Rags to riches Chrysler now pushing three-shift production plan

It's never been done in an automobile assembly plant before: building cars around the clock. But if a three-shift idea makes sense at its Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant , it could save Chrysler Corporation from having to spend up to $400 million to switch a second assembly plant to production of its hot-selling minivan.

Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers are now built exclusively inWindsor, across the Detroit River from Detroit.

Chrysler has more than 100,000 orders on the books for the two wagons and is sold out for the rest of the 1984-model year. The resurgent carmaker wants to keep a big jump ahead of the coming competition from General Motors and Ford as well as the Japanese.

The key to the success of the Chrysler minivan is that women are buying it, according to Bennett E. Bidwell, head of sales and marketing for Chrysler.

''When you break that barrier,'' he says, ''you get out of the truck universe and you become really a passenger car.

''We're now at a rate of 250,000 vehicles a year at Windsor on two shifts,'' Mr. Bidwell reports. Chrysler figures it can sell at least 350,000 units a year. ''That's an awful lot for Chrysler,'' he adds.

Ironically, it was the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) that came up with the three-shift proposal, but there are major problems in the way.

The UAW in Canada is tough, and by concentrating all minivan production in one plant, as it is now, gives the union a heavy stick.

Last year the union struck Chrysler and, if the work stoppage had gone on too long, might have pushed the corporation over the cliff. The Canadian union leadership also has refused to go along with profit sharing, a program that the union in the United States has agreed to.

If the workers again walk off the job, it would stop all minivan output at a time when the vehicles may still be in hot demand.

The company also wonders about plant maintenance as well as keeping up the quality of the vehicles themselves. If quality slips, so will the automaker, it is reasoned.

''If we can pull it off and maintain good-quality production, then that's the best of all worlds,'' Bidwell asserts.

Should the carmaker and union be unable to put the three-shift idea to work, Chrysler's top brass then faces the tough-nut decision on whether or not to switch a second assembly plant to the minivan, but there are plenty of ''ifs.''

If the economy should turn down in the next 18 to 24 months, for example, the carmaker would be stuck with two minivan plants.

Further, the capacity of the most-likely second plant is 180,000 vehicles a year, says Bidwell, far more than the company needs to take up the slack in minivans. Because of the minivan's assembly technique, a second vehicle probably could not be built in the same plant with the minivan.

Bidwell also worries that if the automaker tools up a second plant, ''we probably could not be in business till the 1986 model.'' Chrysler needs the additional vehicles now, n 18 months from now.

Meanwhile, Bidwell denies that Chrysler will return to the fat-cat image that got Detroit into so much trouble with the imports.

No one, he asserts, ''is getting giddy at the moment, although the rest of the dangers remain.''

Among them are:

* Upcoming contract negotiations with General Motors and Ford scheduled to start in July. ''If they execute a contract at $30 an hour total cost, we're back in the soup again,'' Bidwell asserts.

* Interest rates are once more starting to edge up.

''We're fighting hard to keep our break-even point at 1.1 million,'' Bidwell concludes, but concedes that ''if we go into another source for the minivan, we'll shatter thata little bit.''

A decision is expected momentarily on the three-shift proposal. If the decision is no, then a quick response to the two-plant idea is imperative.

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