The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries:

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at