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Chrysler’s Short-Lived Chicago Plant

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Chrysler's Short-Lived Chicago Plant

Chrysler made B-29 engines and perhaps a few miracles at the world's largest factory; then Tucker took it over.

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Before Chrysler: Maxwell's Chicago plant

For 1906, Maxwell needed more production capacity, and opened a factory (its third) in Chicago. This plant was later shut down after the huge New Castle production facility was opened.

The war years: building aircraft engines in Chicago

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After Pearl Harbor, the Army Air Corps pushed the B-29 bomber program forward; needing a new source of Wright Cyclone engines for the big planes, they turned to Chrysler. While Wright engineers scoffed at the idea of an automaker being able to build airplane engines at all, much less in the quantities and at the prices Keller suggested, the joke would be on them.

The job fell to Dodge Division, then led by Fred J. Lamborn; L.L. "Tex" Colbert, a future president, was named general manager, while another future president, William C. Newberg, was Chief Engineer. (Other employees included C. J. Synder, Master Mechanic; W. H. Eddy, Production Manager; H. J. Laidlaw, Plant Engineer; and A. Hilverkus, Planning Superintendent, according to Stout's history, Great Engines and Great Planes). Wright itself was just testing their 18-cylinder radial engines at the time, at their plant in Paterson, New Jersey. The big engines had not even undergone extensive drawing (committing the existing prototype to detailed blueprints for manufacturing).

Building the Dodge Chicago plant

The government chose a site in Chicago for the plant; and factory architect Albert Kahn worked with Chrysler to develop an innovative factory design that used half the steel per square foot that a conventional building would, saving 9,200 tons of steel (enough for 14 destroyers or over 600 medium-sized tanks). The major innovation was a new type of overhead arch-rib construction, which had holes ready for attaching rails, trolleys, pipes, and other equipment.

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The Chicago plant used 30 million square feet of lumber to support concrete forms during construction, enough wood for 2,000 four-room houses. 150 train-car loads of sand, cement, and stone were brought in every day during construction; two mixing mills were devoted to it. Using asbestos sheets instead of sheet-metal ductwork saved 650 tons of galvanized iron; new design methods also saved 100 tons of copper from the wiring.

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Factory construction (by the George A. Fuller Company, prime contractor) broke ground in June, 1942 and proceeded day and night. Sixteen of the buildings were brought in by March, 1943; they would house more than 9,000 metal-working and fabrication machines and complete support tooling.

A year later, the 6.3 million square foot, 19-building complex was finished; the main building was 82 acres large, with 22 air-conditioned acres to support the precision assembly processes. Even in 1942, it cost $173 million. The plant used 4.3 million bricks, housed over 6,000 machine tools, had 23 cafeterias for thousands of employees, was able to handle 10 million gallons of water per day, and had enough service connections to cover Terre Haute, Indiana. Over 16,000 people were employed in building the plant; and 1,200 Chrysler personnel were involved in planning and layout of the manufacturing.

The Chicago plant was unique, taking in aluminum and magnesium "pigs" and converting them completely to finished engines. In another "first," newly-completed engines were tested by connecting them directly to induction motors to generate electricity, yielding about a quarter of the electricity the plant needed.

Machinery and tooling was being put into place, and engines started slowly coming off the line in January 1944; the target was then raised to 1,600 engines per month. Chrysler was already beating their schedule by June, and storing engines for later assembly.

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Building the Wright Cyclone aircraft engines: better, cheaper

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There were well over 6,000 design changes, usually involving groups of parts; and 48,500 engineering releases and change notices. The engine had to be virtually re-engineered while in production as Dodge personnel fixed flaws and responded to real-world problems; 120 graduate engineers, plus assistants, worked with 26 major improvements, such as pre-stressed pistons, shot-peened rods, high-pressure polishing, fuel injection at 2,500 psi with tolerances to millionths of an inch, and supercharging. Industrial diamonds were used in the boring of piston pin holes. Chrysler's Superfinish was used to advantage.

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Cooling was a major issue; Wright went from 40 to 54 aluminum fins on each cylinder barrel, and engineers worked on exhaust valves throughout the program. Dodge-Chicago designed the ignition harness that went into production. Engine life was gradually doubled from 200 hours between overhauls to 400.

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Dodge Chicago engines were used interchangeably with Wright's, and as time went on and Dodge surpassed their goals, they provided most of the engines - 18,413 engines for 3,628 B-29s.

Dodge-Chicago cut the cost of each engine from $25,314 plus a fee of $1,519 to $11,537 (fee, $580) and $12,954 for the fuel-injected version. A new 1942 Dodge sedan had cost $1,048.

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Chrysler also built 568 nose sections, 559 sets of leading wing edges, 5,000 cowlings, Martin B-26 bomber noses, center sections, and wing flaps, Corsair landing gears and arrestors, aluminum forgings, and numerous other aviation and artillery products.

(Full history of Chrysler and the B-29 bomber)

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After the war

Mike Sealey wrote, "The WWII Dodge-Chicago plant went on to become an auto assembly plant...but Chrysler never built cars or trucks there. Preston Tucker purchased it as a war surplus property, and all prototypes after the original 'Tin Goose' were assembled there."

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The Tucker Corporation acquired the Chicago Dodge Plant from the War Assets Administration; it was still the largest factory in the world, at the time. Unfortunately, a combination of attacks from Drew Pearson, Tucker's chairman (Harry Toulmin, Jr.), and the SEC, which claimed it had a detailed report on Tucker's wrongdoing but never made it public (leaking some of it to Collier's), led to a farcical trial in which Tucker lost the factory and its funding, but was found not guilty on all counts. Only 50 Tuckers had been made, and mass production was ready, with tooling and blueprints set up. (The Federal prosecutor in the case, Otto Kerner, Jr., later became the first federal appellate judge in history to be jailed, after a conviction for bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and stock fraud.)

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After Tucker folded, Ford bought the Dodge-Chicago plant for vehicle production, though they sold their own enormous Willow Run aircraft assembly plant to Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, who operated it as their home plant until they sold it to GM, which used it for transmissions and to build the Corvair. Ford later took Chicago out of auto production; around half the building is now the corporate headquarters of Tootsie Roll Industries, and around half is called the "Ford City Mall" (a triumph for Ford marketing), with an open space between them.

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