General Motors and Lansing, Michigan: A Brief History of One of the Auto World’s Epicenters
With a strong history of automotive manufacturing that stretches back over 100 years, Lansing, Michigan, can easily be called the second city of the American auto industry after only Detroit. From the early successes of native son Ransom E. Olds to the arrival of industry behemoth General Motors, you can’t delve into the history of Lansing without considering the impact of the automotive sector.
From a lone plant on the banks of the Grand River to a 3.6 million-square-foot production facility that stands as a marvel of eco-conscious engineering, this is a city that lives and breathes all things automotive. If you’re in the market for used trucks for sale in Lansing, MI, it’s hard to imagine a better city for your search. It’s time that Lansing finally got its due, which is why we’ve compiled this overview of the city’s role in automotive history. Join us as we take a closer look at how the capital city earned its nickname as “The Heart of Michigan.”
A Cradle of Innovation
GM can trace its roots in Lansing all the way back to one of the first -- and oddest -- names in American automotive history: Ransom E. Olds. The Lansing native started as a combination machinist-bookkeeper for the family machine shop, P.F. Olds and Son, eventually becoming a partner in the business and helping it to become one of the leading manufacturers of gasoline-heated steam engines.
While P.F. Olds and Son had built its reputation on steam engines, it was emerging, gasoline-based engine technology that really captured the young Olds' attention. The trailblazer hit the books to become, in the words of automotive historian Richard Crabb, “one of the country's leading authorities on the internal combustion engine, its design, manufacture, and marketing," and by 1896, had produced his first gas-powered car. That led to the formation of the Olds Motor Works but also saw Olds skip town and shift operations to Detroit. The departure would be short-lived, with a factory fire forcing Olds to move most of his production back to Lansing in 1901.
The Detroit stay might not have lasted long, but Olds certainly had something to show for it in his first production vehicle: the curved-dash Oldsmobile. Priced at just $650, the original Oldsmobile proved that there was a market for such an affordable vehicle. The formula would certainly prove successful, with Oldsmobile selling an unprecedented 5,000 vehicles within the first three years. There was only one problem: with so many orders to fill, Olds knew that traditional manufacturing techniques wouldn’t suffice.
This realization would become a pivotal moment in the history of auto manufacturing as Olds' solution -- the modern assembly line -- would go on to revolutionize the industry as a whole. Commonly and incorrectly credited to Henry Ford, Olds was actually the first to perfect a process for quickly, efficiently, and most importantly, affordably producing passenger vehicles.
Olds would bring this newfangled concept back to Lansing, where, in 1901, he would start construction on the Lansing Car Assembly (LCA) at the fairgrounds next to the city’s Grand River. Opening in 1902, the LCA featured two full assembly lines, the North Line and South Line, and would continue to be Olds Motor Works’ primary production facility until 1908, when General Motors bought out the company. The factory would continue to produce Olds (and later Oldsmobile) vehicles for the next 75 years, with iconic models like the Toronado and Cutlass 442 making their way off the LCA’s assembly line.
From Olds to New
The GM buyout was a pivotal moment in Lansing's history as the automotive juggernaut set out to transform the town. GM would buy the defunct Fisher Body Plant on Verlinden Ave while building the Oldsmobile Differential Plant and Foundry on Saginaw Ave and a service parts warehouse in nearby Delta Township. Lansing was officially a company town, but the setup still wasn’t without its shortcomings. The piecemeal expansion meant that partially completed vehicles from the Fisher Body Plant had to be shipped across town to the LCA on the back of a truck. From there, they would end up on either the North or South Line for completion before rolling out of the factory and right down what is today's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The LCA would keep producing Oldsmobile vehicles -- as well as the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am until it was finally shut down in 2006. The Fisher Body plant would get a second life as a Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac factory but closed in 2005 after producing its last vehicle: a 2005 Pontiac Grand Am. The Oldsmobile Differential Plant and Foundry, later renamed the Lansing Craft Center, was repurposed in 1984.
It would produce the Buick Reatta and would go on to be the primary production facility for several low-volume GM vehicles, including the Cadillac Eldorado, convertible Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Chevrolet SSR, and even GM’s first electric vehicle in the 1996 EV1. The LCA was a model of manufacturing efficiency right up until its closure, ranking among the most productive automobile assembly plants in North America by The Harbour Report and boasting the distinction of producing the last Oldsmobile ever offered to the public in the 2004 Alero.
For a brief moment, it looked like the Oldsmobile Alero might be the last GM vehicle to ever roll out of Lansing. When the automaker announced its intentions to begin Alero production in 1996, it was a bit of a good news/bad news situation as GM simultaneously revealed that it would leave the city when production ceased in 2004. This sent local business and political leaders scrambling, leading to the formation of Mayor David Hollister’s Blue Ribbon Committee to keep GM. In the end, the committee managed to persuade GM to reconsider, not only preventing the exodus but motivating the brand to build three new plants over the next seven years: the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant, Lansing Delta Assembly Plant, and Regional Stamping Plant in Delta Township.
The Lansing Grand River Assembly plant in downtown Lansing would replace the LCA, Lansing Metal Center, and the Lansing Craft Center, specializing in vehicles built on the GM Alpha platform, such as the Cadillac CT4, Cadillac CT5, and Chevrolet Camaro. In September 2013, the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant would produce its one millionth Cadillac vehicle, a 2014 Cadillac CTS sedan.
The Lansing Delta Assembly and Regional Stamping Plant in Delta Township is now the go-to factory for popular GM crossover models like the Buick Enclave and Chevy Traverse and has the distinction of being the first-ever LEED-Gold Certified auto manufacturing facility in recognition of its environmentally friendly design and construction. A marvel of green engineering, the Delta Township facility features a roof drain system that harvests rainwater for restroom facilities, is 20 percent more efficient in its lighting design, and was built with 25 percent recycled materials. Half of the site was left undeveloped to accommodate local wildlife, with GM operating a 75-acre wildlife area that plays host to educational events for the local community.
An Electrifying Future
GM’s relationship with the city is as strong as ever, with the automaker recently announcing a $7 billion investment -- the largest in the company’s long history -- in four new facilities across the state. This includes a new battery factory in the Lansing area, $500 million towards upgrades at GM’s two existing Lansing plants, and a $4 billion project that will see the brand convert its existing factory in Orion Township to create the next generation of all-electric pickups, namely the 2024 Silverado EV and GMC Sierra EV. GM currently employs more than 50,000 people in Michigan alone, a number that is expected to rise by some 4,000 when the new $7 billion project is all said and done.
According to GM CEO Mary Barra, the investment is key to GM’s ambitious plan to phase out the production of new gas-powered light-duty vehicles by 2035. The company is off to a solid start with models like the GMC Hummer EV, Cadillac Lyriq, and Chevrolet Equinox EV already generating considerable interest, and GM doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. "Our plan creates the broadest EV portfolio of any automaker and further solidifies our path toward US EV leadership by mid-decade,” said Barra in late 2022. “[This investment] will help us make our home state the epicenter of the electric vehicle industry.”
No matter what the future holds for GM, you can bet that Lansing will be involved. The city is inexorably linked with the auto industry, with generations of Lansing residents pitching in to produce some of the finest vehicles on the US market. This institutional knowledge has allowed Lansing to become a leader in the world of automotive production, serving as an inspiration for cities the world over.
Workers benefit from steady employment and strong union benefits, while GM is able to recruit some of the most skilled workers in the industry. After a shaky period around the turn of the millennium, Lansing now looks to be a firm part of GM’s future, with the automaker investing a record $7 billion in the region. If the last 100 years are any indication, Lansing will be a force to be reckoned with in the auto industry for quite some time to come.