Plant bids farewell to big block

Willie Ray Jr. inspects the last of GM’s L18 engines on Friday. The engine had a rich history within GM as well as with non-GM customers.

Robert Kirkham / Buffalo News

Plant bids farewell to big block

End of production of V-8 engine at GM’s Tonawanda facility leads to 150 layoffs

News Business Reporter

Amid whistles and applause from onlookers, Willie Ray Jr. hoisted the final L18 made at General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant off the production line and onto a metal cart.

The moment was filled with meaning for the plant’s past, present and possibly its future.

It was the last of the “big block” V-8 engines made by the plant, a legacy dating to 1958 and a local connection under the hood of some renowned GM cars.

The end of the L18 on Friday also puts 150 hourly workers on layoff, bringing to 298 the total number of workers on layoff from the Tonawanda plant.

Along with their words of respect for the big block engines’ long history and regrets over layoffs, plant and union leaders said they are determined to secure a new engine line that would bring back workers.

“We’re all working very, very hard to make this the place for GM’s next engine,” said Steve Finch, plant manager.

Retirees and workers gathered to mark the occasion and share memories. On the cakes served to the guests, blue-colored inscriptions noted the plant’s remarkable output of big-block engines — 5 million of them — over the course of a half century.

The plant continues to make the L850 and inline 4- and 5-cylinder engines for other vehicles. And while the L18 accounted for only about 3 percent of the plant’s annual volume, Friday was its day to shine.

Workers used different-colored markers to write their names on the final engine, and later surrounded it for a group photo. The milestone engine is destined for the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich.

The big block V-8s were a staple of the Tonawanda plant. So were the mistaken assumptions over the decades that those engines were going extinct.

Salvatore Morana started at the GM plant in 1978 and two years later moved over to the Mark engine line, a forerunner of the L18. He quickly heard rumors of the Mark’s imminent demise.

“The first thing my (work) partner said was, ‘You better get off this line,’?” said Morana, now president of United Auto Workers Local 774.

“I’m sad to see it go,” Morana said. “I just hope it gives us an opportunity for more space for new work.”

Finch said the big-block V-8s had a rich history within GM. They were used in vehicles including the Corvair, the Corvette (for a time) and the Impala. They also helped build the automaker’s name outside the company, since the engines were used by non-GM customers in pumps, power generation and powerboats. That external loyalty was a key to the big block V-8s’ lasting success.

“Our customers just loved this product so much, they wouldn’t let it die,” Finch said.

Guests watched a video slide show celebrating V-8 engine lines at Tonawanda through the years, set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Mixed with images of the engines were pictures of employees marking milestones along the way.

“A lot of history,” Finch said afterward. “But the most important thing is, a lot of great people have come through these doors and participated.”

In the crowd was Donald L. Rust, the Tonawanda plant manager from 1983 to 1996. He called Tonawanda the best of the six GM plants he worked in.

“There is no workforce like this one here,” Rust said. “There’s nothing they can’t do.”

The big block V-8s were vital to the plant’s endurance over the years, he said. And the engines’ versatility and power were the reason production of them “just kept going and going.”

“I used to tell people, if you wanted an engine that could pull your house trailer up Pike’s Peak, this was it,” Rust said.

He also experienced the V-8’s power while riding in a powerboat. “We passed an airplane that was overhead down in Florida,” Rust said.

The L18 began production in Tonawanda a decade ago and was used recently in the Chevrolet Kodiak and GMC TopKick.

When GM said last June the L18 would be eliminated by year’s end, the announcement triggered another show of devotion to the product. Some customers ordered two years’ worth of L18s, to put on the shelf for future use, Finch said.

For many workers and retirees, Friday was a time to reflect on their own careers. Robert Coleman, a third-generation GM employee, recalled starting out in 1978 on the plant’s big-block V-8 line.

“Hopefully as this rolls out, someone will come and say, ‘Hey, we have new business to fill this spot,’?” said Coleman, shop chairman of UAW Local 774. Aside from the layoffs, about 50 workers related to L18 work are being absorbed into other areas of the plant, he said.

Under the UAW’s contract with GM, most laid-off hourly workers receive about 70 percent of their total pay after taxes, through a combination of unemployment benefits and supplemental benefits.

Mike Fonti, area manager/ superintendent for the L18 machining, wondered aloud how to possibly say “thank you” to so many GM employees for their work on the big-block engine lines across 51 years.

“You know how to say thank you?” Fonti said. “You put a new line right here.”

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