General Motors’ Van Nuys Assembly plant. GM Photo, courtesy of CRG, www.camaros.org
Growing up in Southern California, I was blessed with reminders that I did live in a form of paradise.
Paradise is a relative term. Normally, that would mean perfect weather year-round, leisure opportunities within minutes of your doorstep and an infinite quantity of sustenance. For me, it meant that I lived in a city just like any other in the world – a mix of blue and white collar, both ethnically diverse, with a prime location to experience the world from.
Part of the mix in Southern California was an industrial base that predated World War II. In the case of the automobile industry, the idea of decentralized production to minimize delivery times of vehicles took root in the two major California metropolitan areas: Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
I was blessed to have grown up when automobile production was still a part of the labor mix in Southern California. The stories from the factory floor were the kind of bedtime stories that forged the lives of automotive enthusiasts. By the time I was born, 15,000 Southern Californians were building around 500,000 vehicles a year out of four operating facilities in the Basin. This was nothing unusual as automotive production had been a part of Los Angeles’ industrial base since 1914.
These are stories that no longer exist in the Los Angeles Basin.
If I were to tour my hometown of Los Angeles in search of these long lost assembly lines, where would it take me? I’ll tell you where…
LONG BEACH: After serving as the first automobile firm to build cars in Los Angeles since 1914, Ford began production of the Model A at the worst possible time in this country. The Great Depression may have hit almost everywhere across the USA, but Henry Ford felt there was still some positive signs on the Pacific side of the country. The Long Beach facility was under construction on Terminal Island when the stock market crashed. Ford had no choice but to finish the job and get production rolling. In 1930, Ford’s production facility on Terminal Island opened with easy access to two major sea port facilities. Unbeknownst to Henry was a trove of crude oil lurking underneath the plant. He could have easily drilled, but since the plant was on a landfill, the entire property was sinking into the ground. Eventually, the need for a more modern facility to produce vehicles in the Los Angeles area was needed. In 1959, production shifted up the San Gabriel River to a city wedged in the industrial east side of Los Angeles – Pico Rivera. The plant eventually gave way to port storage for imports across the Pacific.
In the postwar era, Kaiser-Frazier used an old defense production plant in the city of Long Beach for its West Coast assembly line. That facility operated from 1947 to sometime in the mid-1950s.
SOUTH GATE: General Motors opened up shop in this small industrial city south of Los Angeles in 1936 as their West Coast plant for building Pontiacs. South Gate always built full-sized cars, except for a short spell building compacts for Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile in the early 1960s. It kept on building various GM products until its closure in 1982 as the last J-cars rolled off the line. The plant no longer exists, replaced by a new high school for the Mid-Cities community.
Further north from South Gate were two other automotive production facilities: Willys-Overland in Maywood and Studebaker in Vernon. The Willys plant opened before GM’s in 1928, while Studebaker opened around the same time GM’s facility in 1936. Both facilities closed in the mid-1950s, right when the North American automotive industry was consolidating into the Big Three plus AMC.
COMMERCE: Chrysler opened up a plant in 1929 at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Slauson Boulevard in the industrial city just south east of downtown Los Angeles. It, too, gambled on the Great Depression to induce jobs and production of automobiles. At first, they built Plymouths for the West Coast market. Dodge trucks were part of the production mix after they closed the Graham truck plant up in Stockton. After the war, Dodge cars, DeSotos and Chryslers joined as part of a productive and vibrant facility within blocks of old US-101. Chrysler’s new compacts soon joined its larger brethren on the assembly line. The mid-sizes arrived as well. The plant closed in 1971 with assembly wrapped up on Dodge Darts and Coronets alongside Plymouth Valiants and Belvederes. The site has since been replaced by commercial properties housing two major banks in the area.
EL SEGUNDO: Did you know that Nash had a plant in Los Angeles? Actually, it is located in a city just south of Los Angeles International Airport. In 1948, Nash built a plant to help distribute automobiles to the West Coast market. Hughes Aircraft purchased the plant in 1955 for the assembly of missiles. When GM bought Hughes, it inherited the plant to continue the same assembly line. It is now owned by Boeing for its aerospace division.
PICO RIVERA: Ford opened up the new plant further inland from its Terminal Island facility in 1957. The transition of production between the two plants was completed in 1959, ready for Ford’s growth in the 1960s. The plant was significantly more modern and vast – similar to its sister facility up in Milpitas near San Jose. The Pico Rivera line focused on the full-sized models – mainly Fords – with a few other products joining in the mix. By 1980, Ford needed to consolidate and closed the plant. Northrop bought the facility and turned into a bomber production plant. The aerospace firm closed the plant in 2001. It is now the site of the Pico Rivera Towne Center retail complex.
VAN NUYS: In the San Fernando Valley, just miles from where I grew up, there was automotive production activity happening during my childhood. Van Nuys was the home of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird through the second and third generations. There was a history beforehand. When it opened in 1947, they began building Chevrolets for the West Coast market. By the 1970s, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird became the pride and joy of Van Nuys. The expansive facility sat alongside the railroad tracks, which sent many F-Bodies to points beyond. In 1992, production of the F-Body was transferred to Saint-Therese in Quebec shutting down the Van Nuys facility. In its place is another retail center – The Plant.