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GM Tonawanda celebrating 75th anniversary with tours, book

General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant has experienced highs like new engine lines and expansions, and lows like layoffs, industry downturns and even doubts about its future.

But unlike many other U.S. auto plants, GM’s Tonawanda plant has survived, and is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The milestone comes at a buoyant time for the plant, with two new engine lines and its employment climbing past 1,700, a level unseen for several years.

The public can get an inside look at the River Road site when GM Tonawanda hosts free tours from noon to 8 p.m. nextt Friday. No tickets are required. The UAW/GM All-American Car Show and Expo is scheduled at the site for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday. And a hardcover book tracing the plant’s history is going on sale next week.

GM Tonawanda held an open house in 2011 that drew about 5,200 people. Since then, old engine lines have been torn out and replaced by new engine lines with more-advanced technology.

“If you were here in 2011, everything you would see would be different,” said Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokeswoman.

A 75th anniversary book, written by Annette Herrman of HomeRun Creative Services in Williamsville, covers the plant’s history with a decade-by-decade format. Photographs illustrate the changes in the look of the production floor, the cars the engines were built for, and the workers’ attire.

Herrman called the book “probably the most thrilling and scary project I’ve ever worked on, at the same time.” She felt a “great responsibility” to get the book right for all the people who love GM products and who have ties to the engine plant. Herrman dedicated the book to members of United Auto Workers Local 774.

The Tonawanda plant began production in 1938, with Alfred Gulliver as its first plant manager. The book describes how Gulliver, earlier in his auto industry career, in Flint, Mich., supplemented his career with professional boxing.

The book covers both the good times and the bad times at the Tonawanda plant. And it touches on significant moments like when the facility’s production supported the war effort during World War II and the Korean War, and the consumer shift toward smaller cars that spawned the Chevrolet Vega.

Photos capture the Chevrolet sign that used to stand atop the River Road entrance. Faces from the current plant and union leadership appear in the most recent photos.

The book will sell for $20, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. The cost to produce the book was covered by sponsors who paid for ads in it, Brown said. GM says 5,000 copies will be available for purchase, starting at an invitation-only event on Thursday, then at the events on the following two days.

For the Friday, shuttle buses will carry guests between Plant 1 and Plant 5 of the GM complex. For safety reasons, the plant prohibits wearing open toe/heel shoes, sandals and high heels. GM vehicles will be available for test drives on both days. For those who do not attend the events, Herrman said the Facebook page for GM Tonawanda’s 75th anniversary celebration will have details starting Aug. 25 about how to order the commemorative book online.