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

by GM.



   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

employers.



   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

Ypsilanti, Mich.



   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

final assembly.



   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

workers.



   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

said.



   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

said.



   "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,

Wis.



   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

point.



   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.