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The Detroit News

Ford move puts Wixom jobs at risk

Atlanta will build 2 new Lincolns, leaving nothing to produce for 1,800 plant workers in Oakland Co.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

Atlanta Assembly

City: Atlanta, Ga.

Employment: 1,978 hourly, 174 salary

Opened: 1947

Current product: Ford Taurus

Product history: Ford Fairlane, Falcon, Zephyr, Torino, Ranchero, pickup trucks, Mercury Cougar and Sable

Wixom Assembly

City: Wixom

Employment: 1,663 hourly, 167 salary

Opened: 1957

Current products: Ford GT, Lincoln Town Car and LS

Product history: Ford Thunderbird, Lincoln Continental

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

"People are just hoping and praying they have a future here," says Bert Pawlowski, an inspector at the Wixom plant.

Ford Motor Co. is planning to build a new generation of Lincoln passenger cars at a plant in Atlanta, dashing hopes that its aging Wixom factory -- a longtime source of Lincoln cars with 1,800 workers -- will remain open.

When Ford discontinues production of the Ford Taurus at the Atlanta plant sometime next year, it will be converted to build at least three new models, including two Lincoln passenger cars, according to people familiar with the automaker's plans.

The Wixom factory stopped producing the Ford Thunderbird in June, and now produces the Lincoln LS and Lincoln Town Car on a single production shift. The low-volume Ford GT sports car is assembled on a separate assembly line at Wixom.

Ford is readying the Atlanta plant to build two full-size Lincoln sedans, according to industry sources.

The Wixom plant has been Ford's sole site of Lincoln car production since 1957. The Town Car and LS are based on designs that are old by industry standards, and analysts predict they will vanish from Lincoln's lineup.

It's unclear when Ford would close the Wixom plant. The contract with the United Auto Workers union prohibits factory closings and the two sides won't renegotiate a new pact until September 2007.

"People are just hoping and praying they have a future here," said Bert Pawlowski, 45, of Oak Park, who has 28 years with Ford.

Ford is exploring plant closures in North America as part of accelerated cost-cutting measures to counter a sharp drop in sales and profits.

In recent months, senior manufacturing officials have told managers that the company has four more assembly sites than it needs in North America.

"We have excess capacity," Greg Smith, president of Ford's Americas operations, recently told a meeting of industry analysts.

"We've certainly recognized that and we certainly are planning to take actions to deal with that, over time."

A slump in SUV sales and higher discounts have hampered Ford's fortunes. In North America, the automaker posted a pre-tax, second-quarter loss of $907 million -- a swing of $1.4 billion compared with 2004.

Ford is revamping its North American manufacturing operations to allow for more production flexibility and improve factory utilization.

Six of Ford's 19 North American assembly sites now are capable of building multiple models from a single basic design.

By the end of the decade, Ford has pledged that 75 percent of its assembly plants will be flexible. But the automaker has not indicated how many total sites will comprise its assembly plant network.

Ford declined to comment on its plans for the Wixom and Atlanta plants.

"No major decisions have been made and we have nothing to announce," Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari said.

Ford has held talks with state officials in Georgia to secure economic development assistance with the Atlanta project.

Based on the same underpinnings as the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego, the new Lincoln vehicles to be made in Atlanta will be about the same size as the Lincoln Town Car and LS.

Workers at the underused Wixom plant, the biggest in Ford's North American operations, remain anxious.

Scott Robertson, 41, has worked there for 13 years.

"When I had my orientation, they told me this is the flagship of Ford Motor Co.," said Robertson, who lives in nearby Walled Lake. "If they were to announce some new products, like maybe some hybrids, morale would go sky-high."

Dave Berry, president of UAW Local 36, which represents Wixom's 1,600 hourly workers, continues to lobby the company for a new product.

But union officials were disappointed that Ford decided to build Lincoln's newest model in Mexico.

The Zephyr is Lincoln's entry-level luxury sedan. It is being assembled in Hermosillo, Mexico -- the first Lincoln car in six decades to be built somewhere other than Wixom.

"When Zephyr was announced, we expected to get something," Berry said.

Last year, the Wixom plant assembled just over 92,000 vehicles, down from 220,000 vehicles in 1990. This year, it's on track to build about 75,000.

As increased competition generates more industry volatility, and Asian and European automakers expand North American output, the production plans of Detroit automakers remain under pressure.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group was set to build a new plant to assemble a sport truck in Windsor, Ontario. But a dramatic change in market conditions forced the company to pull the plug and the plant stands empty today.

You can reach Eric Mayne at (313) 222-2443 or [email protected].
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