Lloyd Graff with Auctioneer Robert Levy at GM's Willow Run Plant
I haven’t gone to an old fashioned open outcry auction at an automotive factory in quite awhile. For sheer drama and boredom the Hilco Industrial four day 7000 lot sale this week was a throwback to the days when men were men and spark plugs were made on screw machines.
The sale was at GM’s old Willow Run transmission plant—6 million square feet under one roof—that used to be a farm owned by Henry Ford in Ypsilanti, Michigan, near Ann Arbor. Today the biggest non-Government, non-University employer in the area is Domino’s Pizza, which is currently spending millions to advertise its fried chicken.
During World War II, Willow Run turned out a B-24 bomber every 45 minutes. GM used to employ six guys full-time to fix the roof, the electric bill was $500,000 a month, and the parking lot could fit a dozen U of M Big Houses. This joint was BIG. It took 10 minutes to travel end to end by electric golf cart. By the end of September when the last Knaack toolbox is gone, this mammoth structure will no longer bleed Lava Soap.
For me it was a kick to hear Robert Levy, the Alex Trebek of the auction stand, warble his “do I hear” doo-wap, selling everything from surface plates to Vidmar cabinets. Robert is 53 now with almost 30 years away from his jewelry making days in London when he indulged in his artistic side more than his deal making acumen. Robert is a virtuoso on the stand, which became apparent when the pretenders stumbled trying to sell grinders with a “privilege.” The “privilege” is a clever ploy to extract more money from the bidders by offering to sell the option to buy multiples of similar items to the high bidder—capitalizing on the fear that the successful bidder might take every piece.
I love the animal instinct that bubbles up in an open outcry sale. The silence of the Web gives way to the belligerence of testosterone bulging egotists who like to posture at sales.
The auctioneer plays on the competitive juices, weighing the facial tells of each bidder, with the added excitement of Internet bidders who are waiting anxiously online.
An auction event like Willow Run has been a year in the making. It was actually the last of three sales to finally quiet the machines that once turned out the components of those Chevy Impala transmissions that used to fall apart after 40,000 miles. That was when cars were cars and Chevrolet was apple pie.
My brother Jim and I schlepped to Ypsilanti because it was sort of the La Brea Tar Pits of screw machines. GM had amassed almost 200 multi-spindle automatics, mostly Acmes, from 9/16″ capacity to 6” RB6 and everything in the middle. Oh, the heavy metal music they must have made. The floor must have rocked when those spindles were turning.
On the two days Jim and I attended, there were more bidders online (about 300) than there were in the audience, though most of the items were bought by attendees. There were many attendees from what we used to call Third World Countries, who now have more money to spend than Americans. A large gaggle of Indians were present, but they seemed to be mostly chatting and playing cards amongst themselves. India is developing a serious automotive business these days with Tata Motors buying Jaguar for some unfathomable reason, self-flagellation I suppose.
Auctions like this bring out odd valuations, like a Ridged pipe threader selling for more than a 11/4” RA6 Acme screw machine, or an EA Cincinnati Centerless fetching $10,000 while the perennial stalwart 220-8 going for $6,000. A 1000 ton press didn’t get a bid because the rigging costs surpassed the value of the machine. Ultimately, the real “vulture” capitalists, the scrappies, will hack away at it and tote it in pieces to the furnaces.
I found the whole thing a scene. It was Schumpeter’s creative destruction in action. Old Detroit is dismantled. New Detroit rises in Saltillo and San Antonio. Detroit—it’s the home of Little Caesars and Domino’s. Add a little extra sauce.
Question: Does this make you sad?