Building Chrysler, Part 2: Engineering, Plymouth, War and the Boom

1940’s-1950’s – World War II & Post-War Boom

Company founder, Walter P. Chrysler passed away in August 1940 as the company was converting its plants to produce tanks, trucks, airplane parts and armaments for World War II.

Company founder, Walter P. Chrysler passed away in August 1940 as the company was converting its plants to produce tanks, trucks, airplane parts and armaments for World War II.

Unfortunately, the first event to impact Chrysler in the 1940’s 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, NY.  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 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 in Dearborn, Mich. 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 the production of cars and trucks, unlike the DATP facility 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 necessitated 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.

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

In addition to converting most of its vehicle assembly plants to the production of armaments for World War II, Chrysler also built the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant in Warren, MI, with completed tanks being produce just six months after breaking ground.

Plant No. 13) The 13th plant to be opened was back in Michigan – the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP). 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.  SHAP was scheduled to close in 2009 as part of the company’s bankruptcy

In 2010, Chrysler re-acquired the plant facility from Old Carco LLC, and over the next few years spent over $1 billion to retool the plant, build new paint and body shops and upgrade the surrounding stamping plants. In July 2016 FCA announced that it would invest another $1.48 billion to again retool the plant to build the next generation Ram 1500 pickups. Status:  Active – it is currently one of 10 active FCA assembly plants in the U.S.

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 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 in October. 2008, then razed in 2011.