History of Chrysler assembly plants — Great Depression and beyond

By Peter Hubbard

Part 2 of 3

(July 26, 2017) Despite the economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression Chrysler wound up adding four new assembly plants during the 1930’s. These included the Los Angeles Assembly in Commerce, Calif., Wyoming Avenue Assembly in Detroit, the Evansville Assembly plant in Evansville, Ind., and Warren Avenue Assembly in Dearborn, Mich.

Plymouth performed remarkably well.  As other car brands vanished, Chrysler’s Plymouth brand grew stronger, in large part because they were well-built and incorporated new features that were lacking in rival models from Ford and Chevrolet.  

The list of features included an all-steel body while they still had wood elements.  In addition, it offered 4-wheel hydraulic brakes instead of mechanical ones.  And the 1930 Plymouths had larger, 196-cubic inch  6-cylinder engines with standard fuel pumps. 

For 1931, Chrysler’s patented “Floating Power” made its debut on its Plymouth models. This was a two-point engine mounting system strategically placed so the engine’s natural rocking axis would intersect with its center of gravity and keep the engine’s natural vibration from reaching the frame and body. Rubber engine mounts provided flexibility and a cantilever leaf spring kept the engine properly aligned.

Advertising boasted that Plymouths had the smoothness of an eight-cylinder, but the economy of a four. Chrysler also featured automatic spark control and rust-proofed welded bodies. 

The most controversial product of the decade was the Airflow. Inspired by aircraft designs of the time, work began on the concept way back in 1927.  But due to the time needed to complete and pay for tooling, the first Airflow models did not arrive until January 1934.  (Photo at right) Only Chrysler and DeSoto versions were built. 

GM and other rivals launched a smear campaign to undermine faith in the car claiming it was unsafe, while the opposite was actually true.

 The Airflow ranks as one of the most significant mass production automotive designs ever brought to market.  It forecast the growing importance of vehicle aerodynamics, plus an end to the traditional methods of body construction and engine placement. 

Despite sluggish Airflow sales, Chrysler turned a profit in 1934, largely due to Plymouth’s growing popularity against rivals Ford and Chevy.  The Airflow “experiment” ended in 1937.  

Overall, Chrysler production and sales continued to grow stronger thanks to Plymouth taking over as the third best-selling nameplate behind Ford and Chevy, a spot it would hold for the next two decades. 

Plymouth with its low-cost, high-value offerings kept Chrysler alive during the depression, but the DeSoto and Dodge brands also did well, climbing in the sales rankings. 

Plant No. 7) Given the rising popularity of the Plymouth brand and the rapid shift of the American population to the West Coast during the depression years — especially California — Chrysler’s next plant was located near Los Angeles.  It was purpose-built in 1932 to handle Plymouth cars and trucks, as well as Dodge trucks. 

During World War II the plant switched over to war-time production, manufacturing over 40,000 aircraft engines, as well as Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Lockheed PV-2 cabin tops.  Following the war, various Plymouth, DeSoto, Dodge and Chrysler models were assembled there.  Status:  Out of service – closed in 1971.

Plant No. 8) The eighth plant to come online for Chrysler was the Wyoming Avenue Assembly plant, located in Detroit, Mich.  It was purchased from the GM Export division in 1934 to handle the growing demand for DeSoto branded products.  The facility was built in 1919 by Saxon Motors, which was founded in 1913 by Hugh Chalmers and Harry W. Ford (not related to Henry Ford). GM acquired the facility after Saxon Motors folded in 1922.  Production continued there until 1980.  Status: Out of service

Plant No. 9) The next plant to be added was Evansville Assembly. Once it became clear a single plant was not sufficient to handle the growing demand for entry-level Plymouths, Chrysler purchased another assembly plant from the Graham-Paige car company, one of several automakers that were unable to weather the depression.  This factory was located in Evansville, Ind.  Status: Out of service

Plant No. 10) The final plant of the decade to be added was the Warren Truck Plant, built in 1938 in Warren, Mich., and focused on assembling light-duty and commercial trucks. Nearly 7 million trucks — for both civilian and military use — were built there between 1938 and 1985.  At that point it was closed and renovated to handle production of the compact Dodge Dakota pickups for the 1987 model year.

Further changes were made in 2000 in order to handle assembly of the full-size Dodge and RAM 1500 quarter-ton pickup trucks that have been assembled there since 2001. Status:  Active. Ram trucks are now assembled at the plant.

1940’s-1950’s – World War II & post-war boom

Unfortunately, the first event to impact Chrysler in the ‘40s was not the acquisition of a new plant or launching a new nameplate, it was the death of company founder, Walter P. Chrysler on Aug. 19, 1940, of a cerebral hemorrhage at his estate in Great Neck, N.Y. 

Despite the loss of the company’s founder and the stresses brought on by World War II, the company opened four new plants during the next 20 years. 

In addition to the Warren Truck plant, a second plant was build in the Detroit suburb in 1941, devoted exclusively to building military tanks for the war effort.  The Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant (DATP) was started in 1940, and in less than six months tanks began rolling out the door. 

Since no passenger cars or trucks were ever built at DATP, it’s still worth mentioning in our Chrysler plant history.  It was the first American assembly plant devoted exclusively to building tanks, and was owned by the U.S. government until 1996.

During World War II, the DATP produced a quarter of the nearly 90,000 tanks used in the war effort.  As a Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated (GOCO) facility, Chrysler continued to produce tanks there until 1982, when it sold its Chrysler Defense Division to General Dynamics, which built the Abrams tank at the facility until it was closed in 1996.

Plant No. 11) The 11th auto assembly plant to fly the Chrysler banner was the third former Graham-Paige facility scooped up by Chrysler.  What eventually became the DeSoto-Warren Avenue Assembly plant was built in the early 1920’s by Jewett Motors and subsequently converted to building early Paige cars prior to the Graham-Paige merger. At first Chrysler leased the empty building in 1942, anticipating a future need for space to build more aircraft parts.  It was quickly put to use building components for first the B-26 bomber, then the B-29 Superfortress. It also was used to assemble the superstructure for the Navy’s Helldiver dive bomber. 

In 1946 Chrysler bought the facility and designated it as a DeSoto assembly plant.  Status: Active – renovated and renamed Warren Truck Plant, it now assembles Ram trucks.

While the next two assembly plants to join the Chrysler family during the 1950’s were built to assemble tanks, they were eventually converted to producing cars and trucks, unlike the DAPT plant in Warren.  The reason was simple: America’s military machine didn’t go away with the end of WWII. 

The Korean War kicked off on June 25, 1950, and the Cold War with the USSR, China and their Communist allies meant that military production kept up at a pretty lively pace.

Plant No. 12)
The 12th plant to open, the Newark Assembly facility, came on-stream in 1951 and was devoted to building tanks and other military hardware for the first seven years. It was finally converted to passenger car production in time for the 1957 model year. A variety of Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth models were produced there over the years, totaling nearly 7 million vehicles. It continued in operation until 2008, when the second Chrysler bankruptcy and acquisition with Fiat led to the closing of low-volume plants. The last vehicles off the Newark Assembly lines were the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUVs. Status: Out of service.

Plant No. 13) The 13th plant to be opened was back in Michigan — the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant. It was initially built by Chrysler in 1953 to make missiles for the U.S. Army. The nearby Sterling Stamping facility opened in 1965. The two facilities were modernized in 2006 for production of the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring.  Then the guts of these plants were disassembled and sold to the Russian firm OAO GAZ, with those models being built under license there.  

In 2010, Chrysler re-acquired the plant facility from Old Carco LLC, and spent some $850 million to refurbish the plant.  In July FCA announced that it would invest another $1.48 billion in renovations to build the next generation Ram 1500 pickups and other truck products.  
Status:  Out of Service

Plant No. 14) In 1959, the first of what would become two St. Louis Assembly plants began operations.  It was initially called the Missouri Truck Plant and configured to build Dodge Trucks. It later was renamed St. Louis Assembly – South.  After the arrival of the Chrysler K cars in 1981, the plant was converted to assemble the new line of Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans, which continued to be built there until 2007. Status:  Out of service. The plant was closed during the bankruptcy of 2009, and then razed in 2011.

1960’s: Era of diversification

The 1960’s saw Chrysler add three new assembly plants — two in the United States and the very first facility south of the border, in Toluca, Mexico. It also saw the emergence of new compacts like the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant, as well as the dawn of the muscle car era, with the arrival of the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Chargers and Challengers.

Plant No. 15) The Belvidere Assembly plant was constructed in 1965 in Belvidere, Ill., just northwest of Chicago.  First to be assembled there were full-size Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge cars.  From 1979 until 1988 Chrysler built Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, as well as export versions of the cars designated for export, wearing Simca, Talbot and Chrysler badges. 

The Jeep Compass/Patriot and Dodge Dart models are currently assembled there.  However it was announced last July that FCA will be investing roughly $350 million to produce the next-generation Jeep Cherokee in Belvidere, which will move from its current production location in Toledo, Ohio. Approximately 300 new jobs will be created, with production of the Dart, Compass and Patriot ending at the end of the current model year. Status:  Active. 

Plant No. 16) In 1966 Chrysler added a second assembly plant at its St. Louis manufacturing site — St. Louis Assembly North.  It produced a wide variety of Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler models there until 1983, when it was devoted almost exclusively to Chrysler minivan production.  In 1995 it was revamped to handle Dodge Ram pickups. It was closed during the company’s bankruptcy in 2008.  Status:  Out of service – the plant site razed in 2011.

Plant No. 17)
The built in 1968, was constructed in Toluca, Mexico. The plant was used to assemble a variety of compact and small Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth models there over the years, including the Sundance/Shadow, Neon and PT Cruiser.  It currently assembles the Dodge Journey, Jeep Compass and Fiat 500.  Status:  Active

The third and final installment of this Chrysler assembly plant history will detail the creation and uses of plants No. 18 to 24 built in North America from the 1970’s to the present day.

Without question, the past 46 years have proven to be period of tremendous change and upheaval throughout the industry thanks to the universal advent of such things as computerization, industrial robots, the arrival of electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as consolidation and globalization. 

But thanks to strong leadership and diversified product offerings and the addition of the iconic Jeep brand while Lee Iacocca was at the helm, Chrysler has maintained its position as one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. 

However, not without a bit of foreign “intervention,” as executives from first Germany’s Daimler-Benz and now Italy’s Fiat have taken turns making decisions about what plants are renovated and survive — and which ones fall by the wayside. 

Photo Credit:  Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University