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Ford's Wixom plant has uncertain future

Execs review factory as sales of Lincoln sedans, T-birds fall

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News

Speculation about Wixom's future on the plant floor has been especially fevered in recent weeks, according to workers streaming out into the factory's parking lots. One worker said, "... you get the sense that something is in the works."

WIXOM -- Sprawled along Interstate 96 on Oakland County's southern border, Ford Motor Co.'s Wixom Assembly Plant is an impressive monument to Southeast Michigan's industrial might.

The plant, which is spread over 325 acres of one-time farmland and boasts 4.7 million square feet under its roof, is one of the world's largest car factories.

It is also underused, due mostly to declining sales at Ford's Lincoln division. And with Ford struggling to reverse financial losses and eliminate excess car-making capacity, the future of the 46-year-old factory that employs 2,650 workers is in doubt.

Several Ford insiders have told The Detroit News that the automaker is considering closing Wixom Assembly after the vehicles it is currently producing have run their course. The factory builds the Lincoln LS and Town Car sedans as well as the Ford Thunderbird convertible.

For the fast-growing city of Wixom, the loss of the plant would be a significant economic blow. "We have worked hard to diversify the local economy," said City Manager Michael Dornan. "But the plant is still our bread and butter."

Company executives have acknowledged in interviews that Wixom Assembly's future is under review as Ford sorts out its vehicle production plans for the second half of the decade.

Jim Padilla, Ford's head of North American operations, said in an interview that the Wixom plant will continue producing the Lincoln LS and Town Car and the Ford Thunderbird "for a period of time."

"We are evaluating alternatives on what do we do beyond those particular products, and Wixom is an alternative we are evaluating with other alternatives," Padilla said. "We are not in a position to talk about what we have decided because we haven't decided anything yet."

Ford manufacturing chief Roman Krygier was similarly noncommittal when asked recently if Wixom Assembly fit into the automaker's long-term plans.

"The biggest problem is Wixom right now is struggling with the economy, like several other facilities," Krygier said. "We are looking for opportunities for Wixom. That's all I can tell you."

While auto plants tend to be fertile ground for rumors, speculation on the plant floor about Wixom's future has been especially fevered in recent weeks, according to workers streaming out into the factory's parking lots Thursday afternoon.

"I don't know that anybody really has a clue about what's going to happen," said a veteran hourly employee who identified himself as Michael. "Everybody is talking about it and you get the sense that something is in the works."

Closure fears

When Krygier visited Wixom Assembly last week and spoke to employees, one worker stood up and asked the question that was on the minds of many: Is Wixom Assembly going to close?

Krygier told the workers Ford had not decided to close the plant, according to Ford spokeswoman Brenda Hines. Krygier added that even if Ford is studying capacity reductions or plant closures, that doesn't necessarily mean it will happen.

Dave Berry, president of United Auto Workers Local 36 in Wixom, said he doesn't give much credence to the constant speculation.

"There are always rumors," Berry said. "We are just waiting for them to give us some new products to build."

So far, though, Ford is not committing to building any future vehicles at Wixom Assembly.

The plant absorbed a major blow last summer when Ford stopped production of the Lincoln Continental and cut one of the plant's two shifts. About 900 workers were transferred from Wixom to other Ford plants. In January, another 58 Wixom employees were reassigned.

Ford executives have said the company can no longer afford to run plants with a single shift.

The automaker, in fact, has announced plans to close single-shift plants in Oakville, Ontario, and Edison, N.J., by mid-decade. The company also said it intends to close its assembly plant in St. Louis by mid-decade.

AutoAlliance International, a Ford-Mazda Motor Corp. joint venture plant in Flat Rock, is currently running a single. The plant, however, will add a second shift next year when it begins building a new version of the Mustang coupe.

Wixom Assembly, on the other hand, has not been awarded new products other than the low-volume Ford GT sports car. Ford plans to build about 1,000 GTs per year on a special line at Wixom beginning next year.

Should Ford decide to close Wixom, the company would likely transfer its workers to other plants in the region.

"It's in Southeast Michigan so these people are not going to lose their jobs," said one Ford official. "It's not like we would be putting people out of work."

Slowed production

Wixom Assembly built 145,000 cars last year, well below its high of 222,000 cars in 1990. Production slowed as Lincoln Town Car sales dropped 11 percent last year. And despite a hot start, sales of the retro Ford Thunderbird were disappointing in the second half of last year, leading to a glut of the convertibles on dealer lots.

This year, Wixom's output will drop to 130,000 cars even though the LS and Town Car have sold well in January and February, estimates CSM Worldwide, an automotive forecasting firm in Northville.

"It's certainly one of the more underutilized plants that Ford has and I don't see that changing any time soon," said Mike Wall, an analyst with IRN, an industry con******t in Grand Rapids.

Wixom, plant linked

To many, Wixom Assembly is remembered as the site of a bloody attack in 1996 by a gunman who sprayed bullets into the factory, killing a plant manager and injuring three others.

But the community of Wixom and the plant share a history that dates back to 1956, when Wixom's 1,500 residents voted to incorporate as a village in order to reap a tax windfall when the plant opened a year later.

Now Wixom is a suburban city of 13,000 residents with a cluster of industrial parks and new subdivisions filled with tract homes. Despite the growth, the factory remains the heart of the city.

Dornan, the city manager, said local leaders are well aware that Wixom Assembly is not running efficiently.

"We are building some award-winning vehicles but the volume isn't there," he said. "We would have been dancing in streets if they would have brought the Mustang here."

Analysts say Wixom's future depends on where Ford decides to build the next generation Lincoln LS and other cars on the same vehicle platform or chassis.

Some have speculated that Town Car production could be moved to a Ford plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, that builds the similarly designed Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis. Canadian Auto Workers President Basil "Buzz" Hargrove, however, said he has not been informed of any such decision.

Even if Ford officials decide that Wixom Assembly should be shuttered, closing a plant is a long and difficult process. Ford last closed an assembly plant -- a factory in San Jose, Calif. -- in 1983. The UAW obviously would oppose the closure of a major plant in its back yard.

"It's easy to talk about closing plants," said Michael Robinet, an analyst with CSM Worldwide who tracks future auto production plans. "It's very difficult to do. But Ford's survival going forward depends on improving its capacity utilization."

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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