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by David Zatz
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 make Plymouth and Dodge cars in April 1957, and eventually made 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.
The Newark plant built its first 67,000 Plymouth cars in 1957; in 1959, they hired more people, reaching 4,300 workers. Newark shared the new 1960 Valiant with St. Louis, continuing to make other the Plymouths and Dodges.
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 plant so it could build the K-based “AA body” Plymouth Acclaim and Dodge Spirit, joined in 1990 by the similar Chrysler LeBaron.
In 1993, Newark started making the first Dodge Intrepid — a completely different car, and arguably the first truly ground-up Chrysler Corp. car since the Reliant. It was joined by Chrysler Concorde in 1994.
In 1997, Chrysler put $623 million into the Newark plant to get ready for the Dodge Durango. Plant manager James A. Wolfe said that 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.”
To make the Durango, they added a $319 million paint shop, a new training facility, new material handling fleet, and new electric torque controls on the assembly line; they also upgraded the 1.2-mile test track. The paint shop switched to environmentally-friendly, reformulated lead-free E-coat primers and water-borne paints, with other measures to decrease volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
A suddenly ramp-up in fuel prices, coupled with a sharp and sudden economic recession and stock plunge, slashed demand for the Durango and Aspen, even though hybrid-electric versions of the SUVs helped increase their efficiency. Newark had 2,115 employees in 2005 — and just 1,100 in 2008 — but with sales of its two products in the dumps, an aging building, and Chrysler losing money, something had to give. Chrysler closed the plant in December, 2008.
The property was eventually sold to the University of Delaware for around $24 million; the University documented the plant, demolished it, rehabilitated the 272-acre property, and built a new extension campus on the site. They also published a commemorative book, including numerous photos of the factory through the years.
Do you have memories of the Newark plant you want to share? Contact us!
Nearby, the parts distribution center also closed in 2008.
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