The automotive world has been reverberating at the sound of Donald Trump’s recent remarks to several German manufacturers. Trump has threatened a 35% “border tax” on foreign cars imported for sale in the United States. The comments were aimed particularly at BMW, Dailmer, and Volkswagen, all three firms having either announced or made investments in manufacturing plants in Mexico. Essentially Trump was saying if you want to sell cars in America, make them in America.

While the comments were aimed at the Germans, the message was received loud and clear by companies around the world. From Japan to Sweden and, yes, Detroit, car manufacturers all responded in similar ways: This is a world economy and imposing high import tariffs is something that can flow both ways.

It is true that the Big Three from Detroit – Chrysler, Ford, and GM – all run manufacturing plants in various parts of the world. The same is true of foreign car companies. That includes putting together their cars and trucks in the United States using American workers. Honda has a large plant in Ohio and Toyota makes cars in Georgetown, Kentucky. Mazdas and Volkswagens, and even BMWs, are manufactured here in the USA.

Conversely, Americas top automobiles, many made here, some made in plants around the world, are often shipped overseas to places such as Europe, Asia, and South America. Due to cheaper labor costs, the past several decades have seen a number of the domestic plants close and operations being moved overseas.

Shortly after Trump’s pronouncement, General Motors announced a $1 billion investment in American plants and workers. GM was quick to point out that this investment had been in the works for a long time and had nothing to do with the 45th President.

Investing in manufacturing in the US is nothing new to the Big Three. Early on, as the industry began to grow, the large manufacturers realized that they would do best to spread out their plants. This way they could take advantage of a larger work force, have shorter routes for delivering certain makes and models, and essentially enliven their brand name to the various markets where they set up shop.

One such “satellite” assembly plant happened to be in the Greater Cincinnati Area. The Norwood Assembly Plant just to the east of downtown Norwood, opened for business in 1923. In August of that year a Chevrolet Superior (Photo 1) rolled off of the line, the first car to do so.

Located on nearly 50 acres of land that is bordered by what is now the Norwood Lateral and Reading Road, when the plant was opened it seemed to be well-suited for the growing demands of the automobile industry. But with a neighborhood full of houses to the north and Section Road to the east, there was little room for the facility to expand.

Originally the Norwood plant only manufactured Chevrolets and created jobs for 600 people in Cincinnati. Initially it was set to build 200 cars per day. The set up at the plant was rather unique. The Norwood facility was actually two facilities sitting side by side. On one side was the Fisher Body Plant, which built the body shell from the firewall back. It sat next door to the Chevrolet assembly plant, which received the body shell through a tunnel that went through the common wall of the buildings. They then completed the car, including the drive train, all of the trim, all of the front sheet metal, and every other part to make the vehicle drivable.

The adjoining buildings wasn’t the only unique thing about the Norwood facility. It stood three stories tall. Most plants, even back then, were contained on one level and made moving the parts throughout the process easier. At the time this must have seemed an ingenious way to maximize space but it would turn out to be a contributing factor to the facility’s closure.

In its early years the Norwood plant made a number of different models of Chevrolet automobiles. Prior to the war Chevrolets were very much like the other cars of the era (Photo 2). After the war, cars like the Special Deluxe (Photo 3) began showing a distinct style that was pure Chevrolet. This trend began to reach its peak in the 1950s. For a while the iconic Bel Air (Photo 4) rolled off of the assembly line.

Other classics were manufactured here as well. The Biscayne (Photo 5) was manufactured between 1958 and 1972, made primarily as a fleet car. This meant that, while it was a full-size car it did not offer any frills. It initially came standard with the Blue Flame inline six engine. While its 235.5 cubic inches was plenty to move the car along, two larger V8s were offered as well. There was a 283 cubic inch model and a 348-cubic-inch version. Engines grew up to a 454-cubic-inch V8 by the third generation, though the wheel base never grew longer than 119 inches.

Another full-sized car, though one with more amenities, that premiered in the same year was the Impala (Photo 6). The Impala was styled by the famous designer Harley Earl and was intended to be the full-size leader of the Chevrolet line. Its run at the Norwood plant was fairly brief, beginning in 1965 with the fourth generation of the model. That was the year that the Caprice version was introduced to be the top model in the Impala line. The Caprice eventually became its own distinct model separate from the Impala.  These were both made in Norwood through 1970.

One of the most well-known Chevys to roll out of Norwood started being made in 1961. The Chevy II (Photo 7) was designed to compete against the Ford Falcon (Photo 8) in the highly contested compact car market. Initially it rode on a 110-inch wheelbase, a half inch longer than the Ford. The first Chevy II models had five engine offerings ranging from the 153-cubic-inch straight four cylinder all the way up to a V8 with 327 cubes. By comparison, the Falcon had a basic 144-cubic-inch inline six, a 170-cubic-inch inline six or a 260-cubic-inch V8 from which to choose.

There had been debate over what to call this new compact car. Eventually Chevy II was chosen as an 11th hour pick shortly before launch. One of the names being considered was the Nova. Enough people liked this name that they dubbed the top of the line sport model Chevy II the Nova (Photo 9). For 1969 the Chevy II name was done away with and the Nova became Chevy’s compact car. By then the Falcon was on its last legs and was retired by Ford in 1970.

One of the main reasons for the Chevy II and Nova’s success was the wide range of options available to the buyer. They could choose economy with the smaller engine or raw horsepower with an engine up to 402 cubes in a V8. In all, by the third generation buyers could choose between nine different engines and nine different transmissions.

Sales were generally strong, save for a brief dip in 1965. But the number of Novas being driven off of sales lots was enough to make the brass at General Motors think of sharing the wealth among their other makes. Novas were essentially rebranded Pontiac (the Ventura II), Oldsmobile (the Omega), and Buick (the Apollo). The latter was also built at the Norwood plant.

The Nova was a part of one of the darkest days in the Norwood Assembly Plant’s history. In 1972 the workers went on strike. They stayed out for 174 days which, at the time, was the longest strike in GM history. Because of the timing and the length of the strike GM had to dispose of 1,100 cars. It was determined that it would be more economical to destroy them than to try to retrofit the new 1973 federal requirements. As a result Nova production was moved away from Norwood.

Perhaps the car most often associated with the Norwood plant debuted in September 1966. It was a pony car and was designed to go head to head with Ford’s hugely successful Mustang (Photo 10). Its launch was heralded with a unique 14-city telephone linked press conference. The automotive press got their first look at the Camaro (Photo 11). When asked what the name meant a Chevy official said that a Camaro is a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.

The hype worked. In its first year the Camaro sold over 220,000 cars. That was topped the next year with sales of over 235,000 and in 1969 over 243,000. Chevrolet had a hit in their small, vicious animal.

As in the case of the Nova, the executives at GM decided to cross-brand the Camaro platform. Only this time it began at the very beginning of the car’s life. The same year as the Camaro was introduced, Pontiac introduced a pony car of their own: the Firebird (Photo 12). Since it shared the same platform and, basically, the same options, the Firebird was also assembled at the Norwood plant.

Chevrolet had always been GM’s largest and biggest selling marque. Pontiac was more of a middle child for the company, though around this time it was developing the reputation of being GM’s sports and performance brand, thanks in part to the radical designs of John DeLorean, who was behind the making of the Tempest and its sportier brother, the LeMans. But his most high energy contribution was the famed GTO (Photo 13).

Despite assembling some of the most popular GM performance cars, by the 1980s the Norwood plant was in trouble. Being landlocked with no room for expansion and living under a sixty year old design made it less efficient and more difficult to re-tool. The bitter memory of the 1972 strike still hung around many GM brass. Added to this was one of the company’s highest absentee rates. The announcement was made on November 6, 1986 that the Norwood plant would close. On August 26, 1987 the last Camaro rolled off of the assembly line.

For many the closing of the plant was a tough pill to swallow. At its peak in the early 1970s more than 9,000 people were employed there. Though the number had shrunk there were still a lot of people looking for new jobs. My uncle, who had worked there for decades, was of an age where he could take retirement. Not everyone was so lucky.

It wasn’t just the workers who felt the effects of the plant’s closing. The City of Norwood lost a large tax base when the plant closed. In fact, since they hadn’t been collecting payroll taxes on employees who were on sick or injury leave since the factory had opened its doors they sued GM for those back taxes and ultimately took a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money.

There is little left to remind us that once a plant existed in Norwood that turned out some of the most iconic GM cars. But think about this the next time you are at a car show and see a Camaro or a Firebird or a Nova or an Impala or a Bel Air: That car may well have been home grown, made in Norwood.

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