The Fisher Body Company Plant No. 21 is located in Detroit, Michigan and formerly produced automobile bodies for General Motors. The building has been abandoned since 1993.


History

The Fisher Body Company began in the late 1800’s as a horse-drawn carriage shop in Norwalk, Ohio.6 Lawrence Fisher and his wife, Margaret Theisen, had a large family of eleven children; seven were sons that eventually would become part of the Fisher Body Company in Detroit.

In 1904 and 1905, the two eldest brothers, Fred and Charles, migrated north to Detroit where their uncle Albert Fisher had established Standard Wagon Works in the late 1800’s. The brothers worked for the C.R. Wilson Company, a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriage bodies and bodies for early automobile manufacturers.6 Fred, during his time at C.R. Wilson, was able to build the body of the Cadillac Osceola. With knowledge of the body building business and $1,000 in financing from a sister,6 Fred and Charles Fisher established the Fisher Body Company on July 22, 1908.

By 1910, Fisher became the supplier of all closed bodies for Cadillac and Buick, and the $1,000 investment two years prior was now worth $4 million.6

Not long after establishment, their uncle desired out of the deal and the brothers were able to obtain funding from Detroit businessman Louis Mendelssohn who became a shareholder and director. Within a few years, Charles and Fred were able to bring their five younger brothers into the Fisher Body Company.

Acquisition by General Motors

In the early years of the company, Fisher Body had to develop new, rigid body designs because the first-generation “horseless carriage” bodies were not able to withstand the vibration of automobiles. Additionally, the company invested in the development of interchangeable wooden body parts that did not require hand-fitting, which required the design of new precision woodworking tools.5 In the production process, wooden frames were screwed and glued together, after which formed steel was installed over the frame.

By 1913, the company had expanded its production line and could produce 100,000 cars per year.5 It also expanded its customer base, which now included Buick, Cadillac, Chalmers, Ford, Krit, and Studebaker. In 1914, Fisher Body completed work on a new plant in Walkerville, Ontario.

In 1916, Fisher Body Company became the Fisher Body Corporation.5 At the time of the name change, the company had the capacity to produce 370,000 bodies per year 6 for Abbot, Buick, Cadillac, Chalmers, Chandler, Chevrolet, Churchfield, Elmore, EMF, Ford, Herreshoff, Hudson, Krit, Oldsmobile, Packard, Regal, and Studebaker.

In 1919, the company constructed the six-story, Albert Kahn-designed Plant 21 on Piquette Street in Detroit.7 It featured reinforced concrete construction and plenty of windows to allow for natural lighting inside. Plant 21 eventually became part of a 40 complex empire that encompassed 3.7 million square feet in the United States and Canada.


“Body by Fisher”

In a deal pieced together by president William Durant, General Motors acquired 60% of Fisher Body for $27.6 million in 1919.2 4 6The deal stipulated that the Fisher family retain managerial control for ten years and that General Motors buy all of its bodies from Fisher at cost plus 17.5%.6

In 1925, Fisher Body purchased Fleetwood Metal Body, a manufacturer of special bodies for the Packard and Pierce-Arrow companies and for wealthy industrialists that included Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts.6 Production at the time was up to 575,000 bodies.

In 1926, General Motors acquired the remaining 40% of Fisher Body for $208 million 6 and it was integrated entirely as autonomous business unit within General Motors.3 4

The slogan, “Body by Fisher,” was developed to advertise Fisher Body components on its vehicles; a plate was attached to all General Motor vehicles.4 6

During the 1920’s, Fisher Body developed its own set of suppliers independent of General Motors.3 It bought a controlling interest in the National Plate Glass Company and Ternstedt Manufacturing Company, the latter which made body parts such as window cranks. Additionally, because car bodies were still crafted out of wood, Fisher controlled 160,000 of timberland, mostly in Michigan, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and sawmills and woodworking plants in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Washington.5

The relationship between General Motors and Fisher Body was so close that Fisher Body constructed a body stamping plant near each General Motors assembly plant.This reduced transportation costs, as car bodies were bulky and delicate. Hauling bodies from a stamping plant to an assembly plant by rail was more costly than shipping raw materials.

By 1931, Chrysler adopted steel body production methods with an innovative method of interchanging parts to support four brands.1 Many parts were used across the whole line of cars, which reduced tooling costs and made production more efficient as fewer specialty items had to be developed and manufactured. Ford adopted this method in 1934 and General Motors, because of Fisher Body’s massive holdings in wood manufacturing and the high upstart costs in stamping and die making lines, was last in 1937.

On August 14, 1944, the Fisher brothers resigned from General Motors to devote time to other interests.5

War Efforts

During World War I and World War II, Fisher Body’s plants were converted into the production of airplanes, tanks, and related components.During the first world war, the Fisher Body Aeroplane Division employed 4,500 manufacturing 40 planes per day. Plant 21 specifically produced B25 bomber parts for the Air Force and housed a produt development and engineering operation during World War II.10

During the Korean War, Alrowa Metal Products manufactured parts for rocket launchers that was used by allies.5

Innovations

Fisher Body, with its considerable reach, was able to develop new technologies and innovations. Some of those milestones included:

  • Windows that could roll up and down in 1916;6
  • Slanted windshields for less glare in 1930;
  • One-piece steel “turret top” roofs in 1934;
  • Dual windshield wipers in 1936;
  • General Motor’s first unibody car, the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair; and
  • Ignition interlock system and first airbag for General Motors in 1974.

Plant 21’s Decline and Closure

As early as 1930, General Motors downgraded the status of Fisher Body’s Plant 21 as being inefficient.10 In that year, General Motors began moving body manufacturing to other more efficient factories. Limousine body assembly was moved to Plant 21 from General Motor’s Fleetwood plant in 1955 because output was only about 1,000 cars annually. The tool-and-die operation produced parts for Cadillac models.9

On November 29, 1982, General Motors announced that Fisher Body’s Plant 21, along with Plant 40 and 41 at 1500 East Ferry Street, all part of Fisher Body’s Detroit Central complex, would close.10 11 All production would relocate to “Buick City” in Flint,12 leaving 900 hourly and 300 salaried employees furloughed.11 General Motors cited the building’s age and inefficiency as reasons for closure. Plant 21 was 63 years old at the time of the announcement while Plant 40, which made tooling aids, and Plant 41, used for storage, was 54 years old.

Another, Plant 37 at 950 East Milwaukee Street, was considered for closure.11 It was a die tryout facility with 140 employees; it was later converted into a stamping facility.

The last day of production for Plant 21 was on April 1, 1984.

Post-Closure

The shuttered Plant 21 was purchased by the Carter Color Coat Company (d.b.a. Cameo Color Coat) in 1990 and the building was reused for industrial painting. In June 1992,14 Carter Color Coat declared bankruptcy and the plant was abandoned. Ownership reverted to the city of Detroit in 2000.

A survey from 2004 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that the building and grounds riddled with asbestos, lead, PCB’s, and hazardous debris and wastes, along with contaminated soils and concrete.15 The Environmental Protection Agency began $1 million in remediation work in 2008 when contaminated equipment and soil was removed from the site. Sections of concrete and wooden bricks was removed. Underground storage tanks were taken out in 2010.

In November 2014, Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the renowned Tresor club and record label, expressed interest in purchasing the abandoned Plant 21 for reuse as a techno music club.Preliminary plans include renovating the second floor into a techno club with a 100-bed hostel and European-American restaurant.13

Fisher Body Mergers

In 1984, Fisher Body Corporation was folded into the General Motors Assembly Division.6 These included the Fisher Guide Division, Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group, and Buick-Olsmobile-Cadillac Group.

Fisher Body merged with Guide Lamp in 1986 and then with Inland to form Inland Fisher Guide Division in 1990.3 The division was renamed Delphi Interior and Lighting Systems in 1994 and then Delphi Interior Systems, part of Delphi Automotive Systems, itself formed in 1995 as the parts division for General Motors.4 In 1999, General Motors spun off much of its part manufacturing operations, including Delphi Automotive Systems, into its own company. Delphi immediately became the largest United States-based parts producer with sales of over $21 billion.

General Motors also consolidated 13 Fisher Body stamping facilities into its Metal Fabricating Division in 1994.3 This division was then merged into General Motors’ North American Manufacturing operations in 2005.

The Fisher Body legacy still continues on as Fisher & Company, itself a merger of the Fisher Body Corporation and Fisher Dynamics, the latter a company formed in 1980 to develop automotive safety components.5

Further Reading
Sources