The gift from Toyota that GM threw away

Mike Riggs Contributor

This American Life is known more for its features than its breaking news stories, but late last month, it surprised listeners (like me!) with an incredible news story about a GM/Toyota plant in Fremont, California, that could have saved GM from itself. In 1984, GM and Toyota partnered to reopen a closed GM plant. Called  NUMMI, the plant is where Toyota would share the secrets to its success and develop its first American plant. Here’s the Car Connection on what was happening at the GM plant to prompt its initial closing in 1982, and the quick turnaround:

GM’s Fremont plant, which preceded the NUMMI facility at the same location, assembled cars and later  and was one of the most problematic of any of GM’s plants at the time, with a reputation for poor quality, poor workplace morale, and excessive absenteeism.

Former plant workers recall that alcohol, sex, and drugs were quite common, and the line wouldn’t stop for anything. Engines were put in backwards, and cars made it to the end of the line with the front end from one ‘badge-engineered’ model and the body and trim of another.

The original GM plant had closed in 1982, but workers and the UAW were a little surprised when Toyota opted to rehire a significant portion of the former workforce, flying them to Japan for training and teaching them a completely different way of assembling vehicles. That included rewarding them for improving the process, and allowing them to stop the line when needed. The result, curiously to Detroit naysayers, was that  built more vehicles, with higher quality, than had ever been built at the Fremont plant. Annual production at the plant peaked in 2006, at 428,632 vehicles.

The entire episode is definitely worth a listen, if not for the storytelling, then for a painful example of how the U.S. taxpayer could have avoided forking up $50 billion to bail out Detroit.