Farewell to a former best seller


The Associated Press

HAPEVILLE, Ga. -- Ford's Atlanta Assembly Plant, the production point for some of America's most popular pickups and sedans for several generations, closed Friday after assembling the company's last Taurus. The plant was 59 years old.

It closed as part of a reorganization plan announced 10 months ago by Ford Motor Co. to boost profits for the nation's second-biggest automaker. It is survived by 1,950 employees -- some of whom are taking jobs at Ford plants in other states.

Among the makes that rolled off the plant's assembly line since it opened in 1947 were the F100, Galaxy, Falcon, Fairlane 500, Ranchero, Torino, Mercury Cougar, Fairmont, LTD, Grenada, Mercury Marquis and Sable. Friday's end also concluded 21 years of making the popular Taurus, with sales of more than 7 million vehicles.

"The Atlanta plant and the employees there had a great run -- the vehicles they built there were very important to the company," said Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari. "Unfortunately, we're in a transition period where we are working to align our capacity with the customer demand and as a result we have to idle several assembly plants."

The plant, with a huge blue Ford logo painted on the side, may be best remembered for the Taurus, which was the nation's best-selling car from 1992 to 1996. The car's best year came in 1992, when it sold 409,751 cars.

The last Taurus to roll out of the plant Friday went to Chick-fil-A restaurant chain founder Truett Cathy, who has credited the success of his first restaurant in Hapeville to business from the plant's workers.

"I received it with mixed emotion," said Cathy, as he spoke at the restaurant across the street from the plant.

He plans to put the sedan in the auto museum of his chain's corporate headquarters in Atlanta, where he has other Ford vehicles, including a Model T.

'Lost a way of life'

But for those who worked there, the plant meant more than just a job building cars. Employees had grown close to each other over the years and on Friday, as they clocked out for the final time, they promised to stay in touch.

Laura Darsey met her husband in the plant's break room.

"It's a sad day," the 43-year-old woman said standing in the rain outside the plant where she worked for more than 10 years.

S.L. Stephens, president of UAW Local 882, said the announcement earlier this year that the plant would be closedcame as a shock, especially given the plant's reputation for being ranked as one of the top 10 most productive assembly lines in North America.

"We lost a way of life," Stephens said.

Melvin Mayhall, 55, of Conyers, spoke fondly of his time at the plant, saying he learned skills in his 15 years working there that are helping him find a new job. "They taught me a lot," he said. "I learned a lot."

While disappointed, many of the workers were not bitter.

"It'll be OK," said John Rape, 35, of Zebulon, who worked for Ford's chassis department and motor line since January 1995.

Then after a moment, he added: "It hasn't sunk in yet. Wait until Monday morning when I wake up and don't have anywhere to go."

Plant workers could choose among eight separation, educational and retirement packages. It is unclear how many will work at other Ford plants, Gattari said. "As we transition through these difficult times and into our comeback, we've got to reduce our work force and become a leaner, more efficient and competitive company."

Stephens said about 300 to 400 workers have taken jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville, Ky.

And the news remains bleak for the company as a whole as well.

On Monday, Ford announced a third quarter loss of $5.8 billion -- its largest quarterly loss in more than 14 years.

It said the third quarter loss came from the costs of its massive restructuring plan aimed at reshaping the company and cutting expenses so it can compete better against lower-cost rivals from overseas.

Company officials predicted things would be even worse in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, at the Chick-fil-A restaurant near the plant, General Manager Kevin Moss estimated the restaurant would lose up to 15 percent of its business with the plant gone. He said he was hopeful that new industry moving into the area would help make up for the loss.

"We've known about this for a while and been planning for it," Moss said.

He said the loyal customers from Ford will be missed. One even came to the restaurant earlier in the day and handed out thank-you cards to workers there.