Most people don’t know just how important the town of Kenosha, Wisconsin was to the automobile industry, and how important the automobile industry was to the town of Kenosha. For about 100 years, car manufacturing had a huge presence in the city, and a big part of that was the AMC plant. Here’s some newly-posted-to-the-internet footage—possibly not seen in the last 30 years—of the legendary facility.
Sitting on the western shore of Lake Michigan in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, Kenosha was once an automobile manufacturing powerhouse, with history reaching all the way back to the turn of the 20th century when bicycle maker Thomas Jeffery started selling his “Rambler” a year before Henry Ford got in on the fun with his Model A.
After clashing with founder William C. Durant, former General Motors president Charles Nash eventually bought the successful Thomas B. Jeffery Company, changing the name to Nash Motors, which later joined up with household appliance company Kelvinator, which in 1954 merged with Hudson to form American Motors Corporation. AMC bought Jeep from Kaiser in 1969, but still had to get bailed out by Renault—who was hoping to use AMC’s dealer network—in the late 1970s.
Chrysler’s CEO Lee Iacocca bought AMC in 1987, and later decided to close the Kenosha facility. Chrysler sales had been slowing in the late ’80s, so something had to give, especially after the company picked up three new plants with the purchase of AMC—plants that just added excess capacity.
Closing the auto manufacturing facility—which at that point was building the Dodge Omni, Plymouth Horizon, Chrysler Fifth Avenue, Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Fury, and which previously built AMC Eagles, Concords, Spirits, Gremlins, AMXs, Rambler Americans and tons more—on Dec. 22, 1988, and ending car production in Kenosha as we know it, was hugely controversial.
In their book Comeback, Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White describe the social conditions surrounding the plant closure, and imply that Iacocca’s devotion to the city of Detroit was a reason for Kenosha’s plant’s demise:
The logical move was to close the aging Detroit factory where the K-cars were built. But the facility was Chrysler’s only assembly plant in the city fo Detroit, and Mayor Coleman Young had worked hard in 1979 to help the Chrysler bailout effort. Union politics were important, too. The Detroit factory stood on Jefferson Avenue ,just four miles due east of Solidarity House, the UAW’s headquarters. It was one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, where jobs were virtually nonexistent. Closing Jefferson Avenue, as the plant was called after the street that it straddled, would have touched off a powderkeg.
From there, things got pretty ugly, with AMC upset that Chrysler wasn’t the “corporate savior” it had made itself out to be. Comeback talks about Rudy Kuzel, the chairman of UAW Local 72 in Kenosha, and how he dispatched workers around the country to picket Iacocca with “Iacocca Lied” signs. Kuzel told the Wall Street Journal in 1988: “Lee Iacocca represents what’s wrong with corporate America. He doesn’t care any more about American than Joe Stalin did.” The book says Iacocca eventually gave in to a $250 million “peace offering” to help train laid-off workers for other jobs.
When I asked Joe Ligo, AMC expert and director/producer of a documentary on the history of AMC (tentatively titled American Motors: The Last Independent Automaker) about the claim that Iacocca’s decision might have been influenced by Detroit’s bailout support, he responded over Facebook messenger:
There are definitely conspiracy theories around the closing of the Kenosha plants. According to Chrysler’s own internal data, Kenosha cars had the fewest defects on average, but Kenosha workers also had some of the the highest average compensation. Renault had spent a boatload of money upgrading the plants with robots, but much of the facilities were outdated. Certain models required trucking unfinished car bodies across town for final assembly. Prior to the Chrysler buyout, AMC was negotiating a deal with the union for the assembly of the ZJ Grand Cherokee, but since union relations were so bad at that point, things were dragging on. As soon as the Chrysler buyout was announced, negotiations stopped.
The footage shown near the top of this article, recently posted to the internet for the first time, is what you might have watched prior to taking a plant tour of Kenosha’s AMC facility in 1982. Ligo tells me it likely hasn’t been watched in over 30 years, going on to describe how it obtained the footage from the Kenosha History Center, writing:
The factory at Kenosha had its own in-house TV station, and they’d produce content to show on the TVs in the plant break rooms. One guy kept all the tapes, and when he died his wife donated them to a Kenosha museum. The museum can’t afford to digitize all the stuff, so our documentary team volunteered to help them out.
The Kenosha operations shown in the video appear to mostly show the Main Plant, though it was only a part of the facility needed to build the cars, with the Lakefront Plant being another key component. The New York Times described the setup in its Jan. 1988 story about the plant closure titled “Time Runs Out At Old Car Plant,” writing:
The Kenosha operation is actually two factories separated by several miles. Parts of the main facility date to the turn of the century, when Thomas Jeffery moved his bicycle company here from Chicago. The other plant, on the shore of Lake Michigan, is even older, dating to the 1890's. The five-story former mattress factory, which looks like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, is a nightmare for production experts.The auto bodies that are welded and painted in the lakefront plant must be carried in open trucks to the main plant for final assembly. This extra handling is costly and greatly increases the chances of scratches or chips.
This plant closure left Kenosha with only their engine production facility called Kenosha Engine, which built legendary engines like the 4.0-liter straight six and the AMC 360. Production ceased in 2010 after Chrysler’s dark DaimlerChrysler bankruptcy, with the final engines being 2.7-liter V6s and 3.5-liter V6s found in Chrysler passenger cars. Demolition began in 2012, and with that, the Kenosha automotive era came to an end.