In an ominous sign for its future, General Motors Corp.'s 69-year-old assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore lost nearly a third of its manufacturing efficiency last year, a closely watched study of automotive productivity showed yesterday.
The factory, which makes the dated GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro vans, placed last in the minivan segment in a study that tracks the number of hours it takes to build a new vehicle by company and by plant for North American automobile makers.
The annual Harbour Report, which has been published since 1989, also showed that Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. widened their lead in North American automaking efficiency over GM and Ford Motor Co. DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler had the biggest gain.
But GM's Broening Highway plant, which has been targeted for possible closure by next year, turned in disappointing numbers.
Productivity at the plant dropped to 38.61 labor hours per vehicle in 2003 from 29.59 hours it took to make a vehicle in 2002, when it ranked third in the minivan segment, according to the survey.
The plant came in last - in fifth place - in the minivan segment. Another GM plant, however, placed first. GM Doraville, in Georgia, which makes the Montana, Silhouette and Venture, placed first with a 23.61 hours per vehicle.
The Baltimore GM plant lost so much of its efficiency because volume fell by 37 percent, but labor hours were only reduced by 17 percent, said Michelle Hill, the senior manager of the North American Harbour Report who analyzes the report's findings for Harbour Consulting. That created an imbalance of too many workers to produce too few vans, she said.
"When a product is just not selling, you can't rebalance and lay off people as quickly as you need to," she said. "They had too many people and became less efficient."
Dan Flores, a spokesman for GM manufacturing, blamed the drop in productivity on the weeks of downtime at the plant last year as the plant adjusted its production to slower sales of the two rear-wheel drive models, which have not undergone a substantial redesign since they were introduced in 1984.
"It was all market-driven downtime, where we had to take downtime to better align with demand for the products built there," he said. "That certainly has an impact on the overall productivity level of the plant. When the plant has to take downtime, it has a negative impact on the operation."
"While on paper this obviously is a drop in productivity, we know that the men and women of Baltimore are working hard, and they're doing everything they can do to control the things they can control," Flores said.
With sales dwindling for the GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro vans - the only two models made in Baltimore, rumors have circulated for years that GM would close the plant, which builds 50,000 vans a year. Employment has fallen to 1,400 workers - down from more than 7,000 in the 1970s.
Over the past several years, the plant has adjusted its production, eliminating one of two shifts and slowing down the assembly line based on market demand.
Rumors became closer to reality last fall when the automaker negotiated a new four-year contract with the United Automobile Workers of America that listed the Baltimore plant as one of three facilities that could close.
Yesterday Flores reiterated GM's long-held position that it has not made a decision about the plant beyond 2005. Van production is scheduled to continue until the summer of 2005, and its future after that will depend on market conditions, he said.
City and state officials have been campaigning to persuade GM to retool the plant to produce a new vehicle. A delegation led by Gov. Robert L. Ehlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley journeyed to Detroit in December to plead the case for keeping the plant in operation.
But experts say an expensive retooling of the plant for a new model is unlikely.
Walter "Bud" Plummer, president of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers, which represents employees at the plant, was traveling and unavailable for comment yesterday.
The annual automotive survey also showed that Nissan led for a 10th straight year with an average 17.3 hours to assemble a vehicle in 2003. Honda edged Toyota for second, followed by GM, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Ford and Chrysler, which cut two hours from its time.
Honda, Japan's third-biggest automaker, moved ahead of Toyota by 2.4 minutes as it reduced its time to 20.65 hours. Toyota, Asia's largest automaker, averaged 20.69 hours.
General Motors, the world's largest automaker, improved to 23.6 hours from 24.4. But the gap between General Motors and the slowest of the three biggest Japanese makers widened from 2002's 2.1 hours to 2.9 hours last year. Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, cut its average to 25.4 hours from 26.1, and Chrysler improved to 26 hours from 28. The industry average was 24.1 hours.
Among individual plants, Nissan's factory in Smyrna, Tenn., that produces the Altima ranked at the top of the list at 15.33 hours per vehicle, establishing a new industry standard. Smyrna broke its own mark of 15.74 set last year.
Harbour estimates that Nissan led in profit per North American-built vehicle last year at $2,402, followed by Toyota's $1,742, Honda's $1,488 and GM's $178. Chrysler lost $496 per vehicle and Ford lost $48.
Bloomberg News and the Associated Press contributed to this article.