Historiography: The Assembly Lines Across The Upper Midwest

Back in 2012, President Barack Obama proclaimed in his State of The Union address that the automotive industry in the USA is "back." Some may argue that the industry's return to prominence has not been fully realized, but there are signs that it is on the upswing.

However, this is not the same automotive industry of my childhood. Nor is it the same industry of my ancestors. Progress in manufacturing and an emphasis on globalization changed the way we view the manufacture of automobiles. On one hand, it had helped North America by the opening of production centers by non-Detroit-based automobile corporations.

On the flip side, the strategy of bringing the automobile closer to its marketplace through localized manufacturing plants evolved to accommodate a wider offering of products and advances in transportation and technology to eliminate the need for extra production capacity. Since the 1970s, this meant losses in manufacturing jobs and idle facilities – some reborn into other uses.

There are now generations of Americans who have forgotten that there was a mighty production facility in their community. Though some of them have not seen the wrecking ball, others either resemble a lay of wasteland or have been built to unrecognizable specifications.

There are some manufacturing facilities that continue to produce automobiles. They are imposing sites, sprawling for acres with telltale signs of industrial might. These continue to fuel the engine of the American economy.

A tour of these facilities – operational or otherwise – is in order. I will start just a few miles from home…

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA: On December 16, 2011, Ford rolled out its final North American market Ranger pickup from the plant alongside the Mississippi River. It ended over eight decades of automobile manufacturing in the state of Minnesota. While discussions continue to resolve the future of the Highland Park plant, the empty facility serves as a reminder of what Minnesotans could do when given the right tools to do so. Over the decades, Ford built various models for regional distribution. As production became centralized per a specific line, the Ranger would find its way from Louisville, Kentucky to make way for a growing market in F-Series trucks and larger SUVs. The Ranger was suited for Saint Paul and it would be joined by a Mazda-badged version for the North American market. In the end, a combination of demand for the F-Series over smaller trucks and a global economic crisis would not keep the old plant going on forever. As of today, plans to convert the site have not been finalized by the City of Saint Paul. Once they do, I expect a quick sale by the Ford Motor Company of one of the most valuable properties in the Twin Cities.

JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN: My mother's side of the family settled just south of where the old General Motors plant is located. I used to live north of there in the den of academia and state government. Janesville continues to be a crossroads of agriculture and manufacture, but the latter has been quelled for some time now. The mighty GM plant on the south side of Janesville stood on one side of the town’s economic and social divide – one that was seen as both of the city's high schools. Having seen various models come through its 90-plus year-old facility, the last models built at Janesville reflected both an old and recent economy – GM’s large SUVs and Isuzu's medium duty trucks. The idea was simple – as long as there was capacity, Janesville would build it. Today, it is an idle plant. On some materials, it is stated that Janesville would be a back-up assembly facility. It is apparent that modern manufacturing may not be suitable for this old plant. There has been no word on what the future holds for the plant and the City of Janesville. One would hope that it would be suitable for manufacture of some form again.

KENOSHA, WISCONSIN: Just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border stood a sprawling complex born from a simple name: Rambler. When the Nash Motor Company bought out Rambler after the turn of the 20th Century, it acquired and expanded its assembly facility just west of Lake Michigan. The buildings have seen many names posted along its sides: Nash, American Motors, Renault and Chrysler. It's labyrinth of assembly lines spanned many buildings with skyways sending partly-assembled chassis and bodies from one building to another. Within this labyrinth produced some machinery only a few still fondly remember. Names such as Rambler, Hornet, Gremlin, Eagle, Alliance and Fifth Avenue came out of the multi-block complex in the middle of Kenosha. Chrysler closed down the plant after it consolidated its engine lineup as a result of the Fiat-guided post-bankruptcy five-year plan. The plant design is no longer sufficient for modern assembly or component manufacture and there had been no word on the final disposition of the main site. Another associated AMC facility on the lakefront has since been razed for the HarborPark development in 1990. AMC also operated a car body plant in Milwaukee that has since been demolished as a consequence of the merger with Chrysler. One look westward along the Illinois state line would give you a sense of what modern manufacturing is all about.

BELIVDERE, ILLINOIS: When I would do my Madison-Chicago runs a decade ago, I would pass this modern facility alongside Interstate 90. Chrysler built this plant in 1965 as a facility to provide additional capacity for its full-sized Plymouths and Dodges. Over the years, the plant located east of Rockford built the Dodge Omni, Plymouth Horizon, the Dodge Dynasty, the Neon, the Dodge Caliber, the Jeep Compass and Patriot. In a matter of months, the 2013 Dodge Dart will come down the Belvidere line – soon to be joined by other CUS-Wide platform products. I first saw this plant en route to my new life in Madison, Wisconsin back in October of 2000. I drove westbound on Interstate 90 when it came into view. It gave me a sense of grounding to see this Stellantis facility sprawled in the middle of rural land to know what it builds for global audiences. It was indeed wise for Stellantus to continue to see value in this facility, now home to the Jeep Cherokee.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: Deep in the southeast corner of this great city stood a mighty engine of production. It is Ford's main plant for Chicago going on nine decades, building everything for this huge market. In 1985, it was one of two plants building the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. Today, the current Explorer is built alongside the Lincoln Aviator in the bleak, rusty plant on Torrence Avenue. The old plant embodies a history intricately linked to Chicago's post-Fire industrial boom – designed as an alternate plant for Model T assembly in 1924. The plant has served the tucked-away Hegewisch neighborhood well…and brought some delights for enthusiasts when pre-production vehicles would pop up in nearby Pullman and Calumet City. During Press Days at the Chicago Auto Show in 2004, Bill Ford had then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley on hand to announce another round of jobs to build the big front-drive sedans and crossovers at Torrence Avenue. I was glad to see the old plant sprung into life, as it continues building key mid-sized SUVs for the market. This plant is supported by a component stamping facility in suburban Chicago Heights.

However, there was another plant in Chicago that had a very interesting and brief story – Ford City. Ford never built any vehicles in the huge facility south of Midway Airport. Neither did the plant's original constructor – Chrysler. It was built for World War II as Chrysler was contracted by Wright aviation to build Cyclone engines for the B-29 bomber. As the war ended, Chrysler did not need the plant anymore. Preston Tucker did. The entrepreneur bought the plant from the War Assets Administration to build his dream car. Only 51 of them built – including one that was sold at the recent Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale earlier this month for close to $3 Million. Tucker failed and Ford swooped in to buy the plant. Originally, Ford wanted to use the plant to augment the Torrence Avenue facility. Instead, it went back into military aircraft engine production through the Korean War. By 1959, Ford gave up on the facility and concentrated their Chicago area efforts on Torrence Avenue and the Chicago Heights stamping plant. It is now a retail mall serving the Midway Airport and South Side community.

NORMAL, ILLINOIS: If you head south out of Chicago for about 150 miles, you will run into Mitsubishi's sprawling assembly plant in the Bloomington-Normal area. Production began in 1988 as a joint venture with Chrysler to build several shared products for the North American market. The share of ownership went back-and-forth until 2001 when Mitsubishi took complete control of the plant. Its main goal was to offset production from Japan while developing market-exclusive products for this side of the Pacific. Many Eclipses were built from Day One in Normal. Galants, Endeavors and Mirage sedans were part of the production mix at Normal, alongside various Chrysler products ranging from the Eagle Summit sedan to the Chrysler Sebring coupe. The plant switched hands to Mitsubishi, as it produced the vehicles of "Project America": the Galant, Eclipse, and Endeavor as of last year. Later in the 2010s, Mitsubishi supplanted the assembly lines with the Outlander Sport for a few years. After shutting down the plant, Rivian will produce their battery electric vehicles at the Normal facility. They expect to employ about 1,000 people by 2024 with a goal of 40,000 units per year.

These plants represented what people from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota could (and still) do. Luckily, the production of automobiles has not gone away in our region. The memory of assembly lines now closed still lingers on the locations where they were once provided life and work to thousands of industrious Upper Midwesterners.

All photos by Randy Stern

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