"I put every dime I had into keeping the business alive, but it came to a point where I couldn't afford it. I spent the college fund and everything in the bank," he said. "I had a passion for it, loved it. But you see that wall coming at you, and you know you're going to get crushed."

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THE COMEBACK BEGINS

Early in 2010, Americans began returning to car dealerships as the economy improved. Sales were nowhere near pre-recession levels, but they were enough for GM to celebrate its first quarterly profit in three years.

As a dreadful winter ended, GM delivered on its promise to invest at Orion. Crates of robot arms, carts and conveyor parts arrived, filling the vast open space that had frightened Dunn just a few months earlier.

By midyear, Lang, the assembly line worker, got an offer from GM to move 160 miles away to Lordstown, Ohio, to work on the Chevrolet Cruze. By then, it was clear Orion would reopen to build the Sonic, and there were hopes of getting another car, the compact Buick Verano.

Lang and his wife had saved some money and decided to stay in Michigan, foregoing GM pay and benefits until he was called back to work at his home plant. By summer of 2011, he was back on the job testing the assembly line.

"Pack your lunchbox and head off to work. That's a great feeling," he said.

Gradually, all the older workers who wanted to return to the plant were hired back at the same pay as when they left. New workers were added at the lower wage, adding up to 1,800 on two shifts.

The first Sonic, a white hatchback, rolled out of the Orion factory in August 2011.

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SONIC BOOM

Even when their company was in bankruptcy, GM engineers and designers across the world never stopped working on the Sonic, a new mini car that would take on the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. The Sonic was part of a wave of small cars from Detroit that came with more than just good gas mileage and a lower price: They had aggressive styling, better handling and more amenities like leather seats and navigation systems.

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