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Chrysler’s Lost Los Angeles Plant, 1932-1971

california chrysler plantStarting in 1932, the Los Angeles, California plant made Plymouths and Dodge trucks, the latter moving from Stockton, California. By 1941, having gained Dodge cars as well, Los Angeles was up to 40,000 vehicles per year.

One of the features of the plant was a railroad line running into the building.

During World War II, the plant made over 40,000 aircraft engines, as well as B-17 and PV-2 cabin tops.

Even after the plant went back to car production in 1948 (adding DeSoto, and then dropping trucks in 1949), Chrysler expanded the plant in 1951 to make room for building parts for the Douglas C-124 planes and Nike-Sparrow missiles.

Following the Korean War, the plant was expanded to paint and trim bodies — before this, it had assembled cars using bodies already painted and trimmed in Detroit.

Through the 1950s, there were reportedly quality concerns at the plant, despite measures taken by management, including the use of an IBM 1710 mainframe with “a memory core of 20,000 items and the ability to call upon 2 million characters of information,” making up to 5,000 decisions per second. Seven electronic reporting centers were on the line, to prevent and record defects; cars were stopped when problems were found. Yet, several writers were convinced that Los Angeles had severe quality problems when compared with other plants.

dashboard assembly

In 1958, Los Angeles gained new flexible conveyor systems.

By 1965, the plant, at 5800 Eastern and Slauson (the southeast corner), took up 86 acres and was making 57 cars per hour, nearly one per minute. 2,100 employees worked in the plant itself, and $14 million went to 75 local companies. At that time, General Motors and Ford also had factories in the area, and in total, 15,000 people were building a half million cars per year in the area. (AMC had closed its nearby El Segundo plant in 1955).

Giles E. Wright wrote about the plant for the now-defunct Herald-Examiner (thanks to "Shoe" and the Los Angeles Public Library’s Pamela Quon and Christina Rice for passing along the article and information), pointing out that, at the time, it used enough power for a city of 28,000 people. Three tanks, of around 40,000 gallons each, were needed just for paint residues; and there were two tanks holding, together, half a million gallons of water in case of fire.

The plant made no less than 69 different models, including Valiants, Barracudas, and Darts, using over 9 miles of conveyors; each day 30 railroad cars and 70 trucks dropped off their loads to the plant.

chrysler engine

In 1969, Chrysler reported that the plant had made 71,704 cars — Valiants, Belvederes, Darts, and Coronets. That year, it began to build incinerators to dispose of volatile organic emissions from the plant.

DeSoto production stopped in 1959, and Chrysler production stopped in 1960; Dodge and Plymouth remained until 1971, when the plant was making Valiants, Darts, Belvederes, and Coronets (A and B bodies). “Shoe” wrote, “The majority of cars built for California and southwest U.S. consumption were assembled here until its closure at the end of the 1971 model year (July 1971). I've met a handful of former Chrysler Los Angeles Assembly employees, and have heard various reasons for the plant's closure (primarily, the Sylmar-San Fernando Earthquake of 1971), but have come to find out that its closure was due to lack of updated rail transport.” (AP reported that “changes in the shipping of new cars, particularly trilevel railroad carriers, made the Los Angeles operation increasing uneconomical.”)

At the time the plant was closed, around 1,200 people were still working there, roughly half of the 1965 number.

aerial view

Plymouth* 1929-1964  Barracuda 1964-1966  
Dodge* 1946-1964 Barracuda 1969-1970
DeSoto 1929-1959 Challenger 1969-1970
Chrysler 1948-1960 Dart 1959-1971
Valiant 1960-1971 Belvedere 1964-1971
Lancer 1960-1962 Coronet 1964-1971

* When no car is specified, this would most likely indicate either all models (pre-1960) or B-bodies (post-1959).

The need for locally built cars may have ended with improvements in rail transport, but demand would soon diminish; when gas prices rose, imports took off most quickly on the West Coast, which is where they landed on their voyage from Japan. California’s other plants all shut down, one by one. General Motors was the last to go, closing its Fremont plant in 1982 and the troubled Van Nuys facility in 1992. A Toyota-GM joint venture re-opened Fremont in 1984; GM pulled out in 2009. Months afterwards, Toyota closed the plant to flee to nonunion states, leaving American taxpayers with the pension bill though Toyota itself was in no financial trouble. The plant is currently used to assemble the Tesla Model S (thanks, VintageRust).

building Plymouths in Los Angeles

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Also see... Factory photos: 2009 Dodge Ram - 1995 Neon - Chrysler LeBaron Convertible - Newark Assembly Plant

Working at the plant: Dave Tyjeski (2009), Bill Wetherholt (2009), Matt Wetherholt (2009), Views (2002), Teamwork (1998)

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