Kenosha, Wisconsin in auto history

 @ibtimes
on October 12 2009 10:01 AM

Kenosha, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan has a long history in automotive history that will die if a Chrysler engine plant is shut as planned next year.

Kenosha claims major innovations in auto history including the steering wheel, the seat belt, and the muscle car.

It was in Kenosha in 1902 that Thomas Jeffrey made a mass-assembly automobile, the Rambler, a year ahead of Henry Ford.

Kenosha was also instrumental in the history of worker rights. Auto workers in Kenosha unionized in 1933, two years before the United Auto Workers was formed.

Kenosha's economy was once dominated by making cars. There were two major assembly plants, one on the lake that was shut two decades ago, and one a mile inland that operates today in a muted manner from the days when workers made Nash, American Motors, Renault and finally Chrysler cars there.

Kenosha, which has about 100,000 residents, is officially in the Chicago metropolitan area and claims to be the northernmost suburb of Chicago even though it is closer to Milwaukee (about 30 miles) than Chicago (about 55 miles).

Here is a list of some of the major developments in automobile history in Kenosha:

1900 - A bicycle maker from Chicago, Thomas Jeffrey, buys a factory from the Sterling Bicycle Company. He sees little future in making bicycles and decides to act on his automobile design experiments.

1902 - Jeffrey produces the Rambler, the second mass-assembly auto made, a year after Oldsmobile and a year ahead of Ford. Sales in 1902 were 1,500 vehicles, a sixth of the automobiles sold in the United States.

1910 - Jeffrey dies, and his son Charles takes over as head of the company.

1915 - There are more than 450 automakers in the United States, and Kenosha's Thomas B. Jeffrey Company is easily in the top 10. Sales peaked in 1914 at 13,513 vehicles.

1916 - The head of General Motors, Charles Nash, buys the company for $5 million and renames it Nash Motors.

1933 - Emboldened by federal law allowing works the right to organize, Nash Motors workers formed an American Federation of Labor affiliate. Nash said he'd throw the keys to the lakeside plant in Lake Michigan before he would bargain with a union. He eventually changed his mind, under pressure of federal officials.

1935 - Nash workers join the United Auto Workers union, which forms in Detroit in May.

1937 - Nash Motors mergers with appliance producer Kelvinator.

1942 to 1945 - Nash Motors makes aircraft engines in Kenosha for the U.S. military in World War II.

1946 - Nash Motors has a 9 percent market share, by U.S. auto sales.

1954 - Nash-Kelvinator merges with Hudson Motor Co and creates American Motors Corp (AMC).

1954 to 1962 - AMC is headed by George Romney, later Michigan governor and failed 1968 Republican presidential candidate. Romney's focus on small, efficient cars, led by the reintroduction of the Rambler, brought limited success. In 1957, AMC's market share was only 2 percent.

1963 - The AMC Rambler is named Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.

1960s - AMC is at its height in terms of production, making about a half a million cars a year, and employing 16,000 or more workers. But market share never reached the company goal of 3.7 percent of the U.S. market.

1969 - AMC buys Jeep Corp from Kaiser Motors.

1970 - AMC introduces the Gremlin, billed as the first U.S.-made subcompact.

1970s - AMC models include Ambassador, Matador, Javelin, AMX, Hornet and Gremlin. Profits reach $44.5 million in 1973, the best since 1960. But a costly three-week strike in 1974 helped push AMC lost revenue in 1975, a year when the U.S. auto industry as a whole experienced record profits.

1979 - French automaker Renault bails out the sagging AMC and takes over much of the management of AMC.

1983 - The Renault Alliance made at the two Kenosha auto assembly plants wins the Car of the Year award. But a couple of years, the model is panned by consumers and critics as among the worst performing vehicles around.

1987 - Chrysler, led by CEO Lee Iacocca, buys AMC, this time bailing out Renault.

1987 - Iacocca and Chrysler announce the shutdown of auto assembly in Kenosha.

December 1988 - Automobile assembly in Kenosha ends after almost 90 years. The lakeside plant shuts entirely. Engine assembly keeps a plant a mile inland in operation. It becomes known as the Kenosha Engine Plant.

1989 to 2009 - The Kenosha Engine Plant continues to make engines for Chrysler, but activity dwindles.

1998 - Germany's Daimler-Benz and Chrysler merge to form DaimlerChrysler AG.

2007 - Daimler AG agrees to sell 80.1 percent of Chrysler to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which brings in new management.

2009 - Chrysler goes into bankruptcy protection, and announces plant closings that include Kenosha. Italy's Fiat SpA (FIA.MI), takes over management control of Chrysler as it emerges as a new company -- Chrysler Group LLC. The Kenosha plant remains owned by the former Chrysler, known as OldCarco.

2009 - Kenosha city officials, Wisconsin state officials and union leaders piece together a task force to keep manufacturing in town. The effort, led by Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman, seeks to raise up to $30 million in federal and state funds to clean up the Kenosha plant to remove environmental liability for a new owner. The city wants OldCarco to give it the plant. Then it would likely lease the plant for $1 a year, and offer tax incentives.

Sources: Interviews and Kenosha - A History of Our Town by Don Jensen. (Reporting by Bernie Woodall, editing by Martin Golan)

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