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Published: Tuesday, 12/4/2012 - Updated: 3 years ago

Chrysler starts slow call-back at Jeep plant

Sources say 2 test models built for Liberty replacement

The Toledo Jeep  assembly complex. The Toledo Jeep assembly complex.
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Chrysler Group LLC has brought a handful of employees back into the Toledo Assembly Complex as the company moves one step closer to the launch of an all-new Jeep. 

Dan Henneman, Jeep unit chairman for the United Auto Workers Local 12, said about 20 team leaders returned to their jobs Monday. They will begin training on new equipment and build some preproduction test models of the new vehicle. 

The employees are the first to be brought back since Chrysler shut down the line following assembly of the last Jeep Liberty in mid-August. At that time, Chrysler laid off about 800 of the 950 hourly employees who made up the Liberty work force.

A flurry of work has been done since then. Chrysler is spending $500 million to add nearly 300,000 square feet to the plant and install all the equipment necessary for an entirely new production line. At a media event in August just before the shut down, plant officials said they expected to begin building pilot models in December, with full-scale production not returning until sometime in the second quarter of next year. 

A Chrysler spokesman said things are progressing in the plant, but said she couldn't give any specific updates on the automaker's progress.

Mr. Henneman said he couldn't say much more than that some production workers were back on the job. He declined to comment on what work the plant has already done on pre-production vehicles or give any specificity on what will happen going forward.

Chrysler has been exceedingly careful to not let anything out of the bag with the new vehicle, not so much as even saying what the new vehicle will be called -- though bets are on either continuing the Liberty name or reviving the Cherokee name. At a dealer preview event in September, the automaker took steps to ensure attendees didn't try to sneak a snapshot by walking them through metal detectors, and Chrysler has threatened termination to anyone who leaks a plant photo of the new vehicle. 

Sources have said at least two hand-built prototypes of the new vehicle are in the plant, but they are literally under lock and key. 

The new vehicle is expected to be front-wheel drive based with a four-wheel drive option and more fuel-efficient than the current Liberty. Those who saw it at the dealers show in Las Vegas said it has hints of styling from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. 

Chrysler will hire about 1,100 people because of the new model. The vast majority of those people will come as part of a new second shift, expected to go on line in the third quarter of 2013. 

Company spokesman Jodi Tinson said the automaker continues to review applications received in August for any first-shift openings. She said the formal hiring process hasn't begun for the second shift. Chrysler isn't currently taking any applications for production jobs in Toledo. 

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.

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