduce a souped-up version of the WRX pocket rocket small car.
■Europeans: Fresh off taking the crown as the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. for 2013, Mercedes unwraps a new C-Class, the company’s lowest level of luxury car; BMW will debut the 2 Series small sports coupe; Volkswagen will show a Beetle Dune Buggy concept, and a high-mileage concept version of the midsize Passat and performance Golf R; Porsche rolls out the 911 Targa sports car, and upscale and diesel versions of the Cayenne SUV; and Volvo will show a concept version of the XC 90 large SUV.
■Koreans: Hyundai will unveil a new version of its Genesis luxury car; Kia will likely show its GT4 Stinger concept sports car.
2014 North American International Auto Show
When: Press preview days today and Tuesday; industry preview days Wednesday and Thursday. Show opens to public Jan. 18-26.
Where: Cobo Center, Detroit
Hours:9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily except Jan. 26, which has a 7 p.m. close
Tickets: $13 adults; $7 ages 65 and older; $7 ages 7-12; ages 6 and younger get in free. Available at www.naias.com or at the door.
Charity Preview: Friday. Tickets $350, $340 of which is tax deductible. Call (888) 838-7500 or order online.
Coming up:Find a full guide to the auto show in The Detroit News on Thursday.