- Toyota City, Japan
- Toyota Woven City, Japan
- Wolfsburg, Germany
- Sindelfingen, Germany
- South Bend, Indiana
- Fordlandia, Brazil
- Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Auto factories employ a lot of workers, and whenever one opened, people would move nearby for jobs. Before long, a sparsely-populated area might become a town or city.
Sometimes it just naturally happened, while other cities were planned by the automakers from the start. We have a list of some that thrived — and a couple that didn’t.
Toyota City, Japan
Workers assemble Toyota AA models in 1938 in Koromo, which would become Toyota City Photo by Toyota
After Sakichi Toyoda created a successfully textile loom company, his son Kiichiro thought the same production techniques could be used to build automobiles. He established an automotive division in 1933, changing “Toyoda” to “Toyota,” and designed and built vehicle prototypes. By 1936 he determined he could make 150 vehicles a month and leased an existing 50,000-square-metre building, but knew he’d eventually need more than that.
He found a huge plot of low-cost land in Koromo, a small town east of Nagoya. Its main industry had been silk, but that had declined in the early 1920s and many locals were looking for work. The plant was built in 1938 and the town grew accordingly, officially becoming a city in 1951. On the first day of 1959, it was renamed Toyota City. At that time, its population was about 151,000 people; today, it’s more than 426,000.
Toyota Woven City, Japan
While it’s still just a construction site, Woven City will be a “living laboratory,” woven through its connected ecosystem and powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It will cover 175 acres near the base of Mt. Fuji, about 100 km from Tokyo.
It will include autonomous robots, “smart” houses made of sustainable materials, personal health-care robots, and even nutritionally-complete meals. Only fully-autonomous, zero-emissions vehicles will be allowed in, and streets will be divided into lanes for higher-speed traffic; for lower-speed vehicles and mobility devices; and for pedestrians only.
It’s planned that 2,000 people will eventually live in Woven City, and while some will be researchers, most will be everyday people. The project began in February 2021, but so far there’s no estimate of when the city will be built and residents can move in.
Workers build Volkswagen Beetles in Wolfsburg in the 1950s Photo by Volkswagen
In 1938, a factory and housing were built near the village of Fallersleben to produce the KdF-Wagen – the “people’s car,” commissioned by Hitler as a low-priced means of transportation. The development went by the snappy name of Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben: City of the Strength-Through-Joy Car Near Fallersleben.
The start of the Second World War changed the plans. It’s believed about 2,000 cars were built, mostly for testing and demonstration, before the factory switched to military supplies made primarily with forced labour.
Damaged by bombs, the factory was taken over by American soldiers in April 1945, and then by the British, who used it to make light trucks for its military. The town was renamed for nearby Wolfsburg Castle. Beetle production began and by 1952, more than 30,000 people were living in Wolfsburg. It’s still Volkswagen’s headquarters and today has a population of 124,000.
The all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQS is built in the company’s Sindelfingen plant Photo by Mercedes-Benz
In 1915, Daimler bought land in Sindelfingen, an ancient town founded in 1263 and later known mostly for its hand-woven textiles, to build a plant for aircraft and engines for the German military in the First World War. At war’s end, the country was prohibited from making planes, and the factory produced furniture and then Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
The plant made military vehicles during the Second World War, mostly with forced labour. It was heavily damaged by bombs, but was rebuilt at war’s end and resumed car production.
Sindelfingen became a city in 1962. The factory is now Mercedes-Benz’s largest plant, employing around 25,000 people; it recently began building the all-electric EQS.
South Bend, Indiana
1915 Studebaker Photo by Jil McIntosh
Only some 1,600 people lived in South Bend when brothers Henry and Clem Studebaker opened a blacksmith shop in 1850. Wagon production started two years later and was successful enough that Studebaker was contracted to supply wagons to the Union Army during the Civil War.
By 1874, Studebaker’s annual sales were almost $1 million, and South Bend had more than 7,200 inhabitants. Other companies moved in, including Singer sewing machines and Oliver farm equipment. In 1902, Studebaker started making electric cars, and two years later, switched to gasoline ones.
The automaker also built cars in Hamilton, Ontario, starting in 1948. But its fortunes gradually dwindled, and the South Bend plant closed in 1963. Hamilton closed in 1966. Today, South Bend has a population of 103,000, and the Studebaker factory site is slowly morphing into Ignition Park, a high-tech research and business development.
An abandoned building at Fordlandia, Brazil Photo by Wikimedia
Henry Ford didn’t like depending on suppliers, and he bought mines and forests to create his own supply chain. But rubber trees couldn’t be grown in the U.S., and so in 1927, he made a deal with the Brazilian government for 2.5 million acres of land in return for a share of profits. He would turn the settlement of Boa Vista into the city of Fordlandia, building everything for the employees, from houses to schools to a hospital.
Two factors doomed the project. Rubber could be cultivated farm-style in other countries where its equally-native insects and diseases hadn’t followed, but they were in full force in Brazil and could easily spread among the closely-planted trees. Ford was also unwavering in his vision of a Michigan-style city. The trees were planted in the wrong seasons; the metal-roofed houses were sweatboxes in the tropical heat; and employees were fed unfamiliar meals imported from the U.S. The disgruntled workers eventually rioted, destroying almost everything.
Ford rebuilt, but when most of the trees died of blight, he set up a new project, Belterra, some 100 kilometres away. Both sites remained in operation but produced very little rubber — a year’s harvest would supply Ford’s factories for a week. When Henry Ford grew too frail and his grandson Henry Ford II took over the company in 1943, Fordlandia and Belterra were soon sold back to Brazil. Today, Belterra’s residents primarily raise soybeans, while Fordlandia has mostly rotted away.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Photo by Ford
Most people today associate Muscle Shoals with music, but in the 1920s, Henry Ford wanted to own it. The U.S. needed nitrates to make ammunition for the First World War, and two plants were built at Muscle Shoals, along with Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River to power them with hydroelectricity. But the plants, temporarily powered by steam, didn’t start production until after the war ended, and the dam remained unfinished.
Ford and his friend Thomas Edison visited in 1921, and the automaker announced his intentions to “build a city 75 miles long” and employee a million workers. He would finish the dam and build another to supply electricity for the city, use the nitrate plants to make fertilizer, and build car factories. Then, he said, local farmers would grow crops in season, and assemble cars the rest of the time. The federal government had already spent $46 million on the dam and nitrate plants. Ford offered to take a 100-year lease on everything for $5 million.
U.S. senator George Norris thought the dam should be publicly owned, and repeatedly blocked the arrangement until Ford gave up in 1924. The dam was later finished and eventually became part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric system. Developers had already bought land in anticipation of a housing boom, and portions of the roads and sidewalks they installed are still there, outside Muscle Shoals in otherwise-empty fields.