GM LORDSTOWN Under wraps, test model develops



Test models of GM's new small car are to begin rolling off the line at Lordstown in spring 2004.
By DON SHILLING
VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR
LORDSTOWN -- The future of the Lordstown Assembly Plant right now is made of clay.
A clay model of a full-size car is in a Detroit area design studio, waiting to be transformed into a small car that General Motors hopes will beat back the imports.
In the spring of 2004, the designers will be done with their work and the first test models of the car will start coming off the line in Lordstown, said Maureen Midgley, plant manager.
Don't expect to hear much before then about the car that will replace the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, which have sold well but haven't made money.
Even the name -- if there is one yet -- is secret. GM is simply calling it GMX 001.
"I can't wait until we get a real name," Midgley said.
Those who have seen the clay model say it's a "cool" design, but it won't be radical because the car must appeal to a variety of buyers, Midgley said. GM wants the model to be a big seller like the Cavalier, which is the fifth-best selling car.
Why so secretive?
GM says it's keeping a lid on information to keep competitors in the dark. It's possible the car could be displayed for the first time next January at the industry's annual auto show in Detroit, Midgley said.
But the first glimpses of the car will come from spy photographers, who try to take shots of prototypes as they are being tested.
The first model will be made at GM's prototype production center in Michigan, which takes months just to build one car.
Once GM officials are satisfied with the prototype, the test model production will begin in Lordstown.
The first model will move down the line with a hoard of engineers following behind to watch as years of planning and design begin to unfold, Midgley said.
Slowly, production will be built up to 50 cars in a row. After the line can handle that, the order will come to fill it with the new model -- at a slow speed.
Midgley said between 100 and 500 test models will be built, but they will not be sold to the public. Engineers will receive some of them to monitor the cars for rattles and other defects.
The production of test models is expected to take three or four months, Midgley said.
While those test models are coming off the line, the plant will continue producing Cavaliers and Sunfires.
The new and old cars will come off the line at full speed for a couple months to make sure production is going well, Midgley said.
Facing challenges
Preparing for this production presents challenges this year, she said.
"We're kicking off a year of construction and chaos out in the plant," she said.
Plant officials are working on the best way to make two different cars at the same time. Line operators, for example, will have to have access to two different types of parts.
There also are construction issues.
A new body shop will be built inside the plant. An extra loop will be added to the assembly line for new equipment needed to make the new car. Some of the machinery on the assembly line is being replaced, and some isn't.
Work also will begin later this year on an addition for a new paint shop, which will amount to half of the $500 million project cost. The current paint shop will be used until it's ready.
Officials also are working on a plan to deal with a potential shortage of workers this year, she said. The remodeled plant will need fewer than the 4,400 hourly workers at the plant now, but retirements this year could put the plant in a bind.
Midgley said it won't be known how many workers will retire this year because they are waiting for a new national labor contract to be negotiated. Hundreds of workers are expected to retire.
shilling@vindy.com

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