by: Eva “Corvair Lady” McGuire
Lowell “Tommy” Espy was hired in at the Willow Run Assembly Plant on September 18, 1959, and worked there until its closing in 1993. He was hired in as an Assembler at Fisher Body at a pay rate of $2.29 per hour. He also spot welded in the Body Shop and ran the machine that drilled the holes into the Corvair bodies to prepare them for the chrome and emblem attachments. He would set the machine up for whatever the next Corvair on the line would need, i.e. a Spyder emblem, etc. He would then drill the hole(s) on the side of the body shell and then go in the back of the car and pull the fixture down and drill holes where needed.
There is a rare photograph that was taken of Tommy (who was 21 at the time) working at this machine. He said that the reason the photo was taken was because two skilled tradesmen had made a suggestion about the machine he ran. After one of the tradesmen took the picture (by Polaroid camera), they immediately threw it into the trash. Tommy observed them throwing the photo away and waited for the gentlemen to leave the site before digging it out of the trash bin and keeping it as a souvenir.
There was no explanation as to why they threw the photo away, but back in the day, no photographs were allowed to be taken in the plant due to confidentiality policies with the exception of two occurrences:
The Japanese car people were invited and given special access to the Willow Run Assembly Plant and took many photos that were used to help set up their own car plant facility (to this point in my interviews, no one knows why they were given access).
The other exception was when another GM plant needed to see how something looked or if an improvement was made; a representative would take an instant Polaroid photo of that site or improved item. The photo was then hand carried to the other facility for viewing by management and the photo was then to be destroyed. Instant Polaroid photos were taken so that negatives weren't available for reprints.
Tommy showcased his name plate explaining that all Willow Run Assembly Plant employees were given a name plate that was affixed to the wall by their work station. When the plant closed in 1993, the employees were allowed to take their name plate. When the Willow Run Assembly Plant closed in 1993, Tommy retrieved some souvenir items that he knew were tucked and hidden away in the Migweld Booth at the former Fisher Body side of the plant.
These items were hanging off the ceiling ever since the 1960's. They were special made by an unknown former Corvair auto worker who worked at Fisher Body. He used the discarded roof tabs and other pieces of metal fragments from Corvairs to create four metal flying objects to pay homage to this air-cooled automobile.
These creative objects of art include a helicopter, bi-plane, water plane, and the Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek television series from the 1960's. These flying objects, along with many other Willow Run Assembly Plant memorabilia, were generously donated by Tommy and we thank him for preserving these historical items.
Tommy recently gifted me with a 'Fordite' (also known as Detroit agate or Motor Agate), a chip made of accumulated old automobile paint from the Willow Run Assembly Plant Body Shop. Workers would chip away the built up hardened paint off the floor and sand them making beautiful pieces of jewelry.
The particular chip Tommy gave me is very old and he stated that it's highly probable that it's from Corvair days. I'm trying to see if I can recognize any colors of my Corvairs in this particular fordite. Tommy was one of the guest speakers at my “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event held on May 14, 2015. I want to thank Tommy and all the former Corvair auto workers, engineers, and GM designers who have participated with this historical preservation project I've created to ensure that the history of this one of a kind air-cooled wonder will be enjoyed by future generations of Corvair owners and enthusiasts.
Copyright 2017 Eva McGuire