We made Vipers: The men and women of Chrysler’s Conner Ave. plant
Fiat-Chrysler’s Conner Avenue factory was unusually quiet. On a day in early August, as the Dodge Viper inched toward history, the factory was more like a funeral parlor. The line had shut down before 2 p.m., and noises inside the 392,000-square-foot plant were faint and faraway. The row of landmark Vipers that long greeted employees and visitors—Le Mans winners and Nordschleife record holders—sat undisturbed.
Soon the collection would be joined by the last Viper and sent to storage. That day in August, three weeks before Conner’s official closing, the last Viper was already in the line.
To build the fifth-generation, 2013-17 Viper, Conner Avenue was outfitted to assemble eight or nine cars a day. After February 2017, when orders were locked down for remaining production, it had been building about three. Some 90 percent of those were Viper ACRs, and the vast majority were ordered through Dodge’s “1 of 1” program, which allowed thousands of permutations and came with assembly photos and a plant tour.
Ironically, maybe cruelly, the Viper died on its 25th anniversary, after more than 30,000 had been built. One of the world’s unique automobiles is gone, and with it goes one of the world’s unique automobile factories. The end of Conner Avenue Assembly, the source of 26,000 of those Vipers, dispersed a relative handful of sad but appreciative workers—and left only one auto assembly plant operating entirely within Detroit’s city limits. There were more than a dozen in the mid-20th century.
A Viper chassis ready for testing.
The factory at 20000 Conner opened in 1966 as a Champion spark plug plant. It had been fallow for five years when Chrysler bought it in 1995, after management realized that the crazy Dodge Viper roadster might actually have legs. Launched in 1992 as a one-run-and-done special from a corner of Chrysler’s Mack Assembly plant, Viper demand continued to exceed expectations as the original tooling wore out.
The Viper line at Conner started in October 1995, and the GT-S coupe joined the roadster. Plymouth Prowler production was added in 1997, and before the Prowler finished its five-year run, Chrysler’s V10 engine production was moved to Conner. Yet in the desperate days after Chrysler’s bankruptcy and the merger with Fiat, the Viper became imminently expendable. Production ended the first time in July 2010.
Then, as the economy improved and to the surprise of some, FCA polished up Conner Assembly and began building a new-gen Viper in December 2012. Even in the new millennium, the Viper line reopened without robots.
Viper production was basically three stages: engines, chassis and final. The blocks and heads were cast in England and shipped to Canada, where they were machined and the heads were assembled. After final assembly at Conner, every engine was trucked to FCA HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan, fully dyno’d and then returned to Conner for installation. With the end of
Viper, new Chrysler cam-in-block V10s—based on the 5.9-liter Magnum V8, massaged by Lamborghini and famous for a burble like a school bus—hiss no more.
One of the last Vipers to leave the Conner Ave. factory.
Viper assembly started with steel spaceframes jigged up at a supplier in Kentucky and placed on a rolling trolley at Conner. The wheel hubs were essentially identical to those on a Dakota pickup, which was last built before the last-gen Viper started production. Body panels were molded by Plasan Carbon Composites in western Michigan and painted at a facility near FCA headquarters. Interesting stuff, all that, but it doesn’t account for Conner’s unique place in the automotive universe. If 392,000 square feet seems like a lot of floor space, understand that it’s less than 10 percent of the space at FCA’s Ram pickup plant, just northeast of Conner Assembly in Warren, Mich. Through the last Viper’s run, Conner employed 14 salaried and 67 hourly workers (Warren Truck has 4,706). Through 2017, the average cycle time—the time the trolley sat at a given stop on the line—was 69 minutes. In the typical auto plant, it’s less than a minute. Yet a majority of Conner’s workers had been there since it opened for Viper, and they had helped build 26,000 cars.
Conner Avenue came as close to legitimate by-hand assembly as there is at any large automaker, right up to Bentley and Rolls-Royce.
Now Viper is finished, and the city of Detroit is down to 1.5 auto assembly plants. The one is FCA’s Jefferson North Assembly, home of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango. The 0.5 is GM’s Buick/Cadillac/Chevrolet sedan plant, which straddles the border between Detroit and the encapsulated city of Hamtramck. The Conner Assembly building will be converted to another FCA purpose, but only the company knows what. We’re guessing it’s going to be Italian.
As for the 81 craftspeople and managers who built Vipers, all are guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the FCA scheme. While many believe those jobs can only be a step down, they seem almost universally grateful to have had the opportunity to tangibly contribute to something very cool.
Few of us get an opportunity to meet the people who build our cars. It’s easy enough to lose track of the fact that our cars are still largely built by people, who are largely proud of what they do and worried about the same things we are. With the end of Conner Avenue Assembly, we’ll take the opportunity to introduce some of those who built one of history’s truly unique automobiles, in one of Detroit’s unique assembly plants.
He took one with him.
He took one with him
Deron Rogers II is reminded daily of what he used to do at Conner Avenue. He was the only non-salaried plant employee who owns a Viper—a third-gen 2003 he calls Black Mamba.
“When the Viper came out, I knew someday I’d own one, long before I had any hope of working here,” he said in August.
Rogers went to work at Conner in 1996, shortly after it opened as Viper Central. He was responsible for parts inventory when it closed Aug. 31, 2017. He’ll move to FCA’s Jefferson North Grand Cherokee factory, but as of August, he still didn’t know what he’d do there.
“For me, this plant was a blessing. It’s history. I’ve met Ralph Gilles a bunch of times and hobnobbed with people I never would have otherwise. And I don’t think too many people can say they helped assemble their own car.”
Off the street, into America’s most unusual car factory.
Off the street, into America’s most unusual car factory
Greg Rinehart believes he’s the only person “hired off the street’’ to build Vipers.
The lifelong Detroiter was still fresh from military service when he was hired as a temp at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue Assembly. His foreman was so impressed that he pulled some strings to bring Rinehart to the new Viper line at Conner in 1995.
By the end of Viper’s run, Rinehart was supervising the three people who assembled its V10 and conducting the “cold test”—filling the engine with oil and running 850 diagnostic checks without firing it.
Back in the day, Rinehart’s crew built 47 V10s a week. In the summer of ’17, it was a handful. “I hate that it’s ending. Just about anyplace else (in FCA production), you’re no more than a warm body. Here your responsibility is wider—and your input. I love having worked here. Very proud of it. (Sept. 1) is going to be a very quiet day for me.”
Friends in high places.
Friends in high places
Dave Ironside, a self-described Navy brat originally from Rhode Island, started at Chrysler in 1973, building Chargers at Lynch Road Assembly, which opened in Detroit in 1928 and closed in 1981. He built Lancers, Shadows and Sundances in Sterling Heights, then moved to the original Viper line at VIN 30. Some 30,000 Vipers later, he was responsible for post-assembly quality checks at Conner Avenue.
There, Ironside met Bob Lutz, Jay Leno and dozens more celebrities, and he’s friends with members of the Viper Club.
After 44 years on the line, he plans to go back to Sterling Heights to build the next-gen Ram pickup, but it won’t be the same.
“The central thing is that I love building something I’ll probably never be able to own,” Ironside said. “I’ll settle for the pictures of what we’ve done, I’m fine with that.”
Worse than leaving high school.
Worse than leaving high school
Texcella Evans moved to Conner from Jefferson North Assembly, where her job was essentially one repetitive operation for an entire shift. She did it well nonetheless, with perfect attendance, and in 2012, she jumped at the chance to land a spot on the refired Viper line.
At Conner, Evans moved between three assembly stations, installing the Viper’s rear end, front suspension bits and brake lines and ABS pump. And her stress level was substantially reduced. At Conner, a Viper sat at one station about 100 times longer than a Grand Cherokee does at Jefferson North. Now Evans is headed back to Jefferson North, though she isn’t sure what she’ll do there. She compares the end of Viper to the end of high school, without the anticipation for what comes next.
“Wherever I’m going will be a step down,” she said. “It’s sad, but it just is. It was always supposed to be a five-year run.”
What 90-mile commute?
What 90-mile commute?
Anthony Banks started at Conner shortly after the Viper line opened and shuttered the plant as team leader, final assembly. Through 21 years, he collected autographs from factory visitors and a storeroom full of memorabilia: over 350 die-cast Vipers, remote control models, posters, books, license plate frames. His most prized autographs might be Sergio Marchionne and Evander Holyfield; his favorite Viper is definitely the last generation.
For Banks, there’s a silver lining in Conner’s closing. He hopes to land a spot at an FCA distribution warehouse minutes from his home in Marysville, 45 miles northeast of Detroit. But he’d trade the silver lining to keep his 90-mile commute.
“I’ll be crushed when I drive out of here for the last time, frankly,” he said. “I’ll probably cry. As the minutes tick by, it’s starting to feel like losing a family member.”
This article originally appeared in the November 27 issue of Autoweek magazine. Subscribe today.