Ghosts Along the Assembly Line: The East Bay Edition

2006 Pontiac Vibe in  Columbus
A product of Fremont, California. Photo by Randy Stern

California was the land of great opportunity a century ago. After the Gold Rush, people sought their fortunes through finding new ways to ensure the wealth of a state that promised almost perfect weather year round.

Many opportunities presented themselves for the newly-minted Californian. Oil, railroads and financial houses formed the backbone of the economy before the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906. It continued in various forms throughout the century – through two world wars and the Great Depression.

It is clear there are three economies driving my home state: A well-balanced Southern California, the agricultural Central Valley and the Bay Area. Unlike its suntanned rival in the south, San Francisco and Oakland bore the work that off-loaded boats from the Pacific and built everything and anything in its bowels. This went on until the Summer of Love changed at least one part of the Bay Area.

While San Francisco saw battles between longshoreman and the city's government, the entire East Bay puts nose to the grindstone. The railroads ended effectively in Oakland giving industry and commerce a place to grow. The automotive industry saw opportunities for another part of their West Coast distribution strategy to build their cars in the East Bay.

In the heart of it all was Oakland – the bicep that pulled the entire Bay Area’s weight. Tucked away on the other side of San Francisco Bay, Oakland was the center of industry and home of Kaiser and Clorox. From Richmond to Milpitas, the Big Three had their plants positioned to feed into the railroad hub at what is now called Jack London Square.

Let's take a tour from San Pablo Bay down the East Bay corridor – and a little surprise just over the Altamont Pass.

OAKLAND: General Motors had roots in the city as far back as 1916 at the corner of Foothill and 73rd. Chevrolets were built primarily at the Oakland plant for a growing West Coast and mountain state region. There, Chevrolets continued to roll out of Oakland until 1965, when production was fully transferred down the bay in Fremont. The plant was soon torn down for Eastmont Mall.

Another automotive facility that was built in Oakland was for the Durant Motor Company. On Durant and International on the San Leandro border, their facility opened up in 1922 as the West Coast site for production. When Durant sales began to decline towards the latter part of the 1920s, the plant became redundant, closing in 1930. The site has been mostly torn down for light industrial and commercial properties developed since that time.

Chrysler began production in San Leandro in 1929, making the Oakland area the "Detroit of the West." San Leandro was seen as a back-up plant to the one in Commerce, near Los Angeles, as it built its small mix of cars. Expansion began just before World War II for primary production purposes. After the war, Dodges and Plymouths were the primary products coming out of San Leandro by 1949. The plant closed in 1954 to make way for mixed industrial and commercial development.

STOCKTON: Little known to most automotive historians was that Graham had a truck plant in the Central Valley city of Stockton. Known as a little inland port where California’s produce was shipped worldwide, Graham began building trucks under contract by the Dodge Brothers in 1926. At the same time, the Dodge Brothers bought out the Graham Brothers' truck business as their own – the Stockton plant, included. Then, Chrysler bought the Dodge Brothers in 1928. Stockton's job was the build Dodge trucks for Western USA markets and turned out quite a good product reflecting its volume. The Great Depression played into the hands of the West Coast truck facility. By 1933, the Stockton facility was closed down and truck production was transferred to the Commerce facility near Los Angeles.

RICHMOND: Ford's outpost in the East Bay began with a practically modern plant built as the Great Depression began to take hold on the nation. In 1930, Ford opened up their plant in what is now called Marina Bay to cover distribution to the Pacific Northwest and the mountain states. The plant was Ford's largest on the West Coast, eclipsing the Terminal Island facility in Long Beach. As with most facilities of the era, a vast amount of glass was installed throughout the plant – one of Albert Kahn's "daylight factories." Where the facility shined was during World War II when it became the center for tank and Jeep production for the Pacific Theater. Automotive production returned after the war, but not for long. As the automobile market grew, Richmond was unable to meet the demand. A bigger, more modern facility was needed. The last Ford was built in Contra Costa County in 1953. Production was transferred to Milpitas, near San Jose. Though parts of it were damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the facility is part of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park at Marina Bay on the south side of Richmond.

MILPITAS: When the Richmond plant was unable to meet the demands of a growing automobile market, Ford needed to find a bigger location to augment the growth of the region. Ford looked south beyond Oakland towards San Jose for their new facility. Two years after the last Ford rolled off at Richmond, the Milpitas plant began working on their first automobiles. The timing was right with 1955 being a huge year for the auto industry in this country. The plant was very flexible in terms of what it could produce. From full-sized Fords, Milpitas built pickups, Falcons and Mustangs. Come to think of it, the 1974 Mustang II Ghia my brother and I owned may have been built at Milpitas. In 1984, Ford closed the plant as part of a consolidation of production facilities nationwide. Ten years later, the Great Mall of the Bay Area opened up out of the old plant infrastructure as it is its current use today.

FREMONT: Seen as a more modern facility then the one up in Oakland, GM's Fremont plant began to build other lines for the same markets – the West Coast and mountain states. The facility opened in 1960 to offset capacity up at the Oakland plant. GM envisioned that Fremont would replace the older plant up north, which it did by 1965. Fremont saw many lines of automobiles come through its doors. By 1982, GM needed to consolidate and wound up closing the plant – if only for a few years. By 1985, a deal was struck with Toyota to share the plant producing a mix of products for either company and jointly. Thus was born New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. Toyota's pickups and Corollas were part of the mix, while a Chevrolet version of the Toyota Sprinter would become the focal point of assembly line – the new Nova. Nova production would become Geo/Chevrolet Prizm production as the 1990s rolled in. In 2002, GM and Toyota created a set of twins for their sales channels – the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix. The Vibe was exclusively built at Fremont. In 2009, it was plainly obvious that GM was going to reduce itself through its bankruptcy proceedings. The Vibe closed production first, leaving Toyota to fend for itself inside Fremont. Eventually, they pulled out of the NUMMI agreement effectively shuttering the plant again in 2010. However, the plant will have another life, thanks to Silicon Valley automaker Tesla. Tesla will utilize part of the plant for production of their electric vehicles. The Fremont facility remains the only automobile production line on the West Coast.

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