NUMMI Once Meant Harmony Among GM, Toyota and the UAW

Last Updated Apr 7, 2010 2:27 PM EDT

It's no exaggeration to say it was the end of an era last week when New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., better known as NUMMI, quietly built its last Toyota Corolla (photo).

By the time it shut down, NUMMI was no longer new, united, or manufacturing.

It wasn't always that way. The NUMMI concept dates back to the early 1980s. General Motors, with a negotiating team led by future GM CEO Jack Smith, acknowledged that GM could learn a lot from The Toyota Way of building cars, emphasizing quality, lean inventories and attention to detail.

The idea seems quaint now, in light of the Toyota recall and unintended acceleration scandal.

But back then, the two companies and the United Auto Workers sat down and came up with NUMMI, a plant in Fremont, Calif., near San Francisco. NUMMI used UAW workers to build products from GM and Toyota (TM) side by side. It was as if the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Major League Baseball Players Association had all made peace.

Until last year, NUMMI built the Pontiac Vibe, which was a twin to the Toyota Matrix, along with the Toyota Corolla and the Toyota Tacoma pickup. NUMMI built close to 8 million cars and trucks in its 25-year history.

But GM killed the Pontiac brand as part of its bankruptcy reorganization last year. At the time, Toyota was already using most of NUMMI's manufacturing capacity, but without GM's participation Toyota said it wouldn't continue to operate NUMMI by itself. Last week's closure came after the end of Toyota's fiscal year, on March 31.

Even though GM quit NUMMI first, the closing added to the bitter criticism Toyota is experiencing from its "sticky gas pedal" recall. Angry California politicians and the UAW have complained loudly.

Granted, the NUMMI concept didn't spread, and the companies and the union remained fierce, mutual rivals.

But isn't it nice to think that at some point, they could all sit down together and agree on something? It's sort of like Washington politicians today reminiscing about bipartisanship. The good old days probably weren't as good as they remember, but it does seem as if they were better than today.

Photo: NUMMI