GM Tonawanda gears up for 75th birthday

August 23, 2013 Updated Aug 27, 2013 at 2:07 PM EDT

By David Bertola, Buffalo Business First Reporter

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August 23, 2013 Updated Aug 27, 2013 at 2:07 PM EDT

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WKBW / BUSINESS FIRST) The General Motors Co. Tonawanda Engine Plant is celebrating 75 years of operation with an open house and car show Aug. 23 and 24.

The open house begins Aug. 23 at noon, and visitors can tour the plant and test-drive new GM vehicles. The plant will show off more than $825 million in investments made for its new Gen V and LGE lines. The turnout is expected to exceed the 5,200 who attended the plant's first open house in 2011. Since then every piece of equipment has been replaced.

To build the plant, which opened in 1938, 4,242 tons of structural steel that filled 173 train cars was used to erect the single-story structure.

"We've been totally reborn since 2009, and not only reborn, but reborn with such an amazing portfolio of engines that go into 10 products," said spokeswoman Mary Ann Brown.

In 2009, GM announced a $100 million diesel engine line had been put off indefinitely. In December that year, the last of the company's big-block V-8 engines rolled off the line, resulting in 150 layoffs.

In 2010, GM announced it would invest $425 million on new engine lines for Ecotec four-cylinder engines, which the Tonawanda Plant currently produces: the Ecotec 2.0 liter and 2.5 liter engines for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and the Cadillac ATS and the 2.0 liter Turbo for the 2014 Cadillac CTS. By the time the line launched in June 2012, a steady stream of workers on layoff had returned to the plant, and were joined by 33 new workers. Earlier this year, for the first time since 1987, the plant looked outside the company to hire electricians.

Also in 2010, GM awarded $400 million to build an all-new V8 engine to be used in the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette and the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra Pickup Trucks in Tonawanda. In May, a Corvette engine made in Tonawanda powered the pace car for the Indy 500. The plant was the first to build the small block V8 in 1955.

In 2011, it opened its new logistical optimization center in Plant 4 on Kenmore Avenue. There, employees create kits of exact parts needed by those building engines. The kits avoid having every part in its own container near the assembly line.

With more work coming through the plant, there was a need to train the workforce on new equipment. So 45,000 square feet of Plant 4 was transformed into a training center where Pratt and Whitney aircraft engines had been built during World War II, and where thousands of 3.1-and 3.4-liter engines were made before the site closed in 2004. When it shut down, the intent was for it to never be operational again. The first group of employees was trained there in February 2012.

Both plants are wheelchair accessible for tours. The car show will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

To advertise the diamond anniversary, 16 plant employees who were recognized for superior work appear on five area billboards. To commemorate it, the plant is selling books that tell the plant's history for $20. All proceeds will benefit American Cancer Society.

Take a look at the GM facility through the years in the accompanying slideshow.

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