The Fisher Body Company Plant No. 21 formerly produced automobile bodies for General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. The building has been abandoned since 1993.
The Fisher Body Company began in the late 1800s 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 formed 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. Fred and Charles 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 bodybuilding business and $1,000 in financing from a sister, 6 Fred and Charles established the Fisher Body Company on July 22, 1908. By 1910, Fisher became the supplier of all closed bodies for Cadillac and Buick; the $1,000 investment two years prior was now worth $4 million. The brothers were able to obtain funding from Detroit businessman Louis Mendelssohn, who then became a shareholder and director. Within a few years, Charles and Fred were able to convince their five younger brothers to join Fisher Body.
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. 5 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. In the production process, wooden frames were screwed and glued together, after which formed steel was installed over the frame.
Fisher Body expanded its production capacity in 1913 to produce up to 100,000 car bodies per year to keep up with its expanding clientele, which included Buick, Cadillac, Chalmers, Ford, Krit, and Studebaker. 5 The company opened a new factory in 1914 in Walkerville, Ontario and by 1916, Fisher Body could manufacture 370,000 car bodies per year for Abbot, Buick, Cadillac, Chalmers, Chandler, Chevrolet, Churchfield, Elmore, EMF, Ford, Herreshoff, Hudson, Krit, Oldsmobile, Packard, Regal, and Studebaker. 6
In 1919, the company constructed the six-story, Albert Kahn-designed Plant 21 on Piquette Street in Detroit, which featured reinforced concrete construction and banks of windows for natural lighting and ventilation. 7 Plant 21 eventually became part of Fisher Body’s 40 plant empire that encompassed 3.7 million square feet in the United States and Canada.
“Body by Fisher”
General Motors (GM) acquired 60% of Fisher Body in 1919 for $27.6 million, 2 4 6 with the terms stating that the Fisher family retain managerial control for ten years and that GM buy all of its car bodies from Fisher Body at a 17.5% premium. 6 In 1925, Fisher Body purchased Fleetwood Metal Body, a manufacturer of special bodies for the Packard and Pierce-Arrow automobiles, and for wealthy industrialists, such as Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts, which gave the firm the capacity to produce 575,000 car bodies per year.
GM acquired the remaining 40% of Fisher Body for $208 million in 1926, 6 and it was integrated entirely as an autonomous business unit within the company. 3 4 The slogan, “Body by Fisher,” was developed to advertise Fisher Body components on its vehicles, and a steel plate with the slogan was attached to all General Motor vehicles. 4 6
Fisher Body developed its own set of suppliers independent of GM. 3 It bought a controlling interest in the National Plate Glass Company and the Ternstedt Manufacturing Company, the latter of which made parts such as window cranks. Additionally, because car bodies were still crafted out of wood, Fisher controlled 160,000 acres of timber in Michigan, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and sawmills and woodworking plants in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Washington. 5
In 1931, Chrysler adopted steel body production methods with interchangeable parts to support four brands. 1 Many of the common parts were used across the whole line of vehicles, 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 GM, because of Fisher Body’s massive holdings in wood manufacturing and the high upstart costs in stamping and die-making lines, was last to switch over in 1937.
On August 14, 1944, the Fisher brothers resigned from GM to devote time to other interests. 5
During World War I and World War II, Fisher Body’s plants were converted into the production of airplanes, tanks, and related components. 5 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 product development and engineering operation during World War II. 10 During the Korean War, Alrowa Metal Products manufactured parts for rocket launchers that were used by allies. 5
Fisher Body, with its considerable reach, was able to develop new technologies and innovations. Some of those milestones included: 6
- Windows that could roll up and down in 1916
- 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
- Ignition interlock system and first airbag for General Motors in 1974
Decline and Closure
As early as 1930, GM criticized Fisher Body’s Plant No. 21 as being inefficient. 10 In 1955, GM’s limousine body assembly was moved to Plant No. 21 from their Fleetwood plant because of the low annual production output of 1,000 car bodies. The tool-and-die operation at Plant No. 21 was switched to produce parts for Cadillac. 9
On November 29, 1982, GM announced that Plant No. 21, along with Plant No. 40 and 41 at 1500 East Ferry Street, would cease operations, citing the building’s inefficiency as the reason for the closure. 10 11 All car body production would relocate to “Buick City” in Flint, 12 leaving 900 hourly and 300 salaried employees furloughed. 11 Plant No. 21 was 63 years old at the time of the announcement while Plant 40, which made tooling aids, and Plant 41, used for storage, were 54 years old. Another, Plant No. 37 at 950 East Milwaukee Street, was considered for closure; it was a die tryout facility with 140 workers. 11 It was later converted into a stamping facility.
The last day of production for Plant No. 21 was April 1, 1984.
The shuttered Plant No. 21 was purchased by the Carter Color Coat Company (d.b.a. Cameo Color Coat) in 1990 and reused for industrial painting. In June 1992, 14 the company declared bankruptcy, and the facility was abandoned. The city took ownership of the facility in 2000.
A survey from 2004 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that the building and grounds were riddled with asbestos, lead, PCBs, and hazardous debris and wastes, along with contaminated soils and concrete. 15 The Environmental Protection Agency began a $1 million remediation project in 2008 in which contaminated equipment, flooring, and soil were removed from the site. 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 No. 21 for reuse as a techno music club. 8 Preliminary plans included renovating the second floor into a techno club, a 100-bed hostel, and a European-American restaurant but a lack of financing killed the proposal. 13
In March 2022, Jackson Asset Management and Hosey Development proposed rehabilitating Plant No. 21 into Fisher 21 Lofts, a $134 million project that is expected to be the largest Black-led development deal in the city’s history. 16 Plans include renovating the main building along Hasting Street into 433 market-rate and affordable apartments, 28,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, and 15,000 square feet of co-working space. Approximately 20% of the units will be reserved towards those whose incomes are at or below 80% of the area median income. Amenities will include a quarter-mile walking track, lounge, dog parks, and lounge space on the two-acre roof and 130 enclosed parking spaces on the ground floor, with an additional 700 spaces available around the building.
Pending city council approval, initial work is expected to begin in April with construction to begin in late 2023. 16
Fisher Body Mergers
In 1984, Fisher Body was folded into GM’s Assembly Division, which included the Fisher Guide Division, the Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group, and the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group. 6 Fisher Body merged with Guide Lamp in 1986 and then with Inland to form the Inland Fisher Guide Division in 1990. 3 The division was renamed Delphi Interior & Lighting Systems in 1994 and then Delphi Interior Systems, a part of Delphi Automotive Systems, itself formed in 1995 as the parts division for GM. 4 In 1999, GM 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.
GM also consolidated thirteen Fisher Body stamping facilities into its Metal Fabricating Division in 1994, which then merged into GM’s North American manufacturing operations in 2005. 3 Today, 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
- Weiss, H. Eugene. “Walter Chrysler (1875-1940).” Chrysler, Ford, Durant and Sloan: Founding Giants of the American Automotive Industry. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. 135, 142-143. Print.
- Weiss, H. Eugene. “Alfred Sloan (1875-1966).” Chrysler, Ford, Durant and Sloan: Founding Giants of the American Automotive Industry. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. 88. Print.
- Klier, Thomas H. and James M. Rubenstein. “GM Stamping.” Who Really Made Your Car? Kalamazoo, M.I.: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2008. 88. Print.
- Klier, Thomas H. and James M. Rubenstein. “Rise and Fall of Vertical Integration in the Midwest.” Who Really Made Your Car? Kalamazoo, M.I.: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2008. 46-48. Print.
- “Our Heritage.” Fisher & Company. N.p., 2009. Web. 01 July 2016.
- Teahen, John K., Jr. “‘Body by Fisher’: A family affair.” Automotive News 14 Sept. 2008: n. pag. Print.
- “Fisher Body Plant 21 – From Rags to Riches to Ruin to Return?” The Old Motor 1 June 2015: n. pag. Web. 1 July 2016. Article.
- Reindi, J.C. “Famous Berlin club owner sees potential in Detroit plant.” Detroit Free Press 28 Nov. 2014: n. pag. Web.
- “General Motor’s Corp.’s.” Detroit Free Press 12 Oct. 1982, Business: 4C. Print.
- Ford, Andrea. “A factory’s epitaph: Good when it was built, but no more.” Detroit Free Press 5 Dec. 1982: 3A, 14A. Print.
- Johnson, Ben. “GM closing 3 Fisher plants here.” Detroit Free Press 30 Nov. 1982: 1A, 6A. Print.
- Lienert, Paul. “Buick City is in home stretch.” Detroit Free Press 28 Mar. 1984, Business: 8A. Print.
- Zlatopolsky, Ashley. “Berlin techno entrepreneur has his eye on Fisher Body.” Detroit Free Press 17 Apr. 2015: C1. Print.
- “Bankruptcies.” Detroit Free Press 22 Jun. 1992: 12F. Print.
- “Carter Color Coat.” Brownfields 2015 n.d.: n. pag. Web. 1 July 2016. Entry.
- Haddad, Ken. “$134M redevelopment plan announced for Detroit’s historic Fisher Body Plant.” Click on Detroit, 7 Mar. 2022.