“Without us, you’d just have a nice ornament for your lawn,” Mary Ann Brown, Plant Communications Manager, tells me as we stand outside GM’s Tonawanda Engine plant, a 2015 Cadillac Escalade ($72,970) in the circle drive in front of us. It’s noon, and the sun’s high above Tonawanda, a small town adjacent Buffalo, NY. The Escalade beats gnomes and flamingos as lawn ornaments go, but this 5,845-pound piece of glistening lawn candy belongs on the road.
I’d driven the Escalade from New York City — a home where most see these beasts as high-end livery shuttles — up to Saratoga Springs, NY — an upper-class resort town town befitting an Escalade audience — and then on to Tonawanda. Eight hours on the road may seem like an exaggerated model of the Sunday drive, but it never felt it inside the cabin. The fourth-gen Escalade carries on the model’s 16-year tradition with supreme luxury. Front seats get both internal heating and cooling; premium kona wood and jet-black accents compliment the sleek cabin; GM’s CUE touchscreen is intuitive and responsive, and the OnStar wi-fi outperforms most hardline Internet connections, even in rural upstate New York; inlaid, triple-sealed doors and acoustic-laminate glass reduces exterior noise and fosters a tranquil cabin; and a Magnetic Ride control reads the road and adapts body motion in milliseconds.
But that was all fluff. The purpose of taking this pearly-white NYC-condo-sized road warrior to upstate is to see what sits under the hood.
Tonawanda builds GM engines. Their factory motto is “We make ’em go.” The 6.2-liter V8 that powers the Escalade is built in the 1-million-square-foot building behind me, and Frank DiBernardo, Manager-Controls Engineering, is about to walk me through the line.
The Tonawanda factory is 77 years old. It doesn’t look it; when GM filed for bankruptcy in June of 2009, the factory was reassessed, found viable and given a facelift. After being stripped down completely, the factory’s walls were opened up, a new concrete floor laid, new equipment brought in, and production ramped up. 1,200 people were hired, and GM spent $4 million training new employees to work with the new equipment and to new standards of precision. Today, the factory runs 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday and on Saturdays. When combined with the Rochester and Lockport factories, GM employs 4,000 people in NY state. Its pillars of operation are safety + people + quality + responsiveness + cost. It makes around 540 engines a shift, 1,600 engines a day.