Minnesota Bids Adieu to Storied Twin Cities Ford Plant
Land of 10,000 Lakes to go Rangerless for the first time in years.
When the last vehicle rolls off the assembly line at Ford's 86-year-old Twin Cities plant on Dec. 16, it will mark the end of more than 100 years of Ford production in Minnesota. What began in 1915 with 100 workers assembling Model Ts in an old warehouse has been moved, morphed and modernized in numerous well-intended attempts to adapt and remain relevant in the digital age. For most of the past 26 years, the plant has been cranking out as many Ford Ranger trucks as the market could bear.
This isn't the first time the venerable Twin Cities facility has been at death's door. In spring 2006, almost all of the Twin Cities' 1,850-plus employees were nearly subject to the cost-cutting measures of Ford's enigmatically titled “The Way Forward” initiative. The official statement: “Going forward, Ford will be able to maintain its production capacity and undisputed leadership of the full-size pickup truck market with fewer plants, thanks to flexible manufacturing.” Like most manufacturers at the time, Ford was desperately trying to reduce assembly costs while simultaneously incorporating modern, flexible manufacturing equipment and techniques. Not surprisingly, the aging Twin Cities plant didn't make the cut for investment. Heck, by 2006, even Chrysler's Toledo Jeep Complex -- a lumbering old confluence of buildings that started as a Willys-Overland plant in 1910 -- had thrown in the towel and built a modern new facility a few miles to the north.
But as the proposed closing date grew closer, a message from Detroit arrived in late July 2008.
“Ford Motor Co.’s Ranger assembly plant in St. Paul, which was scheduled to close in 2009, will remain open through 2011 to meet consumer demand for the compact pickup. We are transforming Ford’s North American manufacturing operations into a lean, flexible system that is fully competitive with the best in the business,” said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, in an ambiguous statement.
Sadly, this time no last-minute messages have arrived.
Corporate financial realities aside, what makes the sting of this particular closure so lasting is the Twin Cities facility’s unique location and self-sufficient design, testaments to an era when moguls could move mountains on a whim. Equal parts industrialist and agrarian, Henry Ford, for all his personality quirks both real and alleged, had a knack for optimally placing his business enterprises where they could harvest natural resources to benefit his personal march of prosperity. Twin Cities is on the St. Paul side of the upper stretches of the Mississippi river, the site chosen largely due to the promise of cheap hydropower. Before vehicle No. 1 left the factory, Ford's 4-turbine hydropower dam was producing 18 megawatts -- enough electricity to power approximately 15,600 homes. (Even with all that power at his fingertips courtesy of Mother Nature, Ford wasn't leaving anything to chance: A year later, he had a steam plant built for auxiliary power.) The turbines in the dam are being reconditioned for post-factory power generation duties.
Underneath the plant ran an extensive network of tunnels the company mined for silica, which Ford used to make automotive glass. Clever bugger, that Ford. I'll bet he sat up more than one night figuring a way to cultivate rubber plants in Dearborn.
By the time the lights get turned off, Twin Cities will have produced more than 6 million vehicles; its best year was 1977, when it produced 144,402 vehicles. Pickups didn't hold an exclusive lease on birthing rights within the walls of the Twin Cities plant, either: LTD, Galaxie, Country Squire, Starliner, Fairlane and Crown Victoria are but a few nameplates from the body-on-frame era proudly assembled in the North Star State.
As goes the Twin Cities Ford Plant, so goes the Ranger. Citing a decline in the overall compact truck segment (from a high of 1 million units per year down to about 230,000 in 2010) and the diminishing gap in price between the Ranger and the F150, Ford announced in June that the Ranger would be discontinued in the U.S. In Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, South America and South Africa, however, buyers are free to select a new 2012 Ranger powered by a 4- or 5-cylinder turbodiesel engine, with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions -- options that might have helped resuscitate the Ranger's sales numbers here at home. But with only 6 inches in width and 2 inches in length separating them, Ford remains convinced that the overseas Ranger and the domestic F150 are just too close for comfort.
Funny how a business that casually deals in mind-bogglingly large numbers can make such an important decision over a matter of inches.
A high resolution version of the events at the factory can be found here.
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