Lawrence Monkhouse • December 2013
Windsor’s Pillette Road plant (Plant 6) was completed in 1974 to help build Chrysler’s popular B-vans, which, from 1973 to the mid-1970s, were the market leaders, beating Ford and Chevrolet. Starting in 1974, the Plymouth Voyager (whose name, in 1984, would be attached to the new minivans) was sold alongside the Dodge Sportsman, and Chrysler justifiably expected a sales increase.
The vans were sold both as completed cargo and passenger vehicles, and as chassis for motor homes, tow trucks, and other custom-bodied vehicles. In 1976, sales were up to 184,583 vans; in 1977, they hit 226,066 vans, making the B-van Dodge’s best selling truck group (all light-duty conventional pickups were just 215,409, combined). In contrast, Ford sold just 179,820 Econoline vans in 1976 — way up from Ford’s sales of 113,715 in 1975, when Dodge had sold 120,388, maintaining Mopar’s #1 position.
Plant #6 was expanded in 1978 to keep pace, and sales rose to 235,160 (or 238,916 depending on source); this may have been related to the 1978-model-year introduction of the Street Van and the first-time availability of big block engines (400 and 440 cid) in Chrysler vans, along with numerous improvements in the bodies and interiors. That would be, unfortunately, the peak year for Dodge vans.
With 1979 through 1981 sales dropping precipitously each year, Pillette Road plant became the sole source of vans. From 1984, as the company dove into efficient front wheel drive vehicles, the Ram was increasingly neglected despite comfortable fleet sales; it was no longer a star, with attention and retail sales focused on the minivans, and few non-institutional takers for the various vans.
The metal finisher in the photo above was identified by “gotguts” of autoworker.net as Kenny Ryall.
1988 brought the “new” 3.9 liter V6, created by taking two cylinders off the 360 V8 and adding fuel injection, replaced the venerable slant six and providing around as much power as a fuel-injected slant six would likely have done. A new dual airbag equipped instrument panel was installed; a longer new front moved the engines forward, shrank the doghouse (interior engine bay), and improved front-to-rear access. The tires and brakes were enlarged, the suspension was refined, the body was made stronger and stiffer. Carburetors came off the 318 at long last, and, with a new roller cam, that engine - rebadged 5.2 liter - produced 170 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque (net).
Things started to pick up with the “new Chrysler” in the early 1990s; just as the lists of revisions to the various cars grew by leaps and bounds, the vans were studied and improved. The compressed natural gas version of the Ram Van and Wagon, engineered in Canada, appeared in 1992, for selected fleets; it would be generally available starting in 1995. Powertrain and interior changes were nearly constant from this time on.
The photo with the blue and white Major Framing Fixture sign is from before the ’98 changeover. They are attaching the right side of the van to the underbody (floor) before it goes into the framer, which welds the sides to the floor and the roof is put on. — “Happy go lucky” of autoworker.net
For 1998, numerous changes were made, resulting in higher market shares. These included a power boost for the 360 (5.9) engine to 245 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque; suspension refinements and larger standard tires with better brakes; a stronger, stiffer, more accurate Unibody construction; new front doors with better seals; cosmetic changes; driver and passenger airbags with lower force; a passenger airbag shutoff for cargo vans; and underfloor spare tire to increase usable cargo area; a new instrument panel with built in vents; better driver controls and audio systems; adjustable seat belt turning loops; and a “GVWR realignment.” In addition, the engine compartment was moved forward to meet safety standards and improve walk-through access (see Tannon Weber's review for more on this.)
Both van and plant were dropped in 2003; the plant was intended to build an additional vehicle (rumored to be a new crossover) afterwards, and a new paint shop had been built, but under Daimler there were no investments for growth, and the plant was demolished and sold.
These two photos (above and below) show men using spot welders on the aperture line after the 1998 changeover, welding pieces onto the interior of the van (thanks, “Happy go lucky” of autoworker.net)
“A good view of the paint shop. The two vans of the left side have been painted; it looks like the dark one is going in for a repaint. They covered the parts of the vans that were okay in plastic, and repainted the exposed parts.” — “Happy go lucky” of autoworker.net
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