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25th Anniversary of the Chrysler Minivan at the Windsor Assembly Plant

by Daniel Stern

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There's long been a Chrysler plant in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit. It is called Windsor Assembly Plant, or WAP for short. Once the Auto Pact opened the US - Canadian border to cars and components, WAP began producing cars not just for the Canadian and export markets, but for the entire North American market. In the 1960s and 1970s, Darts and Valiants were built there, followed by Cordobas and Chargers; in the early 1980s the workers at WAP built M-bodies.

Common knowledge tells us what it's like in a Big 3 auto plant. We've all seen the movie clips and the cover stories in Time and Newsweek, always with a title like "Why Detroit Can't Get it Right," and always painting the same picture of noisy, dirty, dingy, dim, grim car factories where bored, lazy, resentfully powerless workers carelessly throw together poor-quality vehicles. But common knowledge is wrong, at least at WAP, where the highly successful Voyager, Caravan, and Town & Country minivans have been built for a quarter of a century.

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When that 25th anniversary rolled round in November 2008, the global financial storm was brutally battering the auto industry. America's number-three automaker was reeling and staggering like a moth repeatedly pounced, crunched, and spit out by a sadistic cat named Daimler only to fall into the clutches of a dog named Cerberus. Prognosticators started death watches for Chrysler. Pundits chuckled and called for last rites. Chrysler's WAP workers read and watched the same news as everyone else. Everyone was telling them they'd soon be without a job or a former employer.

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If Big 3 auto workers were supposed to be lazy, resentful, and careless back when everyone in the world wanted an American car, just think what they're like when it seems their jobs have no future, right? No, wrong. WAP is populated with engaged, empowered, dedicated workers carefully building really good vehicles. This is no grey purgatory to recall scenes from "The Deer Hunter." The plant is brightly lit, astonishingly quiet, and the workers seem genuinely happy to be there-not just because it means a paycheque, but because they care about their work. It's probably because they're not just drones, but are positioned collectively as an active, real, powerful and accountable part of the vehicle production process.

Brad Smith is the leader of one of the 80 production teams at WAP, each with four to eight people. He speaks with excitement about the smart manufacturing schema in place at WAP, in which each team is responsible for minding and monitoring their performance in terms of safety, quality, delivery, cost, morale, and environment. "The power of the people has really taken over," he said. "There were some doubts at first, but this works. Everyone-workers and management-everyone's really onboard with the smart manufacturing system." There's a team meeting each day at the start of the shift. Team members evaluate their performance, discuss issues and challenges, and raise ideas and suggestions.


Those suggestions are taken seriously, too. One worker, a glass installer, describes how his idea was quickly implemented to make his job easier and save Chrysler substantial money:

Chrysler was paying the glass supplier to pack the glass pre-sorted to accord with the vehicle production sequence, so if a van was being built with standard tinted glass, then two with special tint, then one with privacy dark tint, then five with standard tint, that was the order the glass was stacked in the pallet. It cost a lot of extra money, and sometimes the glass supplier would make a mistake and get the sequence wrong. When that happened, it made problems on the line. I put in a suggestion, I said 'stop having them pre-sort the glass. Let me pick out the right glass for the vehicle in front of me. I'll pick the right glass, and it'll save a lot of money, and there'll be no more line delays because of out-of-sequence glass.' They quickly tried it out, it worked, and that's how we do it now.
There was no red tape like in the old days, no delay while the idea-if it wasn't ignored or summarily dismissed-was sent up through endless layers of bureaucracy. Instead, the worker got a reward for his good idea. An actual money reward, in addition to eliminating a source of recurring frustration from his daily work, thus encouraging him and his fellows to come up with more good ideas. [Editor's note: ironically, the sorted glass most likely was inspired by the Japanese poka-yoke system.]

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The system does work. It's almost palpable in the way workers make eye contact with the vehicles and parts they're assembling, taking care to do it right not because they fear a penalty, but because they really want to do it right. Carrots work better than sticks, as it seems; there are repair bays at the end of the assembly line, but they're empty. The workers of WAP are building defect-free vehicles that need no repairs before they're shipped out to market.

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And even before "smart manufacturing" was a phrase in use by anyone other than Toyota, back when Chrysler was deciding where to build the minivans, WAP was an obvious choice. A noted Chrysler historian wrote,

One of the reasons they chose WAP was the amazing production flexibility talent of the workforce there. Prior to the Auto Pact, WAP built 99% of what Chrysler sold in Canada. Two- and four-door cars, sedans, hardtops, wagons, convertibles, left- and right-hand-drive exports, everything. So the ability to build multiple body styles on a single line was a deeply-ingrained and well-learnt skill-and it is a skill.

When WAP was converted to build the '75 Cordoba and Charger SE, Chrysler thought they might sell fifty to eighty thousand of the cars a year. When those cars were a runaway success, they found themselves selling two hundred thousand of them a year, and WAP came through. That was still fresh in mind when they did the conversion to the minivan. They had projected whatever number, with the idea being that if they'd underestimated, Windsor had the talent and ability to meet the demand anyhow.
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Of course, the 23% exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollars helped seal the deal. [Editor's note: an insider told us that the Canadian plants often have the lowest "real" labor rate due to the exchange rate and the Canadian health system, which slashes health care costs while providing educated, healthy workers who show up on time and able to work every day.]

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Converting the 2.5 million square foot WAP for the minivans was a giant undertaking, one of the most extensive in the plant's history. The entire building was cleared out, leaving nothing but the outside walls and the support columns. Even the majority of the floor was dug up. It turns out Chrysler's hedge was well placed against possible underestimation of demand for the new minivans. Very soon after launch, they were building 456 of them per day-over a hundred and sixty-six thousand a year-with one shift of three thousand people working straight time. And they've been at it ever since, through Chrysler's ups and downs, its expatriation to Germany, its repatriation to America, and its 35% expatriation to Italy, accompanied for many years by a sister plant in the United States.

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The politicians and corporate officers on hand for the 25th anniversary event did their best to reconcile the bizarre dynamic of workers building good vehicles for an endangered company in a tumultuous industry. Reid Bigland, President and CEO of Chrysler Canada, begged the gathered workers, "Please don't read newspapers or watch TV news for the next few weeks; life will be a lot less stressful!"

Executive VP of Manufacturing and Plant Manager Marcel Breault said "The Consumer Reports article is not accurate. We are building quality minivans. We've built over twelve million of them; we must be doing something right!" It's a valid point; the Chrysler minivans rank as the world's 13th bestselling auto nameplate, command over 40% of the American minivan market and 70% of the Canadian market, have won over 260 awards, and, as CAW Local 444 president Rick LaPorte quipped, they "certainly won the cupholder wars!"

This could have been the vehicle that buried Chrysler; it could have been the Ford minivan. As a Ford executive, Lee Iacocca raised the idea only to be shot down by Henry Ford II. When he arrived to try and save Chrysler, he and Hal Sperlich accurately perceived an unserved need for a new kind of efficient, easy-to-handle, capacious vehicle, and so they went ahead with the vehicle Henry Ford had scoffed at. [Minivans had also been considered at Chrysler but had not been developed there, either.]

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It's been said-by people who were there at the time, and in a position to know-that the T115s (as the original minivans were internally known) came out as well as they did because Chrysler was so short on cash during their development. Entire layers of supervisory management were not present, there being no money to pay them, and so the engineers were unleashed, able to avoid the morass of committee-think that so often prevents good ideas seeing the light of day and dulls the keen edge of innovation. A longtime industry analyst-consultant who had a front-row seat at the time recalls,

Among other things, this meant that many of the people in the layers between the vehicle segment engineers and the top management were not there; they had been let go or laid off. This meant a lot less second-guessing from management people who were not engineers. The final vehicles came out much, much closer to the vision of the engineers than many models from the Big 3; they had not been nitpicked or nickel-and-dimed nearly as much.
And the engineers' vision was a good one; the same analyst consultant remembers "we saw some of the very rough prototypes during development and folks in the prototype shops were really excited; they knew they had a winner coming."

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The T115s were designed to meet the needs of families, and one of the family-friendly safety features got an unexpected demonstration at the presentation of car number one: The six passengers couldn't get out, because the child safety locks had been inadvertently engaged. G.H. Hohendorf, Dick Dauch [then manufacturing chief, now head of AAM], Steve Sharf, M. Lutsch, F.J. O'Reilly, and J.L. Mathis, who had intended to open the side door and emerge to wave to the assembled press, had to wait in the car until their plight was noticed and they were let out from the outside. Hey, look, everybody, the child safety locks work!

Chrysler's minivans have come a long way since the first 1984 Voyagers and Caravans rolled out of WAP. Today's vans are substantially bigger and heavier than the first models, in accord with a persistent industry tendency to make each new generation of a vehicle model bigger, fancier, and more powerful. The present vans can be had with a 4-litre six-cylinder engine nearly twice as big as the original vans' standard 2.2-litre Four. But the original Magic Wagon-a moniker born of early enthusiasm for the revolutionary new minivans-was no slouch.

Car number one was a metallic tan Plymouth Voyager LE with woodgrain appliqué exterior trim, the optional 2.6-litre Mitsubishi Astron engine, and an automatic transmission. After its brief career in the media spotlight, it was relegated to a hard life as a yard car, a company thrasher for shuttling people and stuff around the WAP grounds. Eventually a posterity-minded employee persuaded Chrysler management to rescue and restore it and put it on display. That was done; for years it had a prominent place at the WPC Museum in Auburn Hills, proudly wearing shiny new-old-stock trim and "PLYMOUTH VOYAGER" badges.

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It was on hand for the 25th anniversary press event at WAP, but a funny thing happened on the way to the party: the Plymouth Voyager LE became a Dodge Caravan LE. That wasn't a difficult swap. All it took was a different (but same-size) grille and a few nameplates. Why was it done, though? Probably to avoid embarrassment. Oh, yes, a Plymouth Voyager. We, ah, don't make those any more." *cough*. No, much better to have car number one wearing the same nameplate as the new van with the snazzy 25th-anniversary emblems on the fenders.

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The restoration may have eliminated every trace of P-word, but it didn't (couldn't) eliminate every trace of balancer chain rattle from the Mitsubishi engine most of us would rather forget (the 2.2 liter Chrysler engine, with slightly less power, was also available).

Nevertheless, the original minivan's overall design and build stand up remarkably well after two and a half decades. Sight lines are clear in all directions, it's easy to maneuver in traffic and parking lots, the ergonomics are acceptable, and there are bagloads (okay, boxloads) of space for people, cargo, fast-food wrappers and forgotten green Crayolas.

Driving the 1984 van around the expansive WAP grounds, I had a quick and easy time deciding this is a vehicle I could live with on a daily basis. Of course, my daily driver is a 1973 Dodge Dart, but even though my perspective might be politely described as well off the bell curve, the Magic Wagon worked well in '84, and it still works well 25 years later.

As for build quality, there are still scads of first-generation vans in presentable condition giving reliable service in Southern Ontario despite that region's lousy roads and heavy winter road salt usage. So much for irredeemably lousy American car design of the '80s.

Still, progress must march, and the current production minivans can be had in all kinds of configurations not on the radar back in '84, though the all-wheel-drive and short-wheelbase models available by 1989 are gone now. There are flexible-fuel models, there is an innovative and promising all-electric prototype until Chrysler (there have been years of successful electric minivans in the past), and trim and equipment levels range from basic to luxurious-there's a luxury version built for VW and badged as the Routan-to meet the demands of a wide range of buyers throughout the North American market.

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But that's not the only market for Chrysler's minivans. They're sold (and, more importantly, bought) in numerous markets around the world. Up to recently, most vans for international markets were made in Austria in Magna-Steyr's factory at Graz. But construction of the export-market vans was brought home; the BUX (Built-Up Export) units are now built at WAP.

Even so, Chrysler has no plans to make international configurations of the minivan available domestically. If you want to drive a torquey, efficient, quiet, clean-burning turbodiesel Voyager with a smooth-shifting manual transmission, you'll have to do it elsewhere than North America. That's a pity; a European-spec Chrysler Voyager with 2.5-litre common-rail turbodiesel engine set the world's record for minivan fuel efficiency. One wonders if the industry's persistent claim that Americans won't accept diesel engines is still a result of GM's disastrous experiment with quick-and-dirty dieselization of gasoline engines in the 1980s.

Of course, Chrysler's minivans have not been wholly immune from problems caused by bad decisions. The 3-litre V6 Chrysler bought from Mitsubishi is generally robust, but suffered from persistent valve guide issues that led to wisecracks about odometers being unnecessary in 3-litre Chryslers because one could just look at the tailpipe; if blue smoke were seen to spew forth from it, the vehicle had 70,000 miles on it. And everybody remembers the 41TE (née A604) ProbleMatic (née UltraDrive) transmission that spoiled Chrysler's previously sterling reputation for near-perfect automatics.

Nevertheless, the Chrysler minivans are a continuing bright spot for a battered company in a troubled industry. The soundness of the design philosophy behind them demonstrates that at the very least, this North American automaker has got this right.

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