Let the battle begin.
The fight for bragging rights as the top seller of commercial vans in the U.S. has entered a new phase, and how it ends up matters to Ford Motor Co. and the Kansas City area economy.
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The Transit van began production Wednesday at Ford’s Claycomo plant, with one shift that added 900 jobs and will build 300 Transits a day. The company expects to add a second shift later this year with an additional 800 to 1,000 employees. Depending on demand there could eventually be even more.
Ford has a lot riding on making that happen. The Transit, new to North America, will replace its E-series vans, the best-selling commercial vans in the United States.
The company said the Transit is a big advancement over its E-series and will be able to fight off competitors with improvements such as better fuel economy and more configurations, including three different roof heights. Safety features such as a rear-view camera and a system that alerts when you stray out of a lane will be offered for the first time.
At the Claycomo plant the company already makes the F-150 pickup truck, also a best seller.
“We get to build both in Kansas City,” said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas, who attended the Transit kickoff. “We see a bright future for the Kansas City Assembly Plant,” as Ford calls the Claycomo plant.
At times the event turned into a celebration of the plant’s reversal of fortunes. Just a few years ago, the F-150 was down to one shift, and production of the the Ford Escape SUV was moved to a Kentucky plant.
Now the F-150 is running three shifts and the Transit has arrived. Ford invested $1.1 billion, building a new stamping plant and paint room in the plant, which is now up to 5,100 employees.
“It’s a moment for all of us to treasure,” said Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke at the event.
One of the milestones in reviving the Claycomo plant was passage of the Missouri Jobs Act in 2010, which provides Ford with up to $10 million a year over a decade.
Jerry Nolte, a former state legislator who helped get the legislation passed, said the $1.1 billion that Ford ended up investing in the plant was far more than state officials had expected.
“It’s so very good to see so many people get back to work,” he said.
Another milestone was a new contract with the United Auto Workers, which included concessions such as a two-tier wage scale that pays less to new employees. In return, Ford promised more investments in the U.S., including another vehicle for Claycomo, which turned out to be the Transit.
The UAW leadership endorsed the contract, and UAW Local 249, which represents the Claycomo plant’s hourly employees, approved it by a large margin.
“All you guys are the main reason Ford continues to invest in Kansas City,” said Todd Hillyard, the local’s bargaining chairman.
The Transit has evolved over decades. It is the most popular commercial van in Europe and is sold in 118 markets around the world. Bringing it to Claycomo is part of the auto industry’s move to use similar platforms and models, with some tweaks, for sale around the world.
The Transit “is a key part of our global policy,” said Hinrichs. “The van segment is kind of the last one for North America.”
The E-series is being phased out, although it will be available through this year. A cutaway version, which has only a cab and chassis, and a stripped version with only a chassis, will continue to be offered for special applications.
The Transit is larger and has other differences from Ford’s Transit Connect, which is already being sold. It will become the company’s mainstay commercial van and in that role will face some improved competition.
Daimler is offering an upgraded Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter commercial van. Chrysler is selling the Ram Promaster, and Nissan has the NV cargo van.
The Transit has a list price that starts at $29,000 and will have three engines available — a standard V6 gasoline engine, a V6 Ecoboost with turbocharger and direct injection, and a diesel engine. The diesel engine so far is being installed in 10 percent to 20 percent of orders.
The Transit will show up in dealer showrooms this summer.
The various roof heights on the van will help boost cargo capacity, which in some configurations is 75 percent more than the E-series can offer. The vans will be used as delivery vehicles and passenger shuttles, and by trades such as electricians.
So-called upfitters, companies Ford has agreements with, also can turn a Transit cab and chassis into an ambulance. And don’t be surprised if upfitters eventually offer a Transit transformed into a RV.
“We’re really confident about the Transit’s competitiveness,” Hinrichs said.