With prospects brightening that General Motors may add a third shift at its bustling Broening Highway plant, Baltimore's automotive future seems assured at least till the end of the century. The Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari minivans made in Baltimore and only in Baltimore have carved out a lucrative market niche that is keeping area suppliers busy and Broening employees working overtime. All this adds an estimated $1 billion to the local economy.
The surge in demand for Baltimore-made vans is part of an astounding nationwide comeback for the Detroit Big Three -- GM, Ford and Chrysler. Only 18 months ago they were still in the doldrums due to recession and continuing inroads by Japanese imports. But a more expensive yen now gives American manufacturers an average per-vehicle $1,500 price advantage as compared to the $1,000 disadvantage of the Eighties. Big Three productivity and profits are way up and minivans lead the pack.
Although Chrysler and Ford dominate the field, Astros and Safaris offer certain advantages that make them solid sellers. With a rear-wheel drive, they have stronger towing power than front-wheel drive Chrysler vans and the new Ford Windstar. This, plus rugged construction, makes them attractive both for commercial and normal driving use.
According to Automotive News, sales of Astros went up 8.4 percent and Safaris up 18.5 percent last year. The continuing demand is such that the plant is now operating two ten-hour shifts plus what a union official describes as "a lot of Saturdays." It is this pressure that has caused management to consider a number of options that could include a third shift, as has been the case at two GM light-truck plants, or adding more workers in a "third crew arrangement." The company, however, cautions against over-optimism, saying final decisions have not yet been made.
We prefer to remain optimistic. GM's huge investment in the aging Broening facility a decade ago has done much to keep Baltimore's manufacturing tradition alive. Public officials were wise to help in upgrading public infrastructure at the plant site and in sidestepping Clean Air Act requirements that could have goaded GM to make its next-generation vans elsewhere.
Last June a company spokeswoman said GM had "no plans to shift production out of Baltimore," though she added, "There are no guarantees." Since then, the Big Three turnaround that has sent productivity, profits and share prices skyward comes as close to being a "guarantee" as any Baltimorean could hope for.