They were shells of their former selves. Dozens of factories lay shuttered and abandoned. The Big Three became junkyards filled with parts and personnel from an industry plagued, critics say, by arrogance and dysfunction.
"To look back at how many cars were built in Detroit that people didn't really want, and how many were built again the second time even when they didn't want 'em the first time, it's kind of mind-boggling," said Vlasic.
Today, the Big Three are hardly recognizable.
While sales numbers are not what they were before the recession, their balance sheets are cleansed, their boards purged - and lessons learned.
All three are run by outsiders to the auto industry, the most outspoken of whom is Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat, brought in to also run Chrysler.
"Product is key; everything else is nonsense," said Marchionne. "You can sell pipe dreams until you're blue in the face. But people buy cars, and they experience them, live in them. And if you give them a less than satisfactory experience, and a non-competitive product, they'll leave you."
Under his leadership, Chrysler saw sales surge last month, fueled in part by the strength of the company's redesigned sedan.
"This car gets 31 miles per gallon, eight-speed transmission, all-wheel drive," said Marchionne. "There's no American car that gives you this performance. None. I mean, I know them. I know the competition really well. There's nobody that can give you this."
Jeep has plenty of reasons to rev, too.
Thanks largely to the new Grand Cherokee, Jeep was recently named "the most reliable domestic brand" by Consumer Reports Magazine . . . and that's not all: The inside won world's best interior.
An obsession to detail, said Jeep's CEO Mike Manley, has made the Grand Cherokee -a grand success.
"You think you could put this up against any other car around the world?" asked Cowan.
"I'd be happy to. Yeah, I'd be happy to. I think it's a phenomenal vehicle," said manley.
At the Jefferson North plant in Detroit, about a thousand Jeep Cherokees and Dodge Durangos roll off the assembly line every single day.
But suddenly - it's not enough.
The only way Chrysler can keep up with the demand is to add more workers, and that's just what the company is planning.
Eleven hundred new jobs are slated to come on line here in 2013 - and they're not the only ones.
GM has added thousands of workers, too, at a massive factory in Lake Orion, Mich., that was slated to be idled.
But then came the Chevy Sonic - an opportunity for both GM and its employees to prove that America could once again build a sub-compact car on American soil. And they did.
"We put our heads together and started thinking about, 'What would our costs need to be?' Then, 'What are things that we could do together to achieve those costs so we could do it here?'" said Diana Tremblay, the chief manufacturing officer at GM.