Workers on Isuzu line keep building medium-duty trucks

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Monday, February 2, 2009
— The concerned relative had it partly right.

"Too bad about the GM thing, but I hear the Janesville plant is getting a new medium-duty truck," the relative told a salaried employee of the auto plant in Janesville at a holiday gathering.

Full-size sport utility vehicle production has ended at the local General Motors plant, but medium-duty truck production is continuing—not starting—in Janesville.

And it likely will continue into May, when the lights finally go off in the facility that has been producing vehicles since 1923.

When GM officials announced last June that SUV production would cease in Janesville, they also said that medium-duty truck production would conclude by the end of 2009, or sooner if market conditions dictate.

Orphaned by the loss of its big brother in December, the Isuzu line and its 50 or so hourly and salaried employees continue to build about 25 trucks four days a week in what has become a nearly empty plant.

The Isuzu line is operating in the north end of the 4.8 million-square-foot plant, an area that was once the plant's tire building.

In a partnership with Isuzu, local workers build the NPR truck, which is commonly used as a delivery vehicle.

"NPR is a model designation; the letters don't stand for anything, although they have some significance," said Jim Burke, who wrapped up a 34-year GM career in 2007 as the production superintendent on the NPR line.

"I like to joke that it stands for National Public Radio."

GM and Isuzu strengthened their partnership in 1994 with the launch of the NPR gas-powered trucks in Janesville. Two years later, GM and Isuzu started a separate project that put Isuzu-designed cabs on GM's medium-duty chassis. That line eventually moved to Flint, Mich.

What remains in Janesville is the NPR "W" series, which is Isuzu designed and engineered except for the GM power train.

"It's what we call a light medium-duty truck, a delivery-type truck that has good maneuverability in alleys and easier access," Burke said.

When Burke launched the NPR project in 1994, the line had about 20 to 25 workers. The 50 who remain today probably represent the line's high-water mark for employment, he said.

"We really started it with a small volume," he said. "It's a totally self-sufficient product that at one time got about 50 percent of its material from the United States. Now it's even more sourced from the U.S."

In 2004, workers in Janesville produced their 50,000th NPR, which was celebrated before a floral shop owner drove it off to his store in Tennessee.

By the time production wraps up later this year, the Janesville plant will likely have produced more than 70,000 units.

Last updated: 9:44 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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