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GM workers know the stakes for Volt

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GM workers know the stakes for Volt

They feel the pressure to build winner



He stands all day, bent over noisy machines, cutting giant sheets of steel and feeding them into monster-sized presses so powerful the concrete floor rumbles beneath his size-16 feet.

This is how Steve Prucnell builds cars. In 22 years, the parts haven't changed much. A car's a car.

But then another project came along, something different.

After decades of building everything from Corvettes to Saturns and Silverados -- Prucnell took a giant leap into the future, working on early models of the Chevy Volt, General Motors' new electric car. It's a high-risk, high-profile venture and Prucnell is understandably nervous.

Maybe it's the 13 foreclosure signs that popped up on his street. Or turning 50 in a struggling industry. Or working for a company that needed a $52-billion loan from the U.S. Treasury to stay alive. Whatever the reason, Prucnell is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping America is ready for a new kind of love affair -- battery included.

The Volt could help usher in a new generation of electric cars, but there's more at stake than a technological breakthrough: The fate of GM and its workers. The future of a beleaguered state. And, maybe, in some larger sense, the image of all U.S. autoworkers, eager to prove they have what it takes to compete on the global stage.

The moment of truth is coming, and Prucnell feels the pressure.

"If this doesn't fly, what's left for GM?" he asks, taking a break from work at the GM Tech Center in Warren. "Wall Street is going to say, 'We knew they couldn't dig themselves out of the hole.' "

There was, Prucnell says, a different vibe building the Volt's test models. It wasn't just the intense scrutiny from above. It was the anxiety down below, on the shop floor.

"I don't want to say that we worked harder on this," Prucnell says. "I think we worked a lot smarter. I mean everybody was on their 'A' game. ... It was, 'We want to make sure we're perfect.'

"We know the Volt is the last hurrah for GM," he adds. "It's either do or die."

The world will be watching

Roam the state of Michigan, and you will hear the same insistent optimism:

The Volt is crucial. So much depends on this car. It cannot fail.

This is a state that talks about becoming more than an auto capital, but cars have been its identity. It's the place where Henry Ford's name graces a college and hospital; where Pontiac was an Indian warrior and then a town before gaining fame as a car.

So when the car industry tanks, the crisis is financial, personal and even existential.

"Detroit," declares Mike Smith, head of the Reuther Library, "has two choices: Remake itself. Or die on the vine. We have to reinvent ourselves."

So what can a single car -- one touted as revolutionary but still untested by the public -- mean in a state that has hemorrhaged jobs, leaving some cities with Hoover-like jobless rates edging toward 30%?

Maybe a lot, according to Smith.

"If you're going to have an electric car and if the Volt turns out to be the leader of the pack, think what that means in sales, prestige, in reputation," he says. "This one is symbolic in the sense that it's going to speak to the prowess of the American auto industry -- and GM itself."

And the spotlight will be white-hot.

"The Volt," he says, "is going to be the most watched production in the history of autos."

Teri Quigley, the 22-year GM veteran who manages the sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck plant where the Volt will roll off the line, can already feel the heat.

"We have to execute flawlessly," she says. "A lot of pressure? Yeah. ... We've got one chance to do this right. My workforce has heard me say this more than once: The world is really going to be watching."

GM is spending $336 million to prepare the factory so it can build Volts on the same line as the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne.

The Volt, she says, could help restore luster to American cars -- and the city.

"The whole view of what Detroit is like, what the auto industry is like -- we have a unique opportunity to change that tarnished image," she says. "I'd like to change people's minds about what we do here."

Initially, the Volt will be available only in Michigan, California and Washington, D.C. GM won't reveal the price tag, though it's said to be about $35,000 -- not taking into account a $7,500 tax credit.

The car will have a 400-pound T-shaped lithium-ion battery that gives it a range of up to 40 miles on one charge. After that, a small gas-powered engine will kick in to generate electricity to power the car about 300 miles.

The battery can be recharged by plugging it into an electrical outlet.

GM is pouring $700 million into eight operations that will produce the car. The dollars and work will be spread out: Warren. Hamtramck. Bay City. Grand Blanc. Brownstown Township. And Detroit and Flint, two cities that are the walking wounded of the cataclysm that has engulfed Michigan.

The state has lost 860,000 jobs in a decade, the majority since 2007.

There have been some modest signs of improvement for U.S. automakers; GM recently announced its first quarterly profit in nearly three years.

Even so, the auto industry will never again generate one in six U.S. jobs, says Smith, the historian. Robots, automation and foreign competition have changed that.

And yet ... silver linings can be found in small clouds.

"People in this area are looking for anything to say Michigan and the car industry can make it," he says. "That's the hope factor that drives a lot of us in Detroit. What if there are suddenly orders for 100,000 Volts? Now we're talking."



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