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A century of auto history ends as Kenosha plant closes

by Bill Cawthon on
Worker at Kenosha Engine Plant

Chrysler employee works the line at an engine plant

There won’t be any ceremonies marking the occasion, but today the last engine will be machined at Chrysler’s Kenosha Engine Plant. A few engines may be finished next week, but the end has come not only for the history of a plant built 93 years ago, but more than a century of automotive production in Kenosha and Wisconsin.

The history of automobiles at Kenosha goes back to 1902, a year before Henry Ford formed Ford Motor Company, when Thomas Jeffery began producing the Rambler. Jeffery was the second mass-producer of cars in America, following Ransom Olds.

The Kenosha assembly plant was built in 1917, after Thomas Jeffrey died. Charles Nash bought the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company in 1916 and renamed it Nash Motors. Nash eventually merged with Hudson to form AMC.

Nash, Rambler and AMC cars rolled off the assembly line until 1987, when Chrysler bought AMC. Chrysler ended automobile production in Kenosha in 1987 but kept the engine facility open. Since the late 1990s, the plant has produced the 2.7-liter V-6 engine currently used for the Chrysler 300 and Sebring as well as the Dodge Avenger, Charger and Journey. Since 2003, the plant has also built the 3.5-liter, V-6 engine for those vehicles.

At one time, 14,000 employees worked for AMC in Kenosha. Today that number has dwindled to 550, including 481 hourly workers, most of whom will be offered jobs in other Chrysler facilities.

As recently as 2008, Wisconsin had two Delphi plants, a GM truck plant in Janesville and the Chrysler operation in Kenosha. Chrysler was the last to leave. There are still a number of automotive suppliers in Wisconsin but none of the major automakers has a production facility in the state.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for just-auto.com, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.


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