photos by Thomas Mize, December 2008
Chrysler’s 3.4 million square foot plant in Newark, Delaware, was built in 1951 to produce tanks for the U.S. Army. The plant was converted to Plymouth and Dodge production in April 1957, starting a run of nearly 7 million cars, including the LH series (Intrepid and Concorde), the AA bodies (EEKs) (Acclaim, Spirit, LeBaron), and the legendary A-body Valiant and Dart before starting Dodge Durango production. In 1969 alone, the Newark plant produced 186,177 Plymouth Furys, Dodge Polaras, and C-body Chryslers.
Chrysler first bought the plant in 1938 for a parts depot; in 1951, work began on a tank factory there, and by mid-1952, Chrysler’s 3,000 workers had begun full scale tank production. In 1956, after the Korean War ended, the tank plant started a five-year phase-out process, and a 1.5 million square foot Plymouth plant started construction.
In 1957, Newark’s first 67,000 Plymouth cars were built; more workers were added in 1959, totalling 4,300 people. In 1960, the brand new Valiant, started production in Newark and St. Louis; the plant also made “normal” Plymouths and Dodges, and the Dodge Dart (not yet a clone of the Valiant).
1961 brought the final closure of the Newark tank plant. Three years later, a second shift joined the Plymouth car plant, which built its millionth car in 1965. More workers were hired over time, and in 1969, 5,100 people worked there. The plant continued to build cars for Plymouth and Dodge.
In 1980, during Chrysler’s brush with bankruptcy, Delaware became the first state to approve loaning Chrysler money, in this case $5 million, as part of a Federal requirement for loan guarantees. The loan would be paid off fairly quickly, and paid off as the plant stayed open and, indeed, was quickly retooled to build the K-cars in 1981.
In 1988, Chrysler spent over $300 million to retool the Newark plant so it could build the K-based Plymouth Acclaim and Dodge Spirit, joined in 1990 by Chrysler LeBaron. In 1993, the first Dodge Intrepid was produced by the Newark plant; it was joined by Chrysler Concorde in 1994.
In 1997, Chrysler put $623 million into the Newark plant to ready it for the Dodge Durango. According to plant manager James A. Wolfe, a nearby simulation building, similar to Checkboard Square, “allowed us to duplicate in exact terms the manufacturing process in a real-world environment, well before actual production began. We were able to create each job site, map out each station, and then carry it over in its precise measurements to the manufacturing floor. All this was done using the existing workforce, which will help reduce variability and improve vehicle quality.”
A $319 million paint shop was added, as well as a new training facility, an upgraded 1.2-mile test track, new material handling fleet, and new electric torque controls on the assembly line. The Durango paint shop used environmentally-friendly, reformulated lead-free E-coat primers and water-borne paints, with other measures to decrease volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
The plant was closed in December, 2008 due to falling sales of the Durango / Aspen. It had just started producing hybrid-electric versions of both vehicles, and had 1,100 employees, down from 2,115 in 2005. The plant was reportedly showing signs of age in its infrastructure.
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Nearby, the parts distribution center also closed in 2008.
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