Author, ex-"Shop Rat"
February 10, 2021
Ben Hamper started his writing career penning tales taken straight from his job on the assembly line at the General Motors Truck plant on Van Slyke Road in Flint Township for a local newspaper called the Flint Voice.
His articles were well received and often hilarious retellings of the antics of UAW workers bucking the system and ‘The Man’, while building rigs for the world’s biggest automaker and company.
His articles found their audience, and so did the book he wrote on the same topic called Rivethead. It’s more than a little strange that Hamper’s claim to fame is working the rivet line in an auto factory because he literally hated everything about it, despite the fact that his family lineage was littered with ‘hundreds of years’ of auto line work as he puts it.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1991, he said he somehow felt a pull to work in a Flint auto factory. “I would get drunk and park next to one of the factories just in time to watch the fools pile out at quitting time. I hated the looks on their faces. Miserable cretins, one and all.”
According to Hamper the monotony of life on the line as a “Shop Rat” as Hamper (and many of the old factory hands lovingly called themselves) referred to it, was juxtaposed with the excellent pay and benefits it offered. It was a Faustian bargain many others before Hamper had faced and decided in the end that the pension and health benefits made it worthwhile.
In the end so did Hamper.
Despite his loathing thoughts of the factory life and all it portended, that’s exactly where he went to work. Later the recession of ’79 led to a lay off and with the free time Hamper jumped back in to his writing hobby. It was a strange hobby for a self described “straight D student” at Flint Powers Catholic High School, but it turned out to be the right one.
The editor of the Flint Voice was Davison native Michael Moore. Moore liked Hamper’s writing style and coerced him to write specifically about the assembly line antics Hamper saw and participated in.
Hamper later described the paper to the Los Angeles Times as “ A hippie relic patched together by a bunch of moaners desperately trying to reinvent the 60s.” Hamper wasn’t much more charitable to Flint, the city that gave birth to GM either, saying in Rivethead that it was a city with an “IQ lower than its collective bowling score.” That kind of thing didn’t endear him to everyone in the Vehicle City. He has since clarified his intended sarcasm and humor for anyone who didn’t get the joke, and should not be construed as an actual genuine sentiment about his hometown.
Whether that is the years softening a hard edge or just a particularly jaunty bit of humor, it’s important to know that Flint’s cultural DNA has always includes a liberal helping of self-effacing, and sometimes bitter commentary. Some even say there is a “Flint Look” (heads up - it’s not a smile)!
Still, his following continued to grow even after The Flint Voice (and later Michigan Voice) closed shop, when Moore bolted Michigan for San Francisco and Mother Jones, taking Hamper along for the ill-fated ride (their stay at Jones led to a quick firing because of a column Hamper penned).
Regardless, The Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine had already been picking up Hampers Rivethead column, as did pieces in Esquire and Harpers, and all of that led to a literary agent and a book deal with Warner books.
Irrespective of whether one was a fan or not, no one who actually knew Ben or read his work doubted his sincerity in saying the things he said, or the things he wrote about. That sincerity, and bleak outlook played strong to a city, state and nation that was undergoing massive changes as the 80s gave way to the 90s, and companies more frequently offered a new social contract to workers that didn’t include lifetime employment, job security, or a pension.
His candor, honesty, sarcasm, and self-effacing style resonated with people from all walks of life, but not without controversy. Some loved it and felt it shined an important light on the dark underbelly and oppressive drudgery of factory work, while others felt it painted a negative picture of the factory worker culture. It’s easy to guess that General Motors wasn’t thrilled by the book.
But no book or story can please everyone, nor should it. If you lived in Flint, you knew Ben’s tales were very real, and in truth probably understated the real shenanigans. Like so many of his stories, his tale of a furry Disneyesque factory mascot, “Howie Makem”, alone sounds totally made up - except it wasn’t. So love ‘em or hate ‘em - Ben’s stories were, like the author, sincere, funny, articulate and most of all, ultra authentic.
Despite the glowing praise and sometimes sharp criticism, few can dispute that the book hit the market when all three, worker, company and city were undergoing absolutely cataclysmic changes that would forever alter both General Motors and the UAW’s position of almost impregnable strength. Most impactful of all was inner city Flint’s steep decline as a world manufacturing hub.
Regardless of how one experienced Ben Hamper and Rivethead, few ignored either. In fact the entire nation took note when it was published and Hamper was featured from New York to L.A, by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and on the Today and Late Night with David Letterman shows (Hamper was bumped from the interview portion by golfer John Daly, but got a brief appearance at the end of the show).
The book also met with intense critical praise and ongoing devotion from fans everywhere. Perhaps the most amazing part of all is Rivethead’s contemporary relevance and popularity. The book still sells 30 years later despite virtually zero follow up, marketing or promotion.
Hamper says that a follow up book deal was supposed to happen. But he describes the attempt to do an encore book as being a “disappointing experience, that just didn’t work out.”
A movie deal was also rumored for years around Flint-based Rivethead, and Hamper confirmed that the movie rights were indeed sold to Hollywood studios not once, but twice. In fact, a motion picture based on Rivethead came tantalizing close to happening. Hamper said that Hollywood star Matt Dillon was set to play Hamper’s role, a screenplay was even written. Dillon and Hamper hung out partying in Flint bars for a long drunken weekend, but all that led to, according to Hamper, was “two massive hangovers.” The idea of Ben Hamper and Matt Dillon getting trashed in Flint bars is one that deserves its own book or at least a story or two. But sadly, that lost weekend was the end of the road with the movie deal.
Hamper is now a radio DJ and lives near Traverse City. His shows feature an eclectic mix of soul “Soul Possession” and Hillbilly tunes “Head For The Hills”. Not surprising considering his past experience leading the locally ground-breaking radio program that he hosted out of Flint Central High School’s own WFBE station. That show, Take No Prisoners featured punk bands and others that couldn’t find a mainstream audience. Between that show and the local Wyatt Earp record stores, he was instrumental in launching the punk movement in Flint, and supporting some truly foundational bands. Ben’s legacy in Flint is set for life. However, he does want to clarify a few misconceptions.
For one, Ben is quick to point out, that like his jokes about Flint and his “Shop Rat” personae, he and his factory co workers, despite their antics, took great pride in what they did for a living, including turning out a quality product. It would be a mistake to think that making fun of either his city or his old gig is reflective of his pride in both. He has great love for his hometown.
That is certainly reciprocated by his legion of local fans and friends both in Flint and around the country. A recent Flint book signing at Totem Books in downtown Flint was well-attended, with scores of fans posting pics on social media with Ben and his book. That’s decades after publication. Incredible, if you think about it.
Ben remains an extremely approachable, affable, interesting and cool guy. And even if he never writes another book, the one he wrote will offer more staying power and lasting legacy than many other more prolific writers of this or any era.
Plus, he wore an Angelo’s Coney Island hat on the book cover…and that alone makes him a Flint legend for life.
Personal Interview with Ben Hamper, October 2013
Personal Interview with Ben Hamper, February 2021
Los Angeles Times interview, 1991
MLive Interview 2019
The Today Show interview, November 12, 1986