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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2005

Rolling toward history: After 95 years, plant on Jeep Parkway near end of its run

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Jeep Parkway has pumped out roughly 11 million vehicles in 95 years, from Overland cars to the latest incarnation of the famed World War II Jeep.

In the second decade of the last century the Toledo factory was home to the nation s second-largest automaker, Willys-Overland Motor Co. In the following 10 years it reached peak employment of 23,000.

During World War II it built not only Jeeps but also trailers, 155-mm. shells, aircraft parts, rockets, and other military equipment.

It has survived various owners and labor disputes over the decades. It exported vehicles or parts in so-called kits for production worldwide. It made two civilian Jeep models, the CJ-5 and original Wagoneer, for nearly 30 years each. And churned out nearly 2.9 million Jeep XJ models alone, mostly under the Cherokee name.

Jeep Parkway s run as the nation s longest-producing auto factory will come to an end a year from now after DaimlerChrysler AG stops building Jeep Wranglers there and starts production of the redesigned sport-utility vehicle at a $900 million multi-factory plant a few miles away.

Although Chrysler hasn t announced Jeep Parkway s ultimate fate, most expect the plant s remaining buildings to be demolished as others on the site have been through the years.

With Jeep Parkway s last buildings undoubtedly will go the smokestacks emblazoned with the Overland name, signaling the end of an era.

It s been the heart of nearly every family here, local Jeep historian and retiree Ron Szymanski said of the factory. They made their lives there. They sent their kids through college so they didn t have to work there.

The multi-factory plant being built by Chrysler and three key suppliers is joining the four-year-old Toledo North Assembly Plant next door to replace Jeep Parkway.

Next year those plants will produce not only the redesigned Wrangler and Jeep Liberty, for which Toledo North was built, but also a four-door version of the Wrangler and a Dodge SUV off the Liberty platform believed to be modeled on the Nitro concept.

Still, United Auto Workers Local 12, which represents about 4,000 hourly Jeep workers, isn t ready to let go of Jeep Parkway.

Dan Henneman, Local 12 s Jeep unit chairman, submitted a proposal to Chrysler that outlines the benefits of retaining Jeep Parkway s press shop to stamp body parts for the redesigned Wrangler and replacements for the current model.

Eventually, Chrysler should build a press shop on newly vacated land on the Jeep Parkway site to stamp body parts for the roughly 500,000 vehicles that will be made annually in Toledo, said Bruce Baumhower, Local 12 s president.

I hope Chrysler keeps it, and that gives us something more to work on for the future, he said of the land at Jeep Parkway.

Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz said the company will need to do environmental and other assessments before determining what to do with Jeep Parkway.

Current plans call for closing all of the plant as well as the Stickney Avenue factory where the Wrangler undergoes final assembly, he said.

Automotive historian and author Patrick Foster said he has mixed feelings about the final days of Jeep Parkway. It s surprising the plant has operated as long as it has, and at least Jeeps will continue to be built in Toledo, he said.

The old car person in me mourns the loss of a factory like that, Mr. Foster said.

The press shop for which Local 12 hopes to win at least a temporary reprieve is housed in Jeep Parkway s oldest structure, built in 1910 when John North Willys started expanding the Pope Motor Car Co. plant he bought the year before.

(The only remaining Pope Motor building, built around 1885 by Jewel Sewing Machine Co. on Central Avenue, was sold around the 1940s.)

The plant s early history is riddled with struggles including a 10-month strike and financial problems. In those days, cars with names such as Overland, Willys Knight, Whippet, and Willys Americar were built there, and war munitions were the primary product during World War I.

What clearly put the factory on the map, however, was Willys-Overland s prototype for a general-purpose Army vehicle during World War II, which would become known the world over as the Jeep.

During the war, Willys-Overland assembled more than 361,000 MA and MB Jeeps in Toledo, using bodies made by an Indiana company and getting paid nearly $465 million for them.

The automaker s specifications were used by Ford Motor Co. and American Bantam Car Co. to make Jeeps, too.

Workers in the sprawling Toledo plant off Central Avenue made a variety of other products for the war, and the Army rented one building for a medical depot.

Among war products made at the plant were more than 4.3 million 155-mm. artillery shells, nearly 2 billion bullet cores, about 6,000 sets of aircraft landing gear, and nearly 1,300 robombs, a version of a German rocket that ended up not being used during the war.

There was just tons of stuff, said Mr. Szymanski, the local historian whose father worked at the plant.

With the war ending, Willys-Overland turned to making Jeeps for civilians in the Toledo plant, starting with the CJ-2A in 1945, to mixed results.

After a few years making Aero-Willys cars in the early 1950s, the Toledo plant spent the last five decades concentrating primarily on Jeeps.

Willys-Overland copyrighted the brand name in 1946. It introduced the Willys Jeep Station Wagon, Willys Jeep Pick-Up, CJ-3B, and the Jeepster a sporty open-air car that proved unpopular except with collectors in quick succession before that decade s end.

Versions of all could have places in the lineup of the Toledo-born Jeep brand under its latest owner, including two car-like models expected to be made in Belvidere, Ill., next year.

Both the Cherokee and Liberty can trace their lineage to the Willys Jeep Station Wagon, although the ubiquitous term sport-utility vehicle is used to describe them.

Jeep hasn t had a pickup since production of the Commanche ended in 1992, but the Jeep Gladiator concept, if approved, could be made at the Toledo plant under construction.

And the iconic Wrangler, the direct descendant of the World War II Jeep, is poised to live on after the demise of the Jeep Parkway plant where it was born.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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