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.
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."
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 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.
Mr. Cole noted that the plant here has a near monopoly on the market for rear-wheel-drive vans its size.
The Ford Aerostar is its main competitor. Ford had planned to phase out the Aerostar two years ago when it introduced its new front-wheel-drive Windstar. An outcry from its customers, however, prompted Ford to change its mind.
According to automotive industry insiders, Ford is expected to drop the Aerostar later this year or next. "If that happens, it would be a boon to Baltimore," said Mr. Cole.
Ford spokesman John B. Tome said no decision has been made regarding the future of the Aerostar.
As of now the Baltimore plant is scheduled to operate two 10-hour daily shifts until early June. At least three Saturdays have been scheduled over this span and more could be added.
The increased work is a welcome development to workers at the Baltimore plant.
"They are pleased to see the overtime," said Rodney A. Trump, president of United Auto Workers Local 239 which represents the hourly workers at the Baltimore plant. "When we were down for a while it cut into their income. This will give them a little additional money to help them recover."
Mr. Trump said the overtime is reassuring. "It says, the demand for the product is not just still there, but that it is still very strong. That's our job security."
"They [the vans] are a top priority with GM," said Mr. Trump. "You saw that we were up and running the first day after the strike ended."
Suppliers have adjusted their operations accordingly.
"We work under a just-in-time inventory system," said M. Dennis Sisolak, manager of the Johnson Controls Inc. plant in Belcamp, which makes seats for the vans. "What they build, we build. When they work overtime, we work overtime. When they work on Saturday, we work on Saturday."
It is pretty much the same at Monarch Manufacturing Inc., another Belcamp company that supplies the dashboards and consoles for the Astro and Safari vans. "When they work on Saturday, we are right here with them," said Jeff Testerman, plant manager.
Mr. Testerman said his plant gets a computer printout from the GM plant every minute that details the flow of vans moving along the assembly line in Baltimore.
"We have to coordinate our production so that the right color part is coming out of the box just as the van that it is to be used on moves into place," Mr. Testerman said.
"Fortunately, he said, "our line is a little faster than their's and we can build up a little inventory. This gives our people a break from working 10 hours every day."
Dan Quickel, assistant general manager at Marada Industries Inc., a Westminster supplier of steel structural parts, said the company may hire four or five additional workers and may have to operate on Sundays to meet GM's increased van production.
Mr. Quickel called GM's decision to increase van production "great news. It's a lot easier to schedule increased business than to try to find work for people to do the way we had to during the strike."
Pub Date: 4/07/96