Last of Impalas marks end of GM plant era by
Jeanne Graham (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 12/8/97)
ARLINGTON - Sometime this week, one last Chevrolet Impala SS
is expected to snake its way through the Arlington GM assembly
plant, past lines of workers as they apply paint and chrome and
check for dents.
After that, there will be no more cars. And not only will it
be the last Impala built in Arlington - it will be the last built
The plant, which has been a major economic force in Arlington
for 42 years, is in the midst of a $264 million conversion and
next year will be building trucks and sport utility vehicles.
"We're taking a Third World body shop into the 21st century,"
plant manager Herb Stone said during a tour of the plant.
The redesigned plant will assemble the C/K pickup series,
Tahoes and Yukons - some of GM's hottest-selling vehicles.
And even though the current fad for trucks and utility
vehicles may fade, industry experts said the transition
represents improved job security for the local work force because
the plant is designed for flexibility, allowing it to change from
one product line to another with relative ease.
Since its 1954 opening, the GM plant has played a major role
in Arlington's growth, officials said. And even if the plant
downsizes next year to the 1,505 work force level targeted by GM
managers, it will remain one of the city's top five private
In 1992, plant workers were relieved when GM announced that
the Arlington site had been selected to assemble the last of the
large rear-wheel-drive cars over the Willow Run assembly plant in
By 1995, the company had announced plans to convert the
3-million-square-foot local facility to truck assembly - the
product line that during this decade has helped U.S. auto makers
compete successfully against their Japanese counterparts. The
latest conversion is intended to bring state-of-the-art auto
manufacturing procedures to the plant.
And that could become an important element for the plant - and
the local economy - because GM managers have said the plant will
have to demonstrate its ability to produce cost-effective
vehicles to win the right to build future GM products.
Some analysts said the company may have invested as much as
half of the $264 million in the plant's new 300,000-square-foot
body shop - the first stop for parts shipped to Arlington for
In the body shop, the shell of the vehicle - the sides and top
- are welded together and must fit perfectly. About 150 robots
will help attain that precision, Stone said.
That sort of precision will also be sought from the line
Although many of them will be laid off for a few weeks to a
few months between the plant's annual Christmas shutdown and
spring truck start up, body shop workers will continue training
and working on practice trucks, officials said. Laid-off workers
will be eligible for 95 percent of their wages, union officials
Marketable trucks will not be built until April. Meanwhile,
employees will build practice trucks, which will then be crushed
into scrap, Stone said.
Before the plant can take full advantage of its modernization,
union and plant managers have to resolve local labor contract
issues such as the number of employees, job safety and
"outsourcing," which enables the company to reduce costs by using
nonunion labor to provide some parts.
Much of the new equipment, including the robots, is built and
is tested for 20,000 hours in Detroit, Stone said. Then the
equipment is torn down, shipped and reassembled in the Arlington
plant, he said.
"It's not a very complicated business, but it's complex
getting it all coordinated," Stone said.
Given the amount of money invested in the plant conversion,
and the flexibility that will afford, industry watchers are
bullish about future employment at the site.
"If I were an employee, I would feel pretty comfortable," said
David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive
Transportation at the University of Michigan. "I would feel
pretty good sitting down there."
The local plant is designed for flexibility, Cole said. The
robots, equipment layout and fixtures are built around the idea
of maintaining agility for an ever-changing global market, he
"Whether it's a different truck model, or short vs. long cab,
they can make changes much more easily," Cole said.
Building trucks, though, is expected to keep the plant humming
for the foreseeable future. The full-sized C/K pickup series and
the Yukon and Tahoe sport utility vehicles to be produced there
are GM's best-selling products and trucks are the fastest-growing
category in the auto industry.
Trucks have been the salvation of Detroit since the Japanese
invasion of the car market put the Big Three Auto Makers - GM,
Ford and Chrysler - on their heels two decades ago. Since 1991,
sales of minivans, pickups and sport utility vehicles have
increased about 50 percent, propelling industry profits as well.
The truck category includes full-sized pickups, small pickups,
vans and sport utility vehicles.
Trucks represented only 12.5 percent of the domestic market in
1965 with sales of 951,000 trucks vs. 6.65 million cars, said
Joel Pitcoff, market analysis manager for Ford Motor Co.
But by 1995, more than 6.4 million trucks were sold, grabbing
43 percent of the market; car sales were at 8.64 million or 57
percent, Pitcoff said.
Production at the Arlington plant could be seen as generally
tracing that trend.
Since October 1995, the plant has built 1,920 vehicles weekly
with about 2,100 employees working one shift, according to
documents filed with the city.
But beginning with the truck line next year, GM plans to
produce 2,400 vehicles weekly on two shifts with 1,505 employees,
according to the documents.
To help make that change, GM recently received approval for a
tax abatement, worth about $9.3 million over 10 years, from the
Arlington City Council for the $264 million in plant
improvements. GM will continue to pay taxes on the $136 million
taxable value of the plant, estimated at $8 million to $10
million during the 10-year agreement.
Arlington joins four other GM North American plants that build
either full-sized pickups, sport utility vehicles or both, said
Tom Beaman, manager of GM Truck communications. Those are
Oshawa, Canada; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Pontiac, Mich.; and Janesville,
Arlington is the newest of those facilities, Beaman said.
Although consumers have been buying more trucks and fewer cars
during the past few years, GM's Beaman and other industry experts
agree that the growth in the truck market will flatten at some
The University of Michigan's Cole agreed but noted that when
truck sales slow, the Arlington plant could easily be
reconfigured for another product.
"We're probably not far from the saturation point for the
truck market," Cole said. "This is not going to go on forever.
But I think GM does need this plant."
In other words, the future of the Arlington plant is not tied
to long-term growth in truck sales. What is certain is that
after this week, GM's Arlington plant will no longer build cars,
something it has been doing since the first black Pontiac
Chieftain rolled off the assembly line in January 1954.
In 1950, a 24-year-old Tom Vandergriff, now Tarrant County
judge, persuaded GM to build its Texas plant in Arlington.
"It was just obvious, a major employer of that magnitude and a
worldwide industry, that it would be a tremendous gain for our
community and would put us on the map," Vandergriff said. "And
it did." Vandergriff was elected mayor of Arlington the next year
and said GM's announcement made it easier to persuade other
companies to consider locating in the community.
It was 1965 before the plant produced its 1 millionth car, a
Pontiac convertible. Six years later, it built its 2 millionth
vehicle, an Oldsmobile Cutlass.
GM's presence in Arlington not only resulted in jobs and
economic development opportunities but also enhanced the social
well-being of the community, Vandergriff said.
GM was the largest donor to Arlington Memorial Hospital when
community leaders were trying to get the local hospital funded,
and it was also a big element in elevating the University of
Texas at Arlington from junior college to four-year college
status, he said.
"It's always going to be a big factor in whatever success we
enjoy as a community," Vandergriff said.