The news of today was dominated by the story that the General Motors Oshawa assembly plant would close next year after more than 100 years of operation.
I remember touring this plant on a school trip back in 1961. Although my family was mostly a Ford/Mercury/Monarch bunch at the time, like most schoolboys exposed to auto marketing I had the perceived price/quality of GM cars fixed in my mind. Buick>Oldsmobile>Pontiac>Chevrolet – or so I thought. Imagine my surprise to see all the makes coming down the same line – one shiny new car after another.
It was a heavily mechanized but non-automated workplace back then. No robots or computers – just a lot of good old-fashioned elbow grease made a car in 1961. Need the emergency brake cable hooked up or the wheels put on? There was someone ready to do it – over and over again on each succeeding unit.
I suppose all the guys (and it was indeed guys) who came to work the day I toured are now retired or deceased. The youngest new hire then would be in his mid-70s now. Their passing – like that of the assembly plant itself marks the end of an era in many ways:
- It’s the end of an era for the sedan. Like other plants that are closing, the Oshawa plant primarily made the slow-selling Chevy Impala – not the SUVs so many consumers want now. Chrysler and Ford went through a similar reorganization so I guess it’s no surprise that GM has to do the same.
- It might be the end of an era for fossil fuel cars. GM claims to be on the way to lower emissions and autonomous driving cars – maybe even cars that are shared rather than owned. We’ll see soon enough I guess.
- It’s the end of an era for auto branch plants in Canada. I’ve already seen that happen in the food and beverage industry; now it’s the auto sector’s turn. It would be a bit much in these Trumpian MAGA times for GM to close down plants in the US without having Canada share the pain.
- It’s the end of an era of generations who worked at GM. For 100 years all you had to do was get through Grade 10, get down to the plant where dad (or grandpa) worked, and hire on.
- It’s the end of an era for the blue-collar dream. That steady boring GM auto assembly job made it possible to get married, buy a house and GM car, raise your kids and retire comfortably. No longer, sadly.
- It’s the end of an era for Ontario communities that thrived on the tax base and payroll of a large factory in their midst. In the past 30 years, visceral losses have afflicted many small towns – Cobourg, Chatham, Smiths Falls, Arnprior, Chesterville. Now it’s happening in larger places on the fringes of the GTA. It’s not a pretty picture.
- Finally, it’s the end of an era for the educational philosophy of my youth. That philosophy resulted in an “assembly line” teaching operation that ignored the exceptionally intelligent or challenged, and concentrated on making sure the average Joe / Jill got the 3Rs and a bit of history and civics before they escaped to the factory. That’s all they needed to know to be productive citizens, right?
More than a few tears will be shed in Oshawa today as they mourn what was, what is, and what will be. The end of an era.