History of Chrysler assembly plants — Iacocca and change

By Peter Hubbard

Part 3 of 3

(August 6, 2017) Thanks to the growing popularity of inexpensive, but well-built Japanese imports, the rising price of gasoline, changes in American car-buying habits and the firm’s resulting financial problems, Chrysler branded vehicle sales stalled in the 1970’s, leading to bankruptcy.  As a result, only one new assembly plant was brought online — a truck and van plant located across the river from Detroit, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. 

In November 1978, Lido “Lee” Iacocca, a former Ford executive fired just four months earlier, was brought on-board to whip the company into shape.  In addition to firing 33 of the company’s 35 vice presidents, he slashed $500 million in costs, and convinced the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) to forgo scheduled salary raises.
By August 1979 the company’s Supplemental Unemployment Benefit fund ran out, drained by over 27,000 layoffs. Chrysler also faced a $1.1 billion loss for the fiscal year, due in large part to a struggling American economy suffering from higher gas prices, sky-rocketing interest rates and a market share that had dropped below 10 percent. 

In an effort to avoid a disastrous bankruptcy, four months later Iacocca went before the U.S. Congress to request financial help. He presented a five-year restructuring and new product plan that called for $13.6 billion in spending cuts.  By the following summer Congress approved a $3.5 billion aid package that included $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees.  As part of the package, the UAW agreed to $475 million in wage concessions and management agreed to a $125 million reduction in compensation.

Thanks to the Congressional aid package, together with Iacocca now-famous TV and radio commercials pitching a line of more fuel-efficient models from the “New Chrysler Corporation,” the company enjoyed a storied turn-around in the decade of the ‘80s. 

Plant No. 18) The only assembly plant Chrysler built in the 1970’s was the Pillette Road Truck Assembly plant, located in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  The new plant was built in 1974 to handle truck-based van products, namely the Dodge Ram Van and Dodge Ram Wagon. It continued to build vans†from its opening until it closed 30 years later, in 2003. Status: Out of service.

Lee iacocca fiming minivan commercial in the early '80s

The 1980’s: Enter the “Iacocca Era”

If the 1970’s went down as the turbulent “stand pat” decade at Chrysler, the 1980’s were anything but. “Wheeling and dealing” was the theme of the decade that followed, under the irrepressible leadership of the new head of Chrysler boss Iacocca.

The ‘80s saw a revitalized Chrysler Corporation that achieved an historic economic turnaround — thanks in demand for its minivans and new K Cars.  The company’s resurgence allowed it to exit bankruptcy and repay its government-backed loans quickly.  Under Iacocca’s leadership it also expanded its operations dramatically, with new assembly plants coming on-stream in the U.S. and Canada, thanks to the acquisition of American Motors and a growing alliance with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. Iacocca had clearly proven himself to be a savvy car-company “fix-it man,” very much in the same mold as company founder Walter P. Chrysler.

1994 Plymouth Acclaim on K car platform

As a result of the AMC/Jeep deal Chrysler acquired three plants, and jointly operated a fourth assembly plant in Normal, Ill. — Diamond Star Motors — that was designed initially for the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Plymouth Laser models.  However, the AMC plant in Kenosha, Wis., was shuttered once the acquisition was finalized, as the Jeep product line was the more valuable asset. 

Plant No. 19) Chrysler’s 19th different plant in North America was actually built by a foreign firm — Renault in 1985 — after the French automaker attempted to re-enter the North American market by acquiring AMC/Jeep, back in 1979. 

It was located near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and built to assemble the Renault-based Eagle Premier sedans.  In 1988 it became Chrysler’s Brampton Assembly Plant when it acquired the assets of AMC and the plant was converted to handle production of the Dodge Monaco and Eagle Premier. Those products were followed by Chrysler’s LH family of cars introduced in 1992 — the Eagle Vision, Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid, plus the long-wheelbase Chrysler LHS. 

It now assembles all of FCA US full-size cars for the North American market – the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger.  Status: Active

Brampton Assembly with Dodoge Chargers and Challengers on the line

Plant No. 20) The purchase of AMC/Jeep by Chrysler in 1988 also included the aging Kenosha Assembly Plant, the first elements of which were built in 1902 by the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company to assemble Rambler and Jeffrey vehicles.  Jeffrey ceased operation in 1916 and was taken over by Nash Motors, which produced cars at the Wisconsin facility from 1916 until 1954, when the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation merged with the Hudson Motor Car Company to create the American Motors Corporation (AMC).

The last vehicles to be assembled there were the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon.  After the assembly line was shut down, Chrysler continued using Kenosha to build engines until 2010.  Status: Out of service.

Plant Nos. 21-A and 21-B) A sprawling Jeep assembly complex located in Toledo, Ohio, was acquired by Chrysler as part of the AMC/Jeep acquisition in August 1987 and has seen extensive modifications and upgrades over the years.  The original facility, known as Toledo South, was built in 1910 as a Willys-Overland assembly and engine plant.  It was the initial Willys Jeep CJ production line, with the first models earmarked for use by the U.S. Army in 1940.  Over time three different assembly lines have operated at the complex.

Toledo Assembly plant

The entire facility became known as simply Toledo Assembly when Chrysler Corporation acquired it in the fall of 1997. The new Toledo North Assembly Plant was built for the production of the Jeep Liberty, which launched in April 2001. The 2007 Dodge Nitro launched in August 2006 and the 2008 Jeep Liberty launched in July 2007. The last Dodge Nitro rolled off the line on Dec. 16, 2011. Production of the Jeep Liberty ended on Aug. 16, 2012. The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee began production there on June 24, 2013. Status: Active 

Plant No. 22) While not purely a Chrysler facility, the Diamond-Star Assembly plant, built in Normal, Ill., was part of a joint venture with Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America.  Completed in March 1988, it was designed as the assembly line for the sporty Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser.  Mitsubishi had a long-standing relationship with Chrysler which began back in 1970, when Chrysler took a 15 percent share in the Japanese automaker and began selling rebadged Mitsubishis as Dodge Colts and Plymouth Champs.  The automaker also included Mitsubishi engines in many of its new models. Chrysler’s half of the joint venture was bought up by Mitsubishi in 1993, but Chrysler continued to have vehicles assembled there until 2012.  Status: Out of service

The 1990’s: Creative new products

The moves Chrysler made during the 1980’s resulted in increased sales and strong financial performance during the first half of the following decade. The company’s minivans and new Jeep products continued to sell well, as did the completely revamped Ram pickup, which saw sales shoot up dramatically.  However, given that the Eagle brand was not very competitive, and was robbing sales from Plymouth, it was discontinued at the end of the 1998 model year. 

Plymouth Prowler

A couple of stunning models concept cars — the Plymouth Prowler and Dodge Viper — not only wound up reaching production, they required their very own assembly plant.  In order to expedite their arrival at dealer showrooms Chrysler set up the Conner Avenue Assembly plant.  Referred to as a “craft center,” the two small-volume vehicles were constructed in very non-traditional ways — almost like European hand-built sports cars. 

Vipers on assembly line at Conner Avenue plant

And thanks in large part to growing demand for Ram trucks, Chrysler also began work on a second Mexican plant — a new truck assembly plant in Saltillo, Mexico. 

But the biggest news of the decade did not involve new products, but rather the merger with Germany’s Daimler-Benz AG in May 1998.  The new DaimlerChrysler, created in 1998 was to be short-lived however, lasting less than 10 years.

Plant No. 23) The facility that became the Conner Avenue Assembly plant was built in 1966 by Champion Spark Plug.  It was purchased in 1992 by Chrysler in order to build the Dodge Viper and Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler. Status:  Active for now: The 2017 Viper will be the last model built there then the facility will be closed. 

Plant No. 24) The Saltillo Truck Assembly plant was completed in 1995. The first product built there was the Dodge Ram Mega Cab.  The next model to be assembled at the plant was the DC Chassis Cab. Then in 2008 Chrysler added more truck production with the introduction of the Ram 1500, followed by the all-new Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty models in 2009. Production of the 2011 Chassis Cab began in 2010.  Status: Still active

The 2000’s: A new millennium, two new owners

One of the casualties of slowing auto sales at the start of the new Millennium was Chrysler’s venerable Plymouth brand.  While the announcement was made in 1999 to cease production at the end of 2001, it actually proved fortuitous, given the steep drop in auto sales following the stunning terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Ford would discontinue the Mercury brand eight years later. 

In 2007 DaimlerChrysler sold the Chrysler unit to the Cerberus investment firm. It was followed by Italy’s Fiat acquiring a partial interest in the company, along with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 2009 as a result of a government-imposed bankruptcy following the collapse of the housing market and Wall Street financial scandals of 2008 - 2010. 

Fiat purchased the UAW’s shares five years later and took total control in January 2014.  At that point Chrysler Corporation was formally renamed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) on October 13, 2014, and its parent company was l
isted on the New York and Milan stock exchanges.  

Due to shrinking sales and an effort to reduce overhead, three U.S. assembly plants were closed during the 2008-2011 time frame (two in St. Louis, one in Newark).  However as fuel prices have come down and the economy strengthened over the past few years and with strong demand for crossovers and trucks, FCA announced it was ending production of its compact Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 in the U.S. at the end of 2016, but would be investing in retooling three of it U.S. plants and once again returning the Jeep pickup and Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer models to its product line-up. 

Ram ProMaster at Saltillo Truck Assembly plant

However, with the demise of the traditional cargo van and the popularity of more streamlined and fuel efficient commercial vans, FCA added the 25th and final plant in company history as  a companion to its existing truck plant in Saltillo, Mexico. 

Plant No. 25) The final plant added to the long list of Chrysler assembly plants is the separate Saltillo Van Assembly Plant, completed in 2013 to handle production of the Dodge ProMaster commercial van series.  Status: Active. 

Other new FCA US investments announced last summer include plans to spend $1.49 billion to retool its Sterling Heights Assembly Plant to make new Ram 1500s, which will move from its current plant in Warren, Mich., when production begins there in 2018. Another piece of the plan is to move production of the Jeep Cherokee from Toledo, Ohio, to Belvidere, Ill., so it can expand production of the Wrangler in Toledo. FCA said in July it plans to spend $1 billion to retool plants in Ohio and Illinois which will create 1,000 new jobs.

So what is the current North American assembly plant scorecard? FCA now builds vehicles at 12 different assembly plants in North America — seven in the U.S., two in Canada and three in Mexico.  And just how many vehicles built by Chrysler assembly workers have rolled out of the company’s 26 different plants (counting Toledo as two) over the years?

Last year alone, 2,766,000 were produced. And total production figures of just the 13 closed plants approaches nearly 1.5 billion.  So it would be easy to calculate the production of the 12 plants currently in operation has undoubtedly been equal to that number — meaning nearly 3 billion vehicles in all assembled by Chrysler employees.

By any measure, that’s quite an accomplishment for any automaker, and quite a tribute to the tens of thousands of plant workers who broke a sweat, bolting, screwing and welding them together over the years.  

So you can quit howling and wailing, Mr. Chrysler. All things considered, given the turbulent history of the nearly 100 years of corporate and world history, I think Walter P. Chrysler — though perhaps disappointed that his museum is being dismantled and that his name will not be gracing any cars produced in the U.S. by the end of 2017 — can be very proud of the contributions his company has made to the fabric of American life since he launched it in 1925. 

He would undoubtedly be especially proud of its positive economic impact on the country, given the fact it has provided tens of thousands of jobs and helped support countless careers, families and communities over the years that have benefitted from his vision and passion for building a creative and dynamic car company — one that continues to serve its customers and the nation’s ever-changing transportation needs.