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Bill Ford addresses the Economic Club of Chicago.

CHICAGO — William Clay Ford Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., announced today that the automaker would create 400 to 600 more jobs than originally planned at its Chicago assembly plant and its nearby supplier campus.

Speaking to the Economic Club of Chicago on the first media day of the Chicago Auto Show, Ford said the assembly plant and supplier campus eventually would employ 5,400 people.

Ford said the automaker has invested $400 million in its Chicago assembly plant, which will be a model plant for flexible manufacturing. It will be capable of producing up to eight models built on two different architectures. Among the vehicles the plant will build soon are the upcoming Ford Five Hundred full-size sedan and Ford Freestyle crossover — both of which are on display at the show — and the Mercury Montego, unveiled today at the show.

Ford told luncheon attendees that Chicago has played an important role in the auto company’s history; Ford celebrated its 100th anniversary in June 2003. Ford recounted that his great grandfather, Henry Ford, was down to his last $200 after incorporating the automaker in 1903 when, at last, a Chicago dentist purchased the first Ford automobile for $850; the automaker has since sold 300 million vehicles. In 1905, Henry Ford visited Chicago’s Swift & Co. to study the meatpacker’s conveyor system, which inspired him to create the moving assembly to build the Model T.

Ford further noted the importance of the automobile industry to the United States. The auto industry accounts for 7 million jobs — or about 5 percent of all U.S. jobs; for every autoworker, another seven associated jobs are created. The auto industry accounts for 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It is among the largest users of metals, plastics, textiles and computer chips. And it spends more on research and development than any other industry. “The fact is the auto industry is the engine that drives the American economy,” Ford said.

“And to those who ask, ‘What has the auto industry done for the U.S. lately?’ It’s done a lot,” he said, noting today’s cars are 99 percent cleaner and twice as fuel efficient as those in the 1960s. Further, today’s vehicles are at their most affordable level since 1978.

He said the auto industry would continue to drive the American economy in its second 100 years by building great products, having strong businesses and creating a better world. Indeed, Ford predicted the environment would be the auto industry’s next battleground, in which Ford intends to emerge a leader. This year, he noted, the automaker will go to market with its hybrid-powered Ford Escape sport utility vehicle, which will achieve 30 to 40 mpg, and a fuel-cell-powered Ford Focus that will be aimed at commercial fleets.

During the question-and-answer period, Ford was asked about the issue of health care. He said it is the single issue that keeps him awake at night. He called for “a national debate” on the issue. As for the automaker, Ford brought the company’s former vice chairman and chief financial officer, Alan Gilmour, to first help with the turnaround of the company and to now devote his full time with helping Ford reduce health care costs, which, at $700 a vehicle, costs more than the steel in the vehicle. Further, he said, spiraling health care costs put the United States at a disadvantage for location of manufacturing operations.

“It is the single issue we face as a company and as a nation . . . [and] we’d like to be part of the solution,” he said.

Ford also was quizzed about the automaker’s image, which was tarnished by the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire problems and its financial woes. “Image is something I will work on every day of my life — because I care. I want my children and my grandchildren to be proud of the Ford name and to work in the business if they so desire.”

On a lighter note, Ford was asked about the price and availability of a test drive of the Shelby Cobra, on display as a concept vehicle at the show and not yet committed to for production by the company. Ford teased: “If you have to ask . . .”

The all-new Ford Five Hundred is one of the vehicles to be built at the automaker's Chicago assembly plant.

Ford’s Chicago assembly plant will have the ability to produce up to eight models, with one of them being the recently unveiled Mercury Montego.

Introduced in Detroit in January, the 2005 Ford Freestyle crossover can seat up to seven people when properly equipped.

The Shelby Cobra concept is a modern interpretation of the famed Shelby cars from the muscle-car era.
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