Building Chrysler, Part 3: Iacocca, creativity and a whole new world

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.

Home of the Viper

The Conner Avenue Assembly is home of Chrysler’s iconic sports car — the Dodge Viper –which will be the LAST Dodge product to be built in the U.S., once the plant closes at the end of 2017.

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.  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 it 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.  Afterwards the facility will be closed.

Viper Assembly Line

Vipers will be the last Chrysler models wearing the Dodge badge to roll off an assembly line in the U.S.

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, 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 US) on October 13, 2014 and its parent company was listed 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 – with strong demand for crossovers and trucks, FCA US announced it was ending production of its compact Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 in the US 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.

However, with the demise of the tradition cargo van and the popularity of more streamlined and fuel efficient commercial vans, FCA US 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.

Ram ProMaster

The newest FCA US plant to come online is the Saltillow Van Assembly Plant, which builds the Ram ProMaster City Tradesman and Cargo vans.

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 US said in July it plans to spend $1 billion to retool plants in Ohio and Illinois which will create 1,000 new jobs.

Last US Plant to build a Chrysler

The Last Chrysler: The Sterling Heights Assembly plant, where the Chrysler 200 was built until the end of December, was the last plant in the U.S. to build a car with a Chrysler badge. (Joe Wilssens / Chrysler Group LLC photo)

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 US, 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, over 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 benefited 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.