Kentucky has long been a major player in the automotive industry, but few know that this relationship is fast approaching its 100th anniversary.
It all began in 1913, when Henry Ford’s fledging company set up an assembly operation on South Third Street in Louisville. Seventeen people worked there, including the on-site sales team, and they churned out 12 vehicles a day while being paid about eight cents an hour.
Production grew steadily, and in early 1925, what is widely considered the country’s first modern assembly plant opened its doors on a 22-acre site on the outskirts of town. It was designed for 1,000 employees, and could produce 400 Model T’s – and then Model A’s – daily.
That facility was replaced in the 1950s, and in 1969, the company added a second assembly plant on the eastern side of Jefferson County.
A dozen years later, General Motors became the second major auto company to set up shop in Kentucky when it moved production of its iconic Corvette to Bowling Green, the only place in the world where it is built.
Kentucky’s fourth assembly plant arrived at the end of the 1980s, when Toyota constructed what is now its largest North American factory and its second-largest overall.
Together, these three car companies have made Kentucky one of the leading states in auto production. In any given year, we rank from third to fifth in the number of light cars and trucks rolling off the line. Last year, that total reached 640,000.
In addition to quantity, our auto workers excel at quality too. The Toyota Camry made in Georgetown has been the best-selling car for 14 out of the last 15 years, for example, and the Ford F-Series trucks that Louisville helps to make have been the best-selling vehicle for more than 30 years while the F-150 was named Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year in 2011. The Corvette stands alone as well atop its luxury sports car category.
In addition to the four assembly plants, Kentucky has become a key destination of auto parts companies as well, thanks to our top-notch workforce, inexpensive electricity and the fact that the state is within a day’s drive of about half of the country’s 4,400 motor-vehicle related companies.
Almost exactly 10 percent of those are in Kentucky, and together, they employ nearly 69,000 people, which is a sixth of the state’s manufacturing workforce.
Last year, nearly 80 auto-related businesses announced they would either expand or move here, creating more than 5,400 new jobs and investing more than $1 billion. So far this year, industry investment is nearing $180 million, with an additional 530 jobs being added.
The General Assembly is working to do what it can to add to these numbers. In 2007, the legislature gave Ford an incentives package that is helping the company invest $1.2 billion in its two Louisville facilities and hire several thousand workers. The legislature extended that same offer this year to GM, Toyota and several large auto parts suppliers, if they are willing to take major steps to expand as well.
A promising area where Kentucky is also playing a leading role is research into the batteries that will power our vehicles in the years ahead. A partnership between the state, the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and a prominent federal lab based in Chicago began in 2009, and their research is housed in a $17 million, 43,000 sq. ft. facility opening this year. On a related note, Louisville has been a regular host of the annual conference of the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries.
Like most industries, those in auto production have faced some tough times in recent years, but there is strong evidence nationally that better days have returned. For states like Kentucky, that news could not come at a better time.