The slogan “Body By Fisher” may not mean much to younger consumers, but in the early days of the auto industry, it carried a lot of weight.
In the years before the fully integrated automobile chassis became commonplace, the passenger compartment of a car was a modular component that could be swapped out with different makes or models to meet the particular tastes of a customer. This practice dated back to horse-drawn carriages; one could opt for various levels of decoration and amenities provided by different body companies.
The Fisher Body Company, formed in 1908 by Albert Fisher and his nephews Charles and Fred, initially produced bodies for both the carriage and auto industries, though they dropped the carriage line in 1911. At the time auto bodies were made of a mixture of shaped wood and metal, the construction of which was a complicated process requiring skilled tradesmen. Automakers found it was more cost-effective to outsource body construction; by 1910’s Fisher was producing high-quality automotive bodies for Cadillac, Ford, Studebaker, and Hudson, among other names.
To meet increasing demand, Fisher expanded operations to over 40 plants in Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, and Ontario. Body plant number 21 was built in 1919 on Piquette Street in Detroit; just a stone’s throw away from Henry Ford’s original workshop. The six-story building was designed by Albert Kahn, featuring reinforced concrete construction and walls of windows to allow in natural light. The plant started to turn out Buick and Cadillac bodies in the 1920’s, focusing on the stamping process.
General Motors had moved most of its bodywork to Fisher in 1917, and two years later bought a controlling interest in the company. The two companies merged in 1926, though the “Body By Fisher” marquee continued. The Fisher brothers built their landmark 30-story headquarters across from the General Motors Building in what would later become the New Center area of Detroit.
A series of violent strikes broke out at General Motors and Fisher Body plants across the country in the late 1930’s, bringing work to a halt. The sit-down strike at the Flint Fisher Body plant #1 was one of the first organized labor actions by the nascent United Auto Workers.
Like other automotive companies, Fisher retooled during the Second World War for military production, manufacturing components for planes, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, other materials.
After the war the Piquette plant focused on stamping and assembly work for buses, ambulances, and limousines. By this time though, the Fisher name had started to recede from public view. In November of 1982 General Motors announced it was closing the #21 body plant and moving limousine production to Flint. The last day of production was April Fool’s Day, 1984.
The vacant plant found new life when the Carter Color Coat Company purchased it in 1990 for use in industrial painting; this however was short-lived, as Carter Color filed for bankruptcy in 1993 and subsequently abandoned the plant. Ownership of the site reverted to the city of Detroit in 2000.
Despite its ideal location close to midtown and Wayne State University, a lifetime of industrial processes at Fisher Body 21 left the site severely contaminated. A 2004 survey by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found “asbestos materials, lead waste, industrial equipment, storage tanks, other solid / hazardous debris and wastes, and contaminated soils and concrete” in and around the plant. Further studies found the presence of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cyanide, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, thallium, and PCB’s.
The Environmental Protection Agency began remediation work on the site in 2008, removing and disposing of large quantities of soil and contaminated equipment. The wooden bricks that had covered the floors were removed, as well as sections of concrete. Further work was carried out in 2010 to remove underground storage tanks.
Today despite over $1 million dollars of work, the site is still considered “contaminated” by the EPA. The front of the building facing Harper avenue has been cleared and is now used as a Police auto impound lot. Looming over rows of towed cars is a building in steady decline, slowly being broken down by natural elements. Several sections of the floor have caved in, the cement being eaten away by water and broken by ice. At least one fire heavily damaged the ground level of the first floor.
The City of Detroit is seeking interested developers to renovate the site, but as of yet there have been no takers. For just $300,000, you could own a slice of automotive history with a great view of the city.