GM van plant boosts output Production increases 45% to meet buying demand of families

10-hour work shifts

Interiors are altered

local suppliers benefit from added work load

April 07, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

General Motors Corp. has increased production by as much as 45 percent at its van plant in Southeast Baltimore to meet continuing strong demand for the 11-year-old vehicle.

Workers at the sprawling plant are working overtime -- sometimes up to 18 extra hours a week -- to produce up to 5,800 Chevrolet Astros and GMC Safari vans a week, up from about 4,000.

The production increase kicked in when the workers returned to their jobs on March 25, after an 18-day strike by United Auto Workers in Dayton, Ohio, halted all of GM's vehicle production in the United States and Canada. The overtime, however, is not a result of the strike; it had been scheduled beforehand.

The strike closed the Baltimore plant and laid off its 2,600 hourly workers. It also forced at least four area manufacturers that produce parts for the vans, ranging from seats to dashboards, to trim their output and lay off some workers.

Those suppliers, who deliver parts under a just-in-time inventory system, are now scrambling to adjust their own production schedules to that of the GM plant.

The vehicle's longevity stems from its appeal to a segment of the market GM did not anticipate when it first introduced the the vans in 1985 -- families.

Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the minivans rolling off the Broening Highway line are bought as passenger vehicles -- just the opposite of what GM initially expected. The bulk of the sales, GM's van designers had thought, would be in the commercial markets.

A response to higher fuel prices that resulted from the 1979 energy crises, the smaller vans were designed to provide a more fuel efficient vehicle for corporate fleets and for plumbers, electrical contractors and other small businesses. At the time, GM estimated that the commercial version of the van would account for 80 percent of its market.

While GM may have erred in its initial reading of the market, it was quick to make the adjustment. GM it is still making refinements to enhance the vehicles' appeal to consumers.

The 1996 models feature a completely refurbished interior with driver and passenger air bags.

The dashboard has been reorganized to put the radio, heating and air conditioning controls within easier reach. Other dashboard changes include a centrally located locking glove box, passenger assist handles and a two-cup convenience tray.

Legroom for the front passenger has been increased and there are overhead reading lamps for front and middle passengers. Ducts carry heat to rear passengers. The sliding side door has a child-prevention lock and child safety seats are optional.

Surveying consumers

GM held clinics and took surveys to find out what its customers wanted in the vans, said Jeffrey S. Kuhlman, a spokesman for the Baltimore plant.

"We met with people who drive the van and with with those who drive a competitor's product. We listened to them and we really think we have picked up on what they wanted."

Critics point out that the Astro and Safari have not undergone a major change since first rolling off the assembly line. Consumer Reports recently panned the vans, saying they drive more like a trucks than cars.

GM does not apologize for the vehicles' handling.

"That is not necessarily a criticism," said Mr. Kuhlman. "Our customers are buying it for its truck-like attributes -- hauling and towing capabilities.

"I don't know that we should be put off by the fact that it drives like a truck because they get the benefit of a truck-like vehicle. You will not get the same towing and passenger capability in the smaller minivans. We call ours a mid-size van. In terms of cargo capacity, it's larger than the Chrysler vans or the Ford Windstar."

New models

For customers seeking a more car-like van, GM last week introduced five models of its new front-wheel-drive minivans, which will be sold domestically as the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette.

The European versions are the Opel Sintra, to be sold in Germany and elsewhere in western Europe; and the right-hand drive Vauxhall Sintra, to be sold in Britain.

The new minivans are not expected to have a significant impact on Astro and Safari sales. "They could cannibalize Astro and Safari sales a bit, but they are really different vehicles and don't compete directly," said David Healy, an auto analyst with Durnham Securities.

The Astro and Safari are not scheduled for a complete alteration until after the turn of the century.

Despite their dated styling, they have been holding their own in the market. Sales of the Astro, which accounts for most of GM's production here, are up 17 percent for the year-to-date and Safari sales are running 3.4 percent ahead of the 1995 pace.

Baltimore 'niche'

"Baltimore has found a niche in the van market and its has been pretty good for that plant," said David E. Cole, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

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