Hudson Plant, Part 2: "Overbuilt"

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The entirety of the Hudson Motor Car Co.'s Detroit empire lay along Conner Avenue, which included not only this body plant at Gratiot & Conner, but also their main assembly plant at E. Jefferson & Conner, an axle plant at E. Vernor & Conner, and stockyards next to the Budd Wheel Plant at Charlevoix & Conner.

The street gets its name from the fact that the Conner Creek, a buried river that runs south from what is now the city of Warren to empty into the Detroit River. The creek was first named Trombley's Creek after an early French settler, but in 1840 it was renamed Conner's Creek in honor of the new local landowner, Henry Conner (though I have also seen it spelled "Connors Avenue" on Sanborn maps as late as 1929).


Several gristmills were built along Conner's Creek in the 1800s, but as time went on and Detroit grew, the creek was covered over and put into a sewer drain like many other such "lost" rivers of the region. The reason Conner Avenue curves around the way it does at variance to the regular street grid is because it traces the same general path that the creek bed followed in the old days; it's still down there under the road, flowing toward the Jefferson Avenue Conner Creek Pumping Station (that circular building near the Detroit River) where the main Hudson plant once stood.


By December of 1947 Hudson had produced its three-millionth vehicle, and was about to revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of their new "Mono-Bilt" car in the 1948 model year.


The "Mono-Bilt" was a monocoque unit-body (now referred to as "unibody"), and stood a foot lower than every other car on the road, though there was no sacrifice of interior spaciousness, because unlike other cars you actually stepped down into it over the frame rail to get in.


It was therefore also nicknamed the "Step-Down" Hudson, and with its low-slung stance and roofline it almost looked like a chopped-top custom hot rod right off the line. Needless to say, this unique design generated a lot of excitement with the car-buying public.


The principal advantage of unit or “monocoque” car body construction according to ateupwithmotor is structural strength, since a welded, unitized structure is considerably more rigid than a separate body bolted down onto a platform frame.


Theoretically this allows for substantial weight savings with no sacrifice of strength, but since there wasn't the computer technology back then to do complex structural analysis, Hudson's engineers decided to err on the side of caution. As a result the new body was designed a lot heavier and a lot stronger than it probably had to be.


The ateupwithmotor article suggests that instead of "Mono-Bilt" the company ads could have just as well called them "Overbuilt," but they were still more than 300lbs lighter than a Buick or Chrysler. These new Hudsons were "almost certainly the safest cars in America from a standpoint of collision safety, particularly in side impacts or rollover accidents," the article asserted.

Remember when we used to overbuild things, and err on the side of caution, rather than accepting work and products that are just "good enough"?


Author Charles K. Hyde observed that while the 1948 Step-down Hudson body was revolutionary, it also presented a logistical problem for manufacturing it. According to Hyde, the entire assembly line at the Jefferson Avenue plant had to be rebuilt to accommodate the new vehicle, and Joe Eskridge, the manager of the body plant here on Conner Avenue, said that it could only paint 40 bodies an hour in its current setup.


This meant that running two shifts for 300 days out of the year, this plant could produce a maximum of 192,000 Step-downs (even though, Hyde noted, this same plant had produced 300,000 Hudsons in 1929). The Step-down car was so popular with the public that Hudson had trouble keeping up with demand as a result of this bottleneck on the paint line, which obviously hurt business.


Other reasons offered for the hampered capacity were that Hudson was notorious for offering too many styling configuration options on their cars, and the fact that their assembly processes were more complex, which of course added cost and time onto the bottom line.

There was a fair bit of worker graffiti still to be found in this plant, mostly dating from its GM days I'd guess, and this was one good example:


Mr. Hyde writes that Hudson operated its Detroit plants up to the 1930s "in an environment in which labor unions were simply absent." The first strike against the Hudson Motor Car Co. occurred on February 7th of 1933, in this very body plant, when workers demanded substantial wage increases. Hudson's vice president, Max Wollering, agreed to meet with workers and hear their demands on the condition that "the workers be Hudson employees, and not be associated with Communists."


A Mr. Robert Pilkington of the U.S. Dept. of Labor blamed the strike on "the Communist element" (because anyone who feels they should be fairly compensated for their labor is an America-hating commie, obviously!). The main Hudson assembly plant on Jefferson Avenue was relegated to half-day operation until the body plant strike was resolved.


Hyde remarked that the strike concluded a week later, with most of the workers returning to the line, though they had nothing to show for their efforts. A company-backed union did appear at Hudson one year later however, but the employees still joined in the massive statewide Sit-down Strike of 1937, forcing the company to recognize the UAW.


In August 1947 another 9,000 workers walked out on strike over wage demands, closing the plant for four days. Around Christmas that year, the arc-welders also went on strike demanding higher wages.


The now legendary Hudson Hornet was one of the "Step-Downs," and it was introduced in 1951. It was powered by a bored-out version of the standard straight-six engine (increased from 262 to 308 cubic inches displacement) with twin carburetors, according to allpar.com. Pretty rad for 1951.


In a day when stock car racing was done with cars that actually were "stock," the Hornet's low center of gravity gave it superior cornering ability, and its burly six-cylinder was strong enough to go up against the V8 cars that GM and Ford were putting out. In 1952 Hudson offered an even more powerful version of the motor, the "7-X" option package, which tuned the engine up to 210 horsepower, making it the most powerful six-cylinder in the world at the time, and arguably the first American "muscle car."


The Hornet completely dominated in NASCAR races until 1955, which boosted Hudson sales even though the company was struggling to stay afloat in the shadows of the Detroit "Big Three"—Ford, GM, and Chrysler. The Hudson Hornet was even remembered as the character "Doc Hudson" in the 2006 animated movie, Cars.


Hudson made a last-ditch effort to survive in January 1954, merging with Nash-Kelvinator, and in October of that year Hudson production in Detroit ended once and for all, including the jobs for the 35,000 people that Hudson employed in the city. Starting in 1955 production shifted to the Nash factories in Kenosha and Milwaukee.


Upon arrival in their new home base of Wisconsin, Hudson came out with an all-new line of Wasps and Hornets for 1955, but according to allpar.com sales fell flat when customers figured out that the new Hudsons were basically re-badged Nashes.


The company gave up on the Hudson brand, and on June 25th, 1957, the last Hudson automobile rolled off the assembly line, with all cars thereafter being called Nashes. But that didn't last long either before they decided to call them all "Ramblers," after their most popular model.


Eventually, Nash-Hudson-Kelvinator merged to become the American Motors Corporation, with their headquarters back in Detroit—a building that I explored in a different post.


The reason Hudson eventually lost out to the power of Ford, GM, and Chrysler was because they couldn't afford the same capital investments that the mammoth Big Three carmakers could, which made it more expensive for them to manufacture a car equal to a Ford or Chevy, which in turn translated to a higher sticker price.


For instance, the cost of retooling their assembly line to make the "Step-down" cars in 1948 was an expenditure that hurt Hudson more than it would have hurt GM or Ford (and they probably would have fronted the extra capital to fix that bottleneck on the paint line that slowed production down).


In other words, Hudson was a proverbial "little guy" squeezed out of the market by the big corporations. Hudson probably didn't have nearly the dealership network that Ford or Chevy did either.


With the departure of Hudson from Detroit in 1954, and of Packard in 1956, the storied days of small independent automakers in the Motor City had come to an end, and the age of mega-corporate domination of the auto industry had begun.


According to coachbuilt.com, after Hudson left this plant on Conner Avenue, American Motors Corp. sold it to GM's Cadillac Motor Division, who continued to produce body stampings here for the Buick-Olds-Cadillac family of cars (BOC) until 1986 when the vast new GM Poletown Assembly Plant was opened.


These murals on the wall near the plant's cafeteria, locker rooms, and exercise center feature the logos of the Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac Motor Divisions of GM. Together they were called the "BOC" group of GM, because they shared many identical (or at least interchangeable) components.


An article in the LA Times from November 1986 said that GM had recently announced plans to close 11 plants and lay off 29,000 employees. This total included the 700 workers then employed here at the "BOC-Conner stamping plant," plus another 6,600 at Cadillac's Fleetwood Body and Clark Street Assembly plants, as well as plants in Flint, Pontiac, Ohio, St. Louis, and Illinois.


I presume most or all of these operations were consolidated under the roof of the mammoth (and controversial) new GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant at 2500 East Grand Boulevard, which went down in local memory as the plant that wiped the Poletown neighborhood off the map.

The article stated that this plant was stamping body panels for the Cadillac Brougham and Chevrolet Caprice at the time.


With GM pulling up stakes from this plant in 1986 it seems to have sat vacant for several years, until about 1993 when the Ivan Doverspike Company bought it. Ivan Doverspike Co. provided heavy machine equipment to the auto industry, and there were a few spaces on the first floor of this plant that still had several examples of these huge machines left behind, stacked up in rows in the dark, amongst shelves and shelves of spare parts:


Several years ago I saved this quote from Ivan Doverspike's now defunct company website:
Ivan Doverspike Company was founded in 1963 by Ivan Doverspike III. The business was operated at 1602 23rd Ave. in Detroit. In 1972, the business became prosperous enough to move into a larger building, in a new location. The company went to 8840 Strathmoor St., also in Detroit. Once again ready to move, Ivan Doverspike began operating at 1600 Clay St. from 1979 until 1993. At that time, the Ivan Doverspike family found the need to move to a larger plant because of its fast growth. This time, the company moved for good. So, in 1993 Ivan Doverspike Company moved to 9501 Conner, Detroit, MI 48213, the old General Motors Cadillac plant.
Ivan Doverspike Company is a precision screw machine rebuilder. The company provides high quality products and services to a worldwide customer base that includes world leaders in the metal industry, numerous plastics companies, some of the largest appliance and automotive manufacturers.
Though the "1602 23rd Ave." address appears to be erroneous, I have a few photos from Doverspike's former plant at the corner of Clay & Morrow, which seemed to still be used by them for storing lots of stamping press dies: 123 (click each number for photos).


There was also a large room elsewhere in the plant with an overhead crane, where even more of the screw machines sat lined up waiting to be rebuilt:


I speculate that the reason these screw machines were left behind was because of the glut of automotive plant machinery caused by the downturn in the industry, due to so many plants closing and their machinery going on the salvage market.

This reminded me quite a bit of my visit to the old Studebaker plant in South Bend, with the vast room that had all those vintage motors lined up.


Doverspike vacated this plant at 9501 Conner in 2013, and it has stood vacant since then, though it was purchased soon afterward by developer Bill Hults, who you may remember as the guy who tried to buy the Packard Plant but never could come up with the money, and ended up forfeiting it to Fernando Palazuelo.


According to one source, Bill Hults planned to invest "$35 to $40 million" into this plant, claiming that he would be "turning it back into a functioning manufacturing facility," by putting a company in there that would make modular pre-cast panels, "to build urban, multifamily in-fill housing."

Reusing an ex-manufacturing facility for manufacturing instead of lofts...? Novel!


Hults also said that he was starting by stripping everything out of the building. "It hasn't been a stamping plant for 35-40 years, so we are doing everything you can imagine." Well, he certainly is stripping everything out of the building. Or, someone is.


Out of all the Hudson Motor Car plants, there are three still standing—the original Aerocar plant, the assembly plant in Tillbury, Ontario, and this one on Conner Avenue. To learn and see more about the Hudson car, one can visit the National Hudson Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, housed within a restored 1930s Hudson dealership, Miller Motors—which was in fact the very last Hudson dealership in the world. It is only about a half-hour drive west from Detroit.


Supposedly some stamping processes were done in this little building out back as well, according to the 1929 Sanborn map, though they must have been pretty small parts...


Maybe this was where they had the cute little stamping presses that made the gas tank doors for Hudsons? Just kidding.


The remaining big window sashes have already been removed from this building.


The presence of multiple 40-yard dumpsters constantly moving in and out of the property from week to week indicates that the scrapping is strong with this one:


Since I was admittedly late to the party as far as exploring this plant goes (thanks to my aforementioned dog paranoia), there was a lot of cool stuff removed from these buildings before I made it in here with a camera. There was a famous stash of dusty old classic cars tucked in part of the plant that made it into a lot of people's photographs, as well as lots more cool old machinery, but all that stuff is gone now (all that's left is a measly million-dollar stash of hockey cards, pfft).


Continuing to wander around the various buildings behind the plant, here is the snazzy—and quintessentially Albert Kahn—powerhouse:


A fuel oil storage tank, perhaps:


I think this small building back here was marked as a "tin shop" on the 1929 Sanborn:


It currently looked more like a carpenter's or machinist's shop from my memory of a quick glance around.


Heading back in to see the powerhouse...


The powerhouse connected directly to the plant itself, and the first thing I saw inside was a huge flywheel sticking up from a large piece of antiquated machinery.


This beastly juggernaut is a massive Ingersoll-Rand compressor as far as I can tell, which is most likely an original fixture of the building from the 1920s.


Look at all those tiny little lubricators and sight-glasses:


In order to get a decent overall shot with the massive flywheel in the center, I had to climb on top of some things...


It's the first time I've seen such a piece of equipment in an automotive factory, so I'm not sure why Hudson would have needed such a massive capacity for compressed air, unless the stamping presses were pneumatic-powered? Makes sense, I guess.


The Hudson Motor Car Co.'s boiler room...the belly of the beast:


Four massive boilers fired this plant, nestled inside a cocoon of pipes and conduit, monitored by banks of antiquated instruments:


There was a really cool engineer's office in here too, but I didn't get a good shot of it.


Going up in the catwalks above the boilers...


The fact that a lot of the equipment in here seems to have been kept updated to some extent indicates that General Motors, and possibly even Doverspike used this boiler house for powering (or at least heating) their plant.


The tops of the #1 and #2 boilers:


These flues connected up to the four big stacks on the roof:


Going up a dark stairway, I passed what looked like a stack of old log books...


...to find myself in the electrical transformer room:


Frankenstein's lab style knife switches, just like the ones in the Packard Plant's switch room, with the antique little indicator light bulbs on top:


Clearly this was one of the first rooms that was hit by scrapping, with large copper elements removed from a lot of the equipment, and shards of casing and ceramic insulators left behind.


Going back down to the factory floor. Remember the sawtooth roof monitors that you saw on the outside of the plant? Well this is the part of the building that they sit above, but their windows have subsequently been covered over with that fluffy spray-on insulation stuff:


Usually these sorts of spaces are used as machining departments in plants like this.

On one trip into the plant, we happened to go down a set of stairs and discover a basement level, which included a tunnel of sorts, and apparently contained a portion of the assembly line conveyor system:


Off to the side was a room full of maintenance parts, such as spare drive belts for machinery hanging from the walls:


Around a corner, we came upon an interesting discovery...rows and rows of underground storage tanks. Somehow this reminded me of the fallout shelter under the Packard Plant.


I had been told by someone that this plant's foundation was built much deeper and sturdier than usual, and I speculated that this might be because it was built in essentially the flood plain of the Conner Creek, and with a hall of mammoth stamping presses constantly pummeling away up above, that could really do a number on a foundation built in soft earth.


My initial thought was that these giant tanks may have been used for storing water used in some manufacturing process, but we eventually found a label that indicated the storage of some other material, though I can't remember what that was now.

A hospital gurney was down here too, just because:


Back up to the roof.


More vast expanses of window sash:




Up in the end of this large roof monitor, I found another smaller electrical transformer room, apart from the one at the plant's powerhouse:


Some pretty old equipment in here too.


Looks like an electric motor, perhaps for running the overhead crane in the building below?


Despite how sturdy and well-preserved I found this plant to be, I was forced to reconsider my opinion when I visited on a rainy day to find the place inundated with multiple waterfalls, with the elements having just as much run of the building as they did at the Packard Plant:


Here's hoping that Mr. Hults can do something with this old place. Albert Kahn didn't design it to fall apart after 90 years, he built it to last. Sadly, it seems to have outlasted our desire to keep strong, well-built things around.



References:
Sanborn maps for Detroit Vol. 18, Sheets 91-92 (1929)
Fun at Work, Hudson Style: Tales from the Hudson Motor Car Company, by Harry F. Kraus
Images from the Arsenal of Democracy, by Charles K. Hyde, p. 73, 206, 225
Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors, by Charles K. Hyde, p. 124, 138, 158, 164
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, Robert Szudarek, p. 108, 192
American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 430
http://www.autotraderclassics.com/car-article/Old+Factories%3A+Hudson+Jefferson+Avenue+plant-194757.xhtml
http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/c/clayton_lambert/clayton_lambert.htm
www.detroit1701.org/Hudson%20Motor%20Car.html
http://detroit1701.org/Aerocar-Hudson.html
http://detroit1701.org/First%20State%20Bank%20Building.html#.VmxZyFbv0pE
http://www.connercreekgreenway.org/history/
http://www.connercreekgreenway.org/history/auto-history/
http://www.allpar.com/cars/adopted/hudson-1936.html
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/hudson-motors
http://www.detroits-great-rebellion.com/The-Road-to-67-.html
http://forum.hetclub.org/discussion/165176/old-detroit-hudson-plant-slated-to-resume-manufacturing-operations-really
http://www.macsmotorcitygarage.com/2013/07/25/still-standing-the-aerocarhudson-plant/
http://ypsiautoheritage.org/cars/hudson/
http://articles.latimes.com/1986-11-07/news/mn-15641_1_chevrolet-and-gmc-pickup
http://www.doverspike.com/
http://www.simeonemuseum.org/the-collection/history-of-nascar/1953-hudson-hornet-twin-h-power

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