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Why Is Detroit Called the "Motor City"?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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Detroit, Michigan, is a major urban center in the Great Lakes region of the American Midwest. The center of the American automotive industry for more than a century, it has many nicknames resulting from this status, including the Motor City and Motown. These nicknames originated in the early 20th century among new residents who came to work in the city’s automobile construction plants. Motor City and other nicknames have since been used in the names of businesses, public works, and artwork related to or based in the Detroit area.

Like many areas of the Midwest, Detroit was settled by European explorers in the early 18th century. These explorers were French and named the city Detroit after the nearby Detroit River, a strait that connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie, two of the Great Lakes. The word Detroit is, in fact, French for strait. The settlement became part of the United States in 1796. Over the next century, it developed into a major industrial center, as did many cities based around the Great Lakes, then a major American hub for transport and travel.

By 1900, Detroit had become a manufacturing center for horse-drawn carriages and coaches. This led automotive pioneer Henry Ford to build his first automobile assembly plant in the area in 1903. Many other American auto companies quickly followed suit. This industry boom coincided with a decline in jobs in the American South, leading to a mass migration of Southerners to Detroit and other Midwestern cities. These new residents referred to Detroit by nicknames such as the Motor City.

This northward migration of Southerners, many of them African American, continued into the 1940s and ‘50s. In addition to the Motor City, they called Detroit Motortown, later shortened to Motown. In 1960, record producer Berry Gordy named his Detroit-based recording company Motown. The label released many early hits by pioneering musicians in the rock, soul, and blues genres. Motown Records remained a Detroit institution for the remainder of the 20th century.

By the 21st century, the Motor City nickname has been semi-officially adopted by the city, appearing in the name of public works, such as the beautification initiative called the Motor City Makeover. Nightclubs and other businesses incorporate the nickname into their own names. Many popular songs refer to Detroit as the Motor City, including the oft-covered Motown classic “Dancing in the Street.“ Other nicknames for Detroit include D-Town, the D, and Rock City, a name inspired by a popular rock song from the 1970s.

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Discussion Comments

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 09, 2011

I would have to say that Detroit will eventually drop the Motor City label, mostly due to the fact that most cars are made overseas anymore. However, this makes me think about what they would rely on for their culture after their identification with the automobile industry goes away.

The first thing I would think of that they could identify with would be the Mo Town music. However, Mo Town has gone completely past its craze and there is virtually no way that the people of Detroit could identify with something that is outdated.

I guess they could rely on their sports teams to give them their identity, but I would think that this is very very far down the road before they would be forced into doing something like that.

Any city has some sort of identity, but what happens when a city loses that identity? This is something I have always thought and I have always assumed they look to their sports teams for them to identify with, thus the reason for me bringing them up.

By Izzy78 — On Nov 08, 2011

@matthewc23 - I may have to disagree with you on that assumption about Detroit forever being known as the Motor City.

Because of the current state of the automobile industry in Detroit it is not at all a guarantee that there will even be a Ford Motor Company in fifty years. Once the company is gone there is no reason for people to identify with it and over time they will eventually shed their identity and adopt a new one.

This will not happen over night and may even take decades to occur but mark my words it will happen someday. One industry cannot last forever in one area and eventually it will go away and people will think of something else when they mention the name Detroit.

By widget2010 — On Nov 08, 2011

@helene55- I hope so too. I was in Detroit several years ago and it was pretty nice, but I hear it has changed a lot as the US economy as a whole stopped booming, followed by trouble in particular for car companies.

By matthewc23 — On Nov 07, 2011

@jcraig - I completely agree with you and I think there can be even more things added to it.

If you look at the names of most cities, it reflects the identity they have that makes them unique from other cities in the world. Detroit is no different in that for many years Ford Motor Company was the main provider of automobiles in America and that was in reality what most of the economy in the city and the surrounding area was based upon.

Because of the amount of success the Ford Motor Company had, the city of Detroit was able to sustain a phenomenal growth as a city of industry and was able to provide thousands of unskilled labor type jobs to many people.

This one base of operations was such a focus of the people of Detroit that it eventually became the city's identity and what people thought of when you hear the name Detroit.

It is very unfortunate what has happened in the last few years, due to the economy in Detroit, but they always have the chance to rebound. Even if Ford goes under and declares bankruptcy Detroit will still be known as the Motor City.

By helene55 — On Nov 07, 2011

It's unfortunate I think that this city is so dependent on one industry; since several industries in the US have had trouble in recent years, including the automotive industry, it has hurt those places which rely on them, including Detroit. I know switching to a more multitasking economy is hard and slow, but I hope that this can happen in these cities.

By jcraig — On Nov 07, 2011

This article is pretty much straight forward and the explanation to why Detroit is called the Motor City is a simple one. The amount of factories in the area that concerned the automobile industry was incredible and the economy and employment rate in the area was reliant the current state of the automobile industry.

Unfortunately we have seen, starting in the 1980's what happens when a city like Detroit, who is reliant on their automobile industry, outsources jobs or lays off a lot of people. A suburb like Flint became almost a ghetto and had unemployment rates over fifty percent, which is almost impossible to imagine.

Because of the reliance people have on the automobile industry in Detroit in regards to jobs I feel that this is the biggest reason why Detroit is called the Motor City and it is very noticeable today to see the reliance people have on this industry in the city.

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