SHIFTING GEARS; Enthusiasts give Impala final send-off as GM revs up for truck production by Tamara Chuang (The Dallas Morning News, 12/14/97)




   The General Motors plant had a wake Friday.



   In a fitting tribute to the demise of the Chevrolet Impala SS,

several diehard members of the National Association of Impala SS

Owners donned black arm bands and gathered at the plant.



   Cameras clicked and crowds fawned over the dark-colored cars

lining the plant parking lot as the company and car enthusiasts

said goodbye to rear-wheel-drive sedans.



   The four models, built at the East Arlington plant since 1991,

are the last such vehicles to be produced by the world's largest

auto maker.



   While many mourned the end of an era, company officials

focused on the future.



   "It's obviously a sad day because we're going to stop building

the cars," plant manager Herb Stone said.  "But we're looking

forward to the future of Arlington.  We'll be the only truck

builders in Texas."



   Workers already have started on the 3-million-square-foot

plant's $264 million conversion to truck production.  In June,

the plant will start making full-size Chevrolet C/K and GMC

Sierra pickups, and Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon sport utility

vehicles.



   During Friday's ceremony, the focus was on the Impala SS line.



   But the last Impala SS was actually finished Thursday.



   The plant's final car rolled off the assembly line by noon

Friday - an arctic-white Chevrolet Caprice Classic, the

6,486,958th car to be produced at the plant since it opened in

1954.



   Friday's hushed ceremony, which was not open to the public,

signified more than the end of car manufacturing in Arlington.



   The change to truck production also means a loss of jobs.  The

city's largest taxpaying entity employs 2,124 people, but only

1,500 people will be needed for truck assembly, GM officials have

said.  The company expects to eliminate the 624 positions through

retirement, job transfers and attrition.



   With his parting holiday gift bag, Kevin Beazer, a temporary

assembly line worker, walked out of the plant Friday knowing his

4-month GM stint - like those of 200 other temporary hires - was

over when the Caprice came off the line.



   "I'll be looking for work, in the assembly line," he said. 

"It's a possibility they'll call me when they start working on

the trucks."



   While each state buys an average of two percent of all trucks

made, Texas tops the list, buying 18 percent of the market, a

likely reason why the Arlington plant was chosen for the new

lines, said GM spokesman Craig Eppling.



   "There's a rich tradition of building cars here.  It was the

only auto plant in Texas," Mr. Eppling said.  "We're looking at a

good future here in Arlington. The plant will be the only plant

building the Tahoe police package."



   Six Tulsa, Okla., police officers trekked down from the "OK"

state to attend the event.  Officers who used the cars for their

jobs liked them so much that they bought cars for their own

personal use, said Sgt. Mark Stevens.



   "I'm going through my second childhood.  I used to race cars,

but I can't fit into those small cars anymore," said Mr. Stevens,

a 6-foot-8, 300-pound police officer.  "This is the sports car

for the 40-year-old.  It's basically a 4-door Corvette."



   Mr. Stevens and his wife, Becky, belong to the 1,500-member

Impala association, and he estimated that about 75 members had

come from all over the country for the Impala's closing

ceremonies.



   At night, they planned to meet over beers, trade Impala SS

stories and watch car videos in memory of their favorite vehicle,

he said.



   While Murl "Pinky" Randall and his wife, Joyce, scored free

plane tickets to attend the closing ceremonies, Mr. Randall said

the Impala SS would be his first.  He originally wanted a

Caprice, which he already owns.



   But as an avid car collector, the Houghton Lake, Mich.,

resident said company officials persuaded him to take the more

collectible Impala SS.



   The loyal Chevy consumer heeded their advice and now owns a

1996 dark cherry metallic Impala SS.



   "It's always nice for a collector to get the first one or the

last one," Mr. Randall said, adding that he had his request in

since May 1995.



   "We tried to get a personalized license plate, "LAST SS," but

someone else already had it," he said.



   He got his second choice: "MR CHEV."