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Tiny Chevrolet Sonic Helps Detroit Shake Off Rust

It was an emotional moment for Dunn, who shook the president's hand.

"I was taught in my household that you take care of the people that take care of you," he said. "That man took care of me."

By the time Obama visited, GM had reported its sixth straight quarterly profit and repaid some of its government loans in cash and with a public stock offering. The government still owns 19 percent of the company and is still roughly $22 billion in the hole on its $49.5 billion bailout of GM.

To the smaller companies near the Orion plant, GM's survival was huge relief.

Applied Manufacturing Technologies, which programs Orion's robots, made it through the downturn by diversifying into the food processing, glass and solar energy businesses. GM is still its largest customer.

"The turnaround is shocking, how fast and strong it is," said Applied Manufacturing founder Mike Jacobs.

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CAN IT LAST?

Detroit has seen many booms and busts in a century of auto making. There were 41 car companies in the city in 1913. Almost all failed or were consolidated into the Big Three. Chrysler nearly went bankrupt in 1980 before being rescued by the government. Sales ebb and flow with the economy, gas prices and even the weather.

But industry experts say things have changed. The reforms Detroit undertook make it less prone to financial disaster. Car companies have closed plants, laid off workers and sold or closed entire brands. GM now has 12 U.S. assembly plants and 101,000 employees in North America. A decade ago, it had 22 plants and 202,000 employees.

"You literally can't do as many bad things because of the smaller workforce and the smaller portfolio of plants," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The vulnerability to stupid things is not as great as it used to be."

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