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by Scott Oller • courtesy of the Plymouth Owners Club
In 1937 there were three Plymouth car assembly plants in the United States – one in Detroit, one in Los Angeles, and one in Evansville, Indiana.
Chrysler’s decision to have an assembly plant in Evansville seems a bit strange due to the size of the city as compared to Detroit and Los Angeles. Chrysler eventually closed the Evansville plant in 1959 and relocated Plymouth production to Fenton, Missouri, just south of St. Louis.
The plant was originally built by the Graham brothers, Ray, Robert, and Joseph, in 1919 to build their line of trucks. Early Graham Brothers trucks used engines and drivetrains from a number of different passenger cars; a customer could order a Graham Brothers truck built to their own specifications.
As truck production increased, Graham Brothers realized that using a standard engine and drivetrain was more efficient. They began to build trucks using an increasing number of Dodge Brothers powertrains, which were known for their sturdiness.
In 1921, the Graham Brothers and Dodge Brothers reached an agreement where the Graham Brothers would use Dodge Brothers engines and drivetrains, and in turn sell their trucks through Dodge Brothers dealers. The collaboration worked well.
In 1926, Dodge Brothers purchased the remaining Graham Brothers truck company stock, and the two companies were completely merged. In 1927, Ray, Robert, and Joseph Graham left Dodge Brothers, liquidated their Dodge Brothers stock, and purchased the Paige Motor Company with the proceeds, forming the Graham-Paige Motor Corporation.
Dodge Brothers continued to build trucks at the Evansville plant, despite being purchased by the Chrysler Corporation on July 31, 1928. At that time, trucks with a Dodge Brothers nameplate were rated at ½-ton; larger rated trucks were sold under the Graham Brothers name. On January 1, 1929, the Graham Brothers brand was eliminated, and all trucks produced became Dodge trucks.
In 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, Chrysler closed the Evansville Dodge truck assembly plant. As the economy began to improve in the mid-1930s, vehicle sales increased.
Chrysler saw an opportunity with Evansville, since it was on the Ohio River. The company could keep transportation costs at a minimum by shipping autos on barges to markets in the Gulf states and out West.
Chrysler renovated and expanded the Evansville operations; in 1935 the original Dodge truck assembly plant location was reopened, and a body panel stamping plant was also opened nearby. The two plants would now build Plymouth cars starting with the 1936 models.
The plant openings were a real boost for the Evansville economy. As the nation recovered from the Depression, Chrysler increased output. Along with Plymouth, Dodge cars were also assembled at Evansville in 1937 and 1938. The assembly plant served the community during the 1937 flood by providing shelter to displaced people.
By the late 1930s, the two plants supported about 3,000 local jobs and produced as many as 300 cars per day. Plymouth car production continued on at the Evansville plant until the onset of World War II. The plant had built more than 300,000 vehicles by then, but things were about to change.
Shortly after the declaration of war, automobile production stopped. The Army Ordinance Department asked Chrysler if the Evansville plant could produce vast amounts of .45 automatic ammunition to supply the war effort. Chrysler President Kaufman Keller replied that they could.
Keller’s confidence in the Evansville plant’s abilities paid off. Between 1942 and 1944, the Evansville Ordinance Plant produced more than 3.26 billion cartridges – about 96% of all the .45 automatic ammunition produced for all the armed forces. In addition to the ammunition, the Evansville Ordinance Plant rebuilt 1,600 Sherman tanks and 4,000 military trucks.
Plymouth car production resumed after WWII. However, the Evansville plant was not finished with military contracts. In the early 1950s, during the Korean War, the plant retooled and dedicated about a third of its space and manpower to building 60-foot aluminum hulls for UF-1 Grumman Albatross air-sea rescue planes for the Navy and Coast Guard.
By the mid-1950s, the two Evansville plants were running at their peak. There were 7,000 employees building upwards of 400 Plymouth cars per day. The One-Millionth Plymouth made in Evansville rolled off of the assembly line in March 1953. The plant hosted community open house days to promote the new model year cars being built in Evansville.
Chrysler began to reevaluate their transportation business model in 1957. The railroad companies had greatly reduced their shipping costs by converting to diesel-electric locomotives from coal-fired steam engines. Shipping by rail made more sense than continuing to ship by barge, as they had done since the 1930s. Evansville was served by four rail lines, but the Fenton, Missouri area was served by 20. Chrysler borrowed $250 million and invested in a larger, more modern assembly plant located in Fenton.
The Evansville plants closed in 1959. Chrysler was the single largest employer in Evansville at the time, and the plant closures were devastating to the local economy. Some employees moved to the new plant while others remained in Evansville to seek new employment.
Remnants of the Evansville Plymouth Assembly Plant buildings remain standing today. They are being used by local businesses as warehouse and industrial facilities. Space is available for lease, and the entire property is for sale at $2.8 million. If one is touring through Evansville sometime and would like to drive by, the buildings are located at the intersections of North Garvin Street, Stringtown Road, and Maxwell Avenue.
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Chrysler 1904-2017 •
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