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    • Willow Run: Home of the Corvair

      One of General Motors’ most revolutionary designs was the Corvair which was introduced to the public in the fall of 1959. Designed as a response to their foreign competitors like Volkswagen, the Corvair also targeted more fuel-efficient and economy-minded buyers throughout America.

      Corvair factory production layout
      During the 1960's, Chevrolet had expanded its products into five new market areas. This included several popular compact models. The Corvair models offered new design and styling features which were introduced with the first 1960 models. Mr. Edward N. Cole, General Manager for Chevrolet, was directly involved with the development of the automobile.

      The Willow Run plant, located in Ypsilanti, Michigan was the central manufacturing location responsible for building Corvair models. Designers, Engineers and Production Experts joined forces to establish this conventional and revolutionary assembly facility. Ground for the Willow Run Plant was broken by July of 1958. The area for the plant was measured at 446,000 square feet; that included 347,000 square feet of factory space reserved for its work stations and its employees.

      Unlike any other American manufacturing assembly process, the Corvair models offered a rear-mounted engine, transmission, and trans-axle. In addition to that, its front and rear suspensions were sub-assembled and then lifted upwards instead of lowered into the frame-less automobile body during assembly. The assembly plant received auto body models via conveyor from the adjacent assembly plant of Fisher Body Division.

      The Chevrolet - Willow Run Plant was one of three Chevrolet assembly plants which built Corvair models, other locations included Kansas City, MO and Oakland, CA. The Willow Run plant, however, was the only Chevrolet facility that was devoted exclusively to Corvair assembly. In the beginning Chevrolet Engineers made every effort in creating and constructing the Corvair models and it was served to be an efficient operation for building. The Willow-Run assembly plant was divided into six sections.

      In one section, for example, the conveyor would lift the body high as it made a U-type turn to the next work station area; by the final section, the automobile was lowered onto its wheels. Several sub-assembly lines could feed parts and components to the main assembly line. The principal sub-assembly line was the engine line. Here the Corvair engine was united with the transmission, trans-axle, and rear suspension unit. Both front and rear suspension units were sub-assembled on hydraulic lifts which were routed under the overhead body conveyor, allowing workers to assemble with ease.

      During this time, the most modern tools were provided for Corvair assembly workers. Other areas at the Willow-Run plant included a modern reception center for visitors who were there for the first time or a newly design air conditioned cafeteria for employees, and even a well-equipped medical center.

      The Corvair assembly at Willow- Run is a great piece of automotive history that will be remembered by generations to come because it was so unique and fascinating. This helped turn the page of another chapter in our automotive heritage. To conclude, the last Corvair model was built and assembled on May 14, 1969. It was a sad day for the workers as a milestone had ended its production. As of that day, a total of 1,710,018 Corvair models had been produced. Corvairs will always have a special place in automotive history.

      A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of both the National Automotive History Collection and Bob Tate’s personal collection. (Bibliography: Dammann H. George. “Sixty Years of Chevrolet” Crestline Publishing 1972. Langworth M. Richard “Encyclopedia Of American Cars “1930-1980.)

      For further information on photos please visit or email Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. For further information contact Robert Tate at

      If you have a story that you would like to donate to be featured as a MotorCities Story of the Week, email Desirae Tolbert at