The La Brea Tar Pits of Machines

Lloyd Graff with Auctioneer Robert Levy

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?

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11 thoughts on “The La Brea Tar Pits of Machines

  1. Glenn

    Indeed it is sad; I too am an Ex-GM employee from a branch of GM that built Locomotives, GM thought they don’t need to make these; 12,000 jobs, 2 million square feet that met the same fate. Now Barry O wants high speed rail and it makes sense but it is long overdue.
    We need to thank Toyota for the automotive jobs, the five new plates here in the States and for teaching us how to build better cars.

  2. John Reinan

    Wow, Lloyd. That’s a fascinating and sad post. It’s rainy here in Minneapolis today, and you’re bringing me down! But that’s not a criticism — I always appreciate your insight and unique take on things. And just think — the right-wingers were perfectly willing to let GM and Chrysler die. Then you would have had a much bigger auction to attend.

  3. Seth Emerson

    The GM Willow Run plant did indeed have a storied past. It cranked out more than a million of my favorite Corvairs from 1959 through 1969, as well as Chevy IIs, Impalers, et al. I also like to see the phrase “The La Brea tar pits” used. Since “La Brea” means “the tar”, the translation from the Spanish would be “The the tar tar pits” . PS – I will miss the printed issues, but I understand.

  4. Dave Dibble

    Very Sad here too. I’ve been to auctions here in NY, none of this size, but resulting from the same failed economic and regulation policies of our governments. Schrade Knives, Ithaca Gun, Camilus Knife, Carrier AC, Titchner Wire, Morse chain, the list goes on & on. They seem to forget that the real wealth of this country came from making, mining or growing it. Around here they are even pushing out the farmers with their environmental policies. What are they going to have the population do? I clean your pool, you mow my yard?

  5. doc

    Very sad, and very dangerous……we are allowing the economic future of America to be dismantled. No wonder there are no family-wage jobs to be found for the millions of recently unemployed Americans. We send our jobs to other countries, with no regard for the future here. A COUNTRY THAT DOES NOT MAKE ANYTHING CANNOT SURVIVE.
    Ross Perot was right……..except it’s even worse than he thought.

  6. Paul Schissler

    Earlier in my career I used to spend 3-5 days per month in the HydraMatic plant. It was one of my biggest customers; clearly the biggest building and also a lot of sales to them. I walked those miles of isles many times, often lucking out and getting a scooter ride. I had installed some deburring machines back by the screw machine department and when they opened those huge hanger doors (where the finished B-24’s used to roll out) in the Summer, a terrific breeze would blow through and clear out the smokey oil mist and cool the place down. A lot of memories, a lot of friends, a lot of sales. Losing not just this storied factory, but losing so much of our nation’s manufacturing base makes me wonder what our government and corporation leaders are thinking. Whatever it is, it seems to be very short term and very short sighted. Leaders of many other countries fiercely protect their job creating employers and industries. Here we seem to be encouraging them to leave. I don’t get it……

  7. Val Zanchuk

    I would be interested to see what becomes of the facility, now that it has been gutted of its production equipment. In Bethlehem, PA, part of the steel mill that produced the structural steel for the Panama Canal locks, the Golden Gate Bridge, and most of the other famous buildings and bridges of the early to mid 20th century is now a Sands casino. The great bridge crane that spanned the ore yard is now the entryway to the casino. The blast furnaces are lighted at night to create a “special effect”.

  8. Steve Olson

    Sad – yes but a reminder. Nothing goes on indefinitely. Take the profit you make today and invest it in the next iteration of what you do or suffer the consequence.
    it reminds me of the closing scene of “Patton’. The General walking his dog in a glorious Alpine meadow. A voice over of George C Scott says and i paraphrase ‘In Roman times the victorious General would ride a chariot in a victory parade with all the spoils of war displayed behind him. At his side was a boy whispering in his ear that all glory is fleeting.” And so it is in any profitable venture.

  9. Dave Bradley

    I can’t say anything that the above comments haven’t said well. I keep blaming our institutions of higher learning for cranking out more products with a shortage of ethics and an abundance of greed. It’s past time for them to start recalling their defective products.

  10. Todd Miller

    It’s a sad state of affairs brought on by a financial culture that focuses only on quarterly results and a political culture that doles out favors to the biggest campaign contributors. This decline has been 50+ years in the making, and we’re beginning to feel its effects most sharply these days with the emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as competitors for finite natural resources and market share. The problems can only be solved long-term, and the solutions, though apparent, are unlikely to be implemented anytime soon because nobody appaers to have the political courage to change the appropriate laws & regs and increase taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

  11. Frank League

    I have participated in many industrial bankruptcy auctions over the last dozen years, and usually purchase good machinery for under a nickel on the dollar. Many of the bidders are from developing nations, and they buy almost anything that gives hope of being useful at home, for under a penny on the dollar. This de-industrializing of America is tragic. On a worldwide scale, most of us are not worth what we are paid, and have left the running of our country and communities to ignorant politicians, who don’t have a clue.
    This is what it all comes down to ! Most all of us Americans have been lazy and greedy, while some undeveloped nations have been hungry and ambitious, and work long & hard to find a better life without asking someone else to just give it to them.
    The table is turning, and when the government can no longer print worthless money, and all of our manufacturing capacity is overseas, some of us will wake up to the fact that like our great grandfathers, we will once again need to be inovative & pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Only then, after great pain and suffering, will America be great again.


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