Parts plant may benefit from GM plans

AUTO INDUSTRY

April 30, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

If General Motors Corp. boosts production at its Baltimore van plant, as is being considered, the folks at the A. O. Smith Corp. auto parts manufacturing plant in Belcamp are in good position to pick up a big slice of new business.

The Harford County plant, which employs 72 and supplies engine frames and other structural components used in the Baltimore-built Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, has been honored with GM's most prestigious supplier award -- the Mark of Excellence.

Fewer than 8 percent of GM's 3,600 suppliers have qualified for the award that has to do with the quality and cost of parts `D produced and the timeliness of deliveries.

To meet the strong demand for the vans made in Baltimore, GM said this week, it is looking at a number of options to boost production, including the possibility of adding a third shift to its assembly line.

A recent decision by chief competitor Ford Motor Co. may have some influence on GM's final decision.

Last year, when Ford announced that it would replace its rear-wheel-drive Aerostar van with the new, more car-like, front-wheel-drive Windstar, the move was viewed by industry officials as more of a benefit than a threat to the GM's Astro and Safari vans.

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, said Ford's move would have actually strengthened the Baltimore plant's niche in the market.

It would have given the local plant a near-monopoly in the rear-wheel-drive minivan market, he said, noting that Mazda also makes a rear-drive van, but it doesn't have nearly the power of the GM models.

But Ford, responding to the same surge in demand for minivans that has GM boosting production, has changed its mind about the Aerostar.

Earlier this month, Ford announced that it will continue building the vehicle at its St. Louis assembly plant. The automaker's original plan was to halt production of the Aerostar at the plant, then convert the facility over to building another hot-seller, its Explorer sport-utility vehicle. Ford says it will now build the Aerostar and the Explorer on the same assembly line.

Ford said its decision was based on stronger-than-anticipated customer demand for the Aerostar -- including demand from customers specifically seeking rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

Rear-wheel drive vans have more towing capacity than front-wheel-drive models and offer the capability of going four-wheel drive, a popular feature not available on front-wheel-drive vehicles, Mr. Cole said.

Dream machines

If price were no object, what car would you you buy? The people at MotorWeek, the weekly automotive TV show produced by Maryland Public Television, have come up with their selections for the current model year.

MotorWeek Best Dream Machine awards go to the Porsche 911, Ferrari 348 Spider and the American General Hummer, a civilian version of the military's super-rugged Humvee.

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