The Southern Road: 6 Tips For A Car Plant Tour

I just love visiting factories. After finishing my Southern Road trip, I’ve now been to 99. I went on my first plant tour when I was 8 years old, and my family went to visit Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Like me, you can visit many of the car plants that have been built in the South over the past 20 years. (See here for a list – and companies are adding tours all the time.) But, what are you actually going to see?

Here are some tips to help you understand what to look for.

1) Robots. Hands down, people who go on plant tours want to see robots. And you’ll see plenty at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Pretty soon, it will have 1,000 robots in its body shop. It has some of the most interesting uses for robots of any plant in the South. It actually hands them upside down, so they’re easier to repair and maintain. Robots do a variety of things on the assembly line, but they’re primarily used to weld things together. Don’t let the sparks scare you.

2) Organization. Felix Unger of the Odd Couple would love going on a plant tour. It’s the primary example of how things are organized to reach an outcome. When you’re on a plant tour, look at how parts are arranged on the side the assembly line – and also look to see whether there are many parts at all. In some plants, big pieces of a car, like the dashboard, are now delivered to workers in one module.

3) Atmosphere. Is the plant well lit? Is it hot, or cool and does it smell? Odor is a problem in engine plants, like Toyota’s factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The women who work there don’t bring their purses inside, because the smell gets into leather. (That odor is coolant, which is used because there is so much metal being processed.) On the flip side, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner plants than Toyota in Tupelo, Mississippi, BMW in Greenville, South Carolina, or Mercedes.

4) Flow. Car plants have a particular flow. The biggest ones, like Hyundai, in Montgomery, Alabama, start with stamping plants, where they make the hoods and sides and trunks from big coils of steel. All the metal pieces get put together before they go through the paint shop. Then, car companies take the doors off so that workers can get inside and underneath to add parts, without damaging the hinges (or themselves). You’ll always see a “wet test” at the end where the car gets sprayed with water to test for leaks.

5) Staging yards. Outside the factory, you may notice a huge lot filled with vehicles – rows and rows of them. This doesn’t mean the cars aren’t selling. These are called staging yards, where the cars are lined up to be put on rail cars and transport trucks. They’re busy places, with cars zooming out of the factory and into the yard. It’s fun to see how many different colors are being made and which models are the most popular.

Finally, one last piece of advice FOR you, not about what you’ll see.

6) Don’t touch anything. You’re not in danger of having anything fall on you, but please keep your hands out of the assembly line and don’t push any buttons. Also, don’t feel like you can help yourself to a free Mercedes emblem or a BMW hubcap. These things are expensive. And, many parts are lined up in sequence. If you somehow walked off with a rear-view mirror, you might wind up delaying the assembly line, and that would be some plant tour to remember.

The Southern Road: The Next Bend In The Road

In Alabama, they say that Huntsville has the intellect; Birmingham has the money; Montgomery has the power; and Mobile has the bay.

Soon enough, Mobile also will have airplanes, which will be built at a factory that Airbus plans to open in 2016. And from there, the same folks that brought you the southern auto industry hope they can develop a southern aviation corridor.

And while it’s still going to be a leap to get from here to there, the South is where the Wright Brothers flew their first flight (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), where countless thousands of Air Force pilots have been trained, and where there’s already a small but growing aviation industry, in places like Columbus and Batesville, Mississippi.

But let’s get back to Mobile. I drove down on an August Saturday from Birmingham, a four-hour drive that’s legendary in Alabama for its tedium. (Actually, if you break it up with a visit to Peach Park, and you stop for green boiled peanuts and to see Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace in Georgiana, it isn’t that bad.)

Compared with the rest of the Deep South, Mobile is a city apart. For one thing, it’s on breathtaking Mobile Bay, which is shaped like an inverted U, with Mobile sitting at the top of the upside U.In appearance, and atmosphere, Mobile is much more like New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities than it is like other places in the South. It has the same shotgun homes as New Orleans and the same kind of tall buildings in its downtown. Like New Orleans, Mobile is an important port, and it’s also more Roman Catholic than Bible Belt.

But Mobile shares something with the auto towns across the South: determination. Airbus’ announcement this spring that it would build the A320 in Mobile was the culmination of more than a decade of work to attract an airplane factory. “We’ve had a long time to get ready,” says Bill Sisson, the executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, who joined a big cadre of local, state and national officials to attract the Airbus plant.

Originally, Mobile thought it was going to be home to tanker planes, built for the U.S. Air Force, a contract that Airbus won and subsequently lost to Boeing. Then, when all hope was gone, Airbus came through with a project that will be built not far from downtown, at Brookley Field. (My friend George Talbot, political editor of the Mobile Press-Register, is the authority on all things Airbus. You can read his archive here.)

Brookley opened as a commercial airfield in 1929, attracting notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In 1938, the Army Air Corps bought the property and established a base that remained open until 1969, when it was the largest closure at the time in military history.

Brookley became a private and cargo aviation complex (commercial traffic is handled by Mobile Regional Airport, a few miles away). There are 4 million square feet of industrial space, and 70 companies at the aeroplex, with nearly 4,000 people working there. But Airbus, needless to say, will be its biggest prize.

We rode up a tiny elevator and then climbed up to the control tower to survey the scene. The view is breathtaking. The runways and green fields spread out below us, the bay to our right, downtown on the horizon, and the ocean in the distance behind us. It was too hazy to see very far, but I was assured that when the skies are clear the view stretches for miles.

In front of us was the site where the Airbus factory will be built. It will be using the runways at Brookley to test its planes, which it will be able to deliver to customers such as Jet Blue and Delta without having to ferry them across the Atlantic. It’s likely that passengers will be flying on these American-built Airbus jets by the end of the decade.

Already, Mobile is seeing an influx of Airbus personnel, French and German, who have come over for meetings and to take a look around the South. They’re a subject of curiosity for restaurant staff like Justine, our server at Felix’s Fish Camp, who told us she’d noticed some Airbus business cards being passed around by some of her customers.

“It’s going to bring a lot of business,” she said. “I think that’s awesome. I’ve been waiting tables for a long time. Wherever the money is at, I guess.” She was excited to hear she could already submit her job application at

Airbus already has an engineering center not far from Brookley, which opened back when it looked like Mobile would be getting the tanker plant. Many of the newcomers are drawn to the quaint towns around Mobile, such as Fairhope, which sits on the other side of Mobile Bay.

I spent an evening and the following day exploring Fairhope, and it gave me the same sense of peace and contentment I feel when I’m on Cape Cod.

Along with its charming downtown, decorated with flowers that change year around, Fairhope, population 15,000, has a quarter-mile long fishing pier where families gather to catch fish and crab, and watch the stunning sunsets.

Marvin Johnson, a retired school principal from Mobile, invited me to fish with him and his family. I hauled in a fish too small to keep, while I basked in the vivid colors of the sky, watched pelicans fly across the horizon, and looked at the motorboats humming quietly past.

Soon, that sky will also feature gleaming Airbus jets. Perhaps Justine will be building them rather than waiting tables. And if it’s anything like the impact of the automobile industry on the rest of the South, Mobile will find itself in a new league. Says Sisson: “The world will be looking at Mobile, instead of Mobile looking out at the world.”

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.

The Brookley Aeroplex:


The Southern Road: Under The Factory Roof

I can’t stop thinking about Corey Burkett. And Tonya Williams. And the Burton family.

These folks – and thousands more – are southerners who have joined automobile companies to plot new careers and, hopefully, achieve some of their personal and financial goals. And the jobs along the Southern Road aren’t just going to people who were born in the South.

During my trip, I met people with roots in Detroit who made a reverse migration from the North, landing positions at the foreign automakers. Others traveled across oceans, from Korea, Japan and Germany.

These are the people you’ll see when you take a tour of a car plant. I got to talk to a couple dozen while I was on the Southern Road, and I was struck by the similarities and differences among the people I met.

All of them, it seems, feel the auto industry is their future, and the future of their communities and their states. Numerous times people said they felt “blessed” to have landed jobs for which hundreds of thousands of applications came in.

The pay for these positions generally starts around $15 an hour, but some earn more, and promotions seem to be readily available. These plants aren’t union, and there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming drive to organize them.

You never know, as a reporter, whether people have been briefed on your arrival. But I saw more folks smile and wave at me than in any factory I’d ever visited up north. The employees in places like Mercedes, Hyundai and BMW are also used to being interviewed. Some have even starred in commercials and on the local news.

So, who’s working under the roof?

%Gallery-164491%Burkett, who I met at Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant, has some awesome responsibilities. He’s the manager of the paint line, where Hyundai paints each car that’s built in the plant. He supervises more than 140 people, including an assistant manager, three group leaders and more than 100 assembly line workers.

Before he came to Hyundai, Burkett worked at Rheem’s nearby factory, making water heaters. He was already used to industrial work, so the idea of making cars “wasn’t a big shock or adjustment,” he says. His dad, who works at a bakery, and his mom, who is a supervisor at the county jail, were excited that he was getting a chance to join the big new company in town.

Burkett started on the bottom rung in May, 2004, installing fixtures in the paint shop and working on its conveyors. “You learn a lot,” he says of the first job. Promotions rapidly followed. Now, Burkett’s day begins at 6 a.m., when he receives communications from the previous shift (Hyundai is a three shift operation).

As the other workers arrive, he makes a point to be out on the paint shop floor, talking with his employees and making sure there is enough staff on hand to cover every position. When he’s training newcomers, he’ll assign them to work with an experienced team member, so no one is left on their own.

Williams, who works in the paint shop at BMW, knows what it’s like to make a transition from another industry. For years, Williams worked at a vitamin factory in North Carolina, a short drive from where the BMW plant sits outside Greenville, S.C.

Day in and day out, Williams worked on assembly line where the tablets were measured into rows after rows of square bottles. “It was nothing like this,” she says of the gleaming BMW factory.

At BMW, she confidently takes me on a tour of the paint shop (usually off limits to visitors) where employees are applying the glistening paint that is a hallmark of the German luxury brand. The BMW workers know that their workplace is a subject of curiosity.

“You have a lot of people who come in from out of town, you have a lot of Germans that visit,” she says.

And another German company, Volkswagen, has provided opportunities for three members of the Burton family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brothers Mark, 24, and Brian, 28, are taking part in an apprenticeship program that the auto company is sponsoring in order to groom, and eventually hire, its future technicians.

Their father, Mike, is an inspector at VW – “one of half a million people who showed up at the convention center” in Chattanooga to apply for jobs at the plant, he jokes.


Brian had been working at a local bank for nine years, while Mark was a corporate trainer at the Melting Pot restaurant chain. Their father had a background in graphic design. “The opportunities did run out at the bank,” says Brian Burton.

But when he learned of the apprenticeship program, he originally picked up a flyer not for himself, but for his brother, who has always been fascinated by the way things are put together.

Now, all three of them arrive each day at the sprawling VW facility, where over three years, the younger Burtons are being taught all aspects of work at the assembly plant over nine semesters. For four, they’ll be in workshops, for five, on the plant floor. And all they have to do is go outside to see the impact VW has had on Chattanooga.

“Everywhere you go, you see VWs on the road,” Brian Burton says. “It’s a VW town now.”

At Toyota’s engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Evona Mayes spends her workday in an area that’s called the “test bench.” She listens to the engines for abnormal sounds, prepares them for shipping, and conducts final inspections.

Like all of the other autoworkers, Mayes also made a transition, from the retail industry. She worked at a nearby Wal-Mart, and actually missed out on the first round of hiring at the plant, which sits a short drive from NASA’s facilities in northern Alabama.

When a cousin called to say Toyota was adding jobs, Mayes applied and was called in to take an assessment test. Although it was supposed to take three hours, she finished it in 90 minutes, and wondered if her speed meant she didn’t have the right qualifications.

She was wrong. A call came, and then a job offer. Now, Mayes has applied to become a team leader, the first step toward climbing up the ladder, as Burkett has done at Hyundai. To her, the Toyota jobs means “not having to worry,” she says. And while there are some ups and downs on the assembly line, Mayes says she doesn’t have second thoughts about exchanging a life in a superstore for her new life.

“I think it was my destiny to be here,” Mayes says.

5 Southern Travel Tips For Women

I spent two weeks this summer traveling across the Deep South for Gadling, on top of a two-week business trip/vacation there in May. When the mayor of Chattanooga told me, “You have the heart of a Southerner” I blushed, but I also felt like I must have figured out how to feel comfortable there. The South is a little different from the rest of the United States – especially if you’re a woman traveler. But I find it an especially intriguing and hospitable place for women who are willing to slow down and saunter. Here are my five Southern Travel Tips.

1) Enjoy the conversations. I found the South to be much like visiting France, in one sense: you say “good morning,” pour on the charm, and don’t expect to get away quickly even if all you’re buying is gum. You should expect – and enjoy – conversations everywhere and with everyone, from strangers to waiters and farmers market vendors. I was at a rest stop in Alabama when the man in the next car ran after me. Had I left my lights on? No, he’d seen my Michigan plates and had relatives in Detroit. Did I know them? No, but I now know he and his mother were driving his little sister to college and it was a big day for them. Likewise, if you need recipes for anything, just say, “I don’t know how to make this,” and you’ll be bombarded with advice. I can now make black-eyed peas, thanks to a farmer in Tupelo. Also, expect to be hugged by people you’ve just met. My daily hug count was usually three, and one day hit seven. Karen, my server at The Grand Hotel in Fairhope, Alabama, was among my hug givers.2) Let them hold the door. Those of us whose moms and grandmothers were part of the women’s movement up north have grown accustomed to fending for ourselves. Not in the South. If I arrived at a door at the same time as a man, 99.4% of the time, he’d hold it open for me. By the end of my trip, I just came to expect it, and would stand there and let a man or boy open it for me, although I was smiling inside. Also, get used to being called ma’am – it doesn’t mean you’re old. It’s a term of respect. And you use it, too. This is a Southern tradition, in the same way that you say “monsieur” and “madame” in France.

3) Savor the food. I know that by the end of a few days, you probably will have eaten more calories and carbs than you ingest in a month. It doesn’t matter. Southern food is amazing, from flaky biscuits and croissants to gas station fried catfish to some of the finest gourmet dishes you can taste in the United States. Take my advice: savor it, and enjoy it. To be sure, your body probably won’t be able to handle southern specialties for three meals a day. Pack some Grape-Nuts and get yogurt at breakfast, but dig into smoked turkey BBQ and ribs and peach cobbler. Just remember it will slow you down a little, so intersperse it with salad when you can. And stay hydrated; heat plus diving into air-conditioned rooms can dry you out.

4) Pack the pearls. The big hair and makeup we saw on Delta Burke and Dixie Carter isn’t a stereotype. Southern women like to do up and dress up. So do some men, for that matter: I actually saw more men in suits in New Orleans and Birmingham than I often do in Chicago. You can go casual for every day, and you probably will want to if you’re seeing sights and trying to stay cool. But when you go out to lunch or dinner, wear the dress you packed, tie on a scarf, put on some lipstick, and be glamorous. It’s a place that allows you to be fancy, and eccentric, too, so bring that hat you’ve wanted to wear. And on the big hair front, the secret to taming it seems to be a lot of hair spray. Or you can give in to humidity, which is pretty much what I did.

5) Plot your route. The South is picturesque and stately but it can also be a little beat up and even intimidating if you have no frame of reference. Pretty much every place you visit will have a bad part of town. I’m not saying you’d be in danger, but you might have your romantic visions shattered by a wrong turn, just as you would in any other part of the country. I was taken aback when I rolled into Greenwood, Mississippi, and saw blocks of shanties before I discovered all the gracious homes where “The Help” was filmed. A good GPS, Mapquest map or directions can keep you on track. But don’t be afraid to take an alternative route, especially if you know how to get back to the main road. There is nothing so breathtaking as a southern back road, even one that takes you past some buildings and streets that are falling apart.

The Southern Road: Visiting The Luxury South

Chris Hastings has beaten Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. This year, he won a James Beard Award. On any weeknight, his restaurant is packed with diners who look over the shoulders of his kitchen crew as they cook right in front of their eyes. But Hastings isn’t cooking in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco.

He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.

The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.

The evidence is most visible in two places – Greenville, S.C., near BMW’s only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.

Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you’ll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.

Among the team’s long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.BMW owners from across the country can take delivery of their vehicles in Greenville, and get lessons in how to drive them. They can dine in BMW’s cafe, buy souvenir shot glasses and water bottles in the BMW gift shop, and take a tour of the factory, which has become famous from BMW’s ads.

A number of those BMW customers have found their way to the collection of restaurants owned by Carl Sobocinski, the unquestioned king of the local food scene, who is a chief beneficiary of the Luxury South.

His stable ranges from his white table cloth restaurant, Devereaux’s, to Soby’s, a bustling bar and grill, to The Lazy Goat, his attempt at a Mediterranean restaurant.

Sobocinski, who opened his first restaurant at age 25 in 1992, is one of those restaurant owners who his patrons greet by name and in many cases thank for investing in their town. “It was dead down here,” John Bauka, a Soby’s patron declared, unasked, when he came up to shake Sobocinski’s hand after a meal. In those days, only two blocks near the city’s Hyatt Hotel were at all lively.

“Everything down here was kind of boarded up,” Sobocinski said. “It was huge, in how fast it went” after BMW arrived. “We had Michelin, we had General Electric, we had Fluor, but they didn’t bring the suppliers that we have here now.”

More than 100 other companies have opened up since BMW arrived, bringing a flood of newcomers to the area. “They were bringing people in, I’d meet them, and all of a sudden they’re calling and saying, we’re bringing in some important people, we need a quiet place,’ he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good.”

The growth has bothered some locals: “You’ll have people say, why are we giving away the farm? And others who say this is the way to go,” Sobocinski says.

In Birmingham, it would be difficult to find anyone who thinks Mercedes-Benz has been anything but a plus to the community, although the investment didn’t come without risks. In 1993, the state put together a then-staggering $253 million incentive package to land the plant, but then was in danger of not being able to come up with the money. Help arrived from the state’s pension fund, and the Mercedes project was able to go forward.

Now, Mercedes is the centerpiece of aggressive growth for Birmingham and a further enhancement for Tuscaloosa, which already boasts the University of Alabama’s lavish campus. In the years since Mercedes arrived, Birmingham has become a smaller version of Atlanta, minus the crippling traffic. It was already the financial capital of Montgomery, but now it has become a bustling, medium sized city that is the center of the southern auto industry.

In another era, it might seem ludicrous that a chef like Hastings would beat out four competitors from New Orleans to win the Beard Award as the best chef in the South. Not any more.

It only takes a few minutes in his restaurant to understand why. Hot and Hot opens at 5:30 p.m., and on many nights, it is packed by 6 p.m. Hastings is often at the door, in his chef’s coat, to say hello to guests, sign his cookbook, and deal with special requests. There’s no camouflaging what’s happening in the kitchen, because the restaurant is essentially built around an open kitchen.

Dinners who sit at the chef’s counter have an up close view of their meals being prepared, as well as all the other steps that go into each dish. They can watch cooks using blow torches and painstakingly sautéing peaches. None of this is frenetic: in fact, there is a sense of politeness, camaraderie and calm to the proceedings that put lie to the tension of “Kitchen Nightmares.”

After directing a nine-course, small bites dinner for me that included three desserts, home made rye bread and biscuits, an amazing gazpacho and the best soft-shelled crab I’d ever eaten, Hastings took me on a tour.

It didn’t take long, because the restaurant has just one tiny area where the locally grown fruits and vegetables are prepared, as well as the walk-in refrigerators where meat and fish are stored. The quality is outstanding from the minute produce arrives, as I discovered when I ate one of the heirloom tomatoes he gave me to take home.

Although he has just this one restaurant, Hastings’ influence spreads out in the food world well beyond Birmingham. And, he’s not the only chef in town who’s transcended the local scene. One of the city’s other standout chefs, Frank Stitt, has won similar praise for his Highlands Bar and Grill. Like Sobocinski in Greenville, Stitt has his own collection, ranging from French bistro to Italian cafe.

The flourishing Birmingham restaurant scene right in sync with the atmosphere at the Mercedes plant, with its vast, sparkling clean aisles.

As in Greenville, Mercedes has gone all out to court its customers, who can visit a museum, take a tour, and shop for souvenirs, from picnic baskets to golf shirts and tennis balls with the Mercedes logo. It’s truly a luxury experience, unlike anything imaginable before the auto industry got here. And the impact is being shared throughout the community, as well.

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.

Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court South, Birmingham, AL 205-933-5474 for reservations (it does not accept them online)

Soby’s, 207 S. Main Street, Greenville, S.C., 864-232-7007 (the restaurant accepts reservations online)