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Van-sales spike cancels idling of GM plant


A big jump in sales of the two vans made by General Motors Corp. in Baltimore has forced the company to cancel a planned one-week closing of the plant next month.

Sales of the Astro jumped 18.7 percent in August, on top of a nearly 5 percent gain in July, according to Dan Flores, a GM manufacturing spokesman.

The Astro's sister vehicle, the GMC Safari, actually had a bigger percentage jump, Flores said, with sales up nearly 31 percent last month.

But the Broening Highway plant produces more than three times as many Astro vans as it does Safaris.

"This is great news," said Walter "Bud" Plummer, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers union. "It makes all the workers at the plant feel great."

Plummer expressed hope that the sales gain will extend the plant's life and increase its chances of landing a new product.

GM announced in June that it would extend production at the Baltimore plant until at least the third quarter of 2005.

It had previously faced the threat of closing in the fall of 2003.

Flores said the market for the vans will determine their future and possibly the future of the 67-year-old plant after 2005.

He said GM's long-term production schedule had listed the Baltimore plant to close the week of Oct. 14 with the layoff of about 1,000 of its 1,600 workers.

"This was based on our projection of truck sales across the board," Flores said. "But truck sales, and Astro sales, have been stronger than earlier anticipated. The market is telling us to remove the down week scheduled for Baltimore."

Brian Goebel, a spokesman for the Baltimore plant, said it benefited from favorable publicity earlier this year that seems to have attracted consumers' attention.

In late May, the Baltimore plant was credited with a 16 percent improvement in the quality of the Astro and Safari by J.D. Power & Associates, well above GM's overall quality improvement of 11 percent.

The study, in its 16th year, is considered the industry benchmark for new-vehicle quality.

Two weeks after the J.D. Power study was released, another carefully watched industry study credited the Baltimore plant for a gain in productivity last year.

The Harbour Report noted that, while the gain was small - less than 1 percent - it was a remarkable achievement on the part of the plant's workers considering the plant's age and the age of the vans made here.

The Astro and Safari were introduced in 1984 and have not undergone a major redesign. Such redesigns generally make vehicles easier, and faster, to assemble.

The Baltimore vans also benefit from high trade-in value.

George E. Hoffer, an economics professor with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said Astro and Safari hold their value better than any of the other Big Three vans on the market.

He said a 1996 Safari passenger van has retained 35.1 percent of its original value, compared with 33.2 percent for the same-year Dodge Caravan and 26.9 percent for the Ford Aerostar van.

The jump in van sales here is also good news for about a dozen companies in the metropolitan area that supply a variety of parts, including seats, dashboards and structure components, to the GM van plant.

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