At a small test plant here engineers and assembly line workers are trying to give birth to the "new" Chrysler Corp.
Chrysler's K-body compact car is undergoing final quality testing at the Clair Point plant before it appears this fall as the Dodge Aries and the Plymouth Reliant, two-front-wheel-drive, high-mileage cars that literally carry the company's future.
Chrysler, the company plagued by warranty problems and disheartening quality control, has based its sales strategy for the K cars on quality.
"Chrysler has made quality its top corporate commitment," says George F. Butts, vice president for quality control.
The cash from the sale of $500 million in government-guaranteed notes and a nearly equal amount of aid from other sources, available now that the guaranteed loans have gone through, is expected to keep Chrysler alive until fall when the Aries and Reliant go on the market.
The company's survival in the year that follows depends on selling every one of the 550,000 Aries and Reliants it expects to produce as well as 400,000 subcompact Horizons and Omins.
Chrysler has taken unprecedented steps to assure that the new cars satisfy its customers. While Chrysler has laid off nearly 40,000 workers and closed several of its oldest plants to slow its tremendous losses this year, until recently the Clair Point plant has been running two shifts for the first time in memory, says personnel administrator Eugene Schulte.
The preproduction models of the K car creep through the miniature plant at about three a day, assembled with some of the new tools that will go into the assembly plants in Detroit and Newark, Del., where the K cars will be made.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, the parts, sheet metal and other components are assembled as engineers check for misfits, rough edges and other mistakes that could turn up months from now as rust, leaks or parts defects.
The K cars will contain specially treated galvinized sheet metal for body parts vulnerable to rust, a problem that has plagued Chrysler's midsized Aspens and Volares. "We're trying to take away corrosion as an issue," said Charles G. Gunderson, product planning director.
The Detroit and Newark assembly plants have been stripped down to make room for modern assembly equipment, including robot welding machines that perform 3,000 spot welds to assemble the frame.
The goal, the company says, is to reduce the number of difficult mechanical operations that assembly workers must perform -- thus reducing the potential for mistakes. The side door panel is now stamped as a single piece instead of being assembled from four or five different parts that had to be clamped together and hand-welded. This change, while much more expensive, is expected to reduce wind noise, water leaks and poor door alignment, a major headache for chrysler in past models, Chrysler officials said.
Chrysler is locked in with its one-piece design, Gunderson notes, making it more difficult to move from hardtop to sedan designs. It's not the way Detroit used to do it when the goal was making annual model changes more easily. "This design says quality comes first," said Gunderson.
Treasury Department analysts have called the K car introduction "a complex and difficult task" because the car includes a new four-cylinder engine in an entirely new body style. But Chrysler officials and the Treasury analysts note that the K cars will be built on the existing technology used in subcompact Omnis and Horizons whose warranty problems have been much less than other Chrysler cars.
"This is a precision assembly rather than simply throwing a lot of pieces together and pushing them out the door," said A. P. G. Richards, director of car program planning who came to Chrysler from the Ford Motor Co. with Lee A. Iococca, the Chrysler chairman.
Beginning in 1978, Iococca has made quality Chrysler's top priority, said Gunderson. "He's a very precise, direct man," he added. A series of new quality task forces and committees have been established to watch over the preparation of critical parts and audit assembly line operations for the new cars, says Butts.
"Quality has always been practiced to a degree, now we're talking about a commitment from top management," said Butts.