Vans made in city take a back seat

First-quarter sales of GM's Safari, Astro plunge 40%

Vehicles called outdated

Curtailed production planned for plant on Broening Highway

May 01, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Sales of General Motors Corp. vans made in Baltimore were down nearly 40 percent during the first quarter of the year - almost seven times the rate of decline for all new cars and trucks in the United States - according to company figures released yesterday.

While new-car sales, including light-duty trucks, were off 5.8 percent for the three months that ended March 31, deliveries of sales of the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans made in Baltimore dropped 39.2 percent during the quarter.

"Sales of the Safari and Astro continue to soften," said Dan Flores, a spokesman for GM's truck group in Pontiac, Mich., which has jurisdiction over the Baltimore plant.

Flores released figures showing Safari sales totaled 5,740 in the quarter, down 42.2 percent from the corresponding period last year. Astro sales dropped 31.8 percent in the quarter to 16,318.

These declines have already prompted GM to curtail production at the Broening Highway plant.

The company will close the plant next week and lay off 1,000 production workers. The previously announced shutdown is scheduled to last a week, with workers returning to their jobs on May 14.

Industry analysts point to several reasons for the declining consumer appeal of the Astro and the Safari.

"They are long in the tooth," said David E. Cole, executive director of the center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. He pointed out that the rear-wheel-drive vans have not had a major face lift since their introduction in 1984 for the 1985 model year.

Despite the vans' declining sales in recent years and the sharp drop this year, George E. Hoffer, an auto analyst and professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, called the Astro and Safari "survivors" and expressed surprise that they have lasted this long.

"They have always [been] rated poorly by Consumer Reports," he said.

The magazine has repeatedly criticized the vans for being "seriously outclassed by more modern competitors," their truck-like feel, uncomfortable ride and skimpy foot room in the front.

"Nor have they had much support from GM in terms of advertising," said Hoffer. "So GM can blame itself for their poor sales."

A few years ago, workers at the plant took it upon themselves to come up with an ad campaign designed to boost sales and help safeguard their jobs.

"We didn't have a lot of money," said Charles R. Alfred, past president of United Auto Workers union Local 239, which represents production workers at the GM plant.

Alfred, currently an international representative with the UAW, said the campaign "was probably about $90,000 total. The workers paid for it. GM refused to help. They said they had their own ad campaign, and this area was not conducive to van sales."

The money paid for radio commercials aired during Baltimore Orioles games. They ad pointed out that the vans were made in Baltimore by union workers living in the area.

Alfred said he hoped the campaign would have prompted state, city and county government agencies to purchase the Baltimore-built vans for their fleets.

"It was sad," Alfred said. "We tried to blow our own horn, and we didn't get anywhere. We have a product made here, and they didn't buy any."

Lee Dorsey, current president of Local 239, said the union has repeatedly asked GM to upgrade the Astro and Safari in recent years.

"We're still waiting for their decision from Detroit," he said.

In recent years, GM has said only that it will continue producing the Astro and Safari in Baltimore until the third quarter of 2003. After that, it says, the market for the van will determine the future of the Baltimore assembly plant.

"They are survivors," Hoffer said, "but the days of the Astro and Safari could be numbered."

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