210 back to work at AM General

MISHAWAKA –– More than 100 workers looked on as politicians, executives from AM General and people with disabilities celebrated the relaunch of the MV-1 Tuesday.

And with 210 hourly and salaried employees called back at the Commercial Assembly Plant and more possible in the near future, there was plenty to be happy about.

“We are proud to create new jobs and deliver this revolutionary vehicle into the hands of a very deserving market,” Charlie Hall, president and CEO of AM General, said Tuesday at an event to mark the relaunch.

“The MV-1 started in 2011 as a dream under previous ownership,” Hall noted. “It did not have the infrastructure or the resources needed for long-term success.

“We at AM General also believe strongly in the need for this product and share the same dream. The difference being we have the engineering, manufacturing facilities and the support infrastructure and a great work force to turn this dream into a successful reality.”

The MV-1 is the only U.S.-built vehicle for handicapped individuals that meets or exceeds the guidelines of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“This vehicle clearly demonstrates that people with mobility challenges are no longer an afterthought,” Hall said. “We are proud to offer such a universal vehicle that returns a person’s freedom to come and go independently. It’s truly a revolutionary vehicle.”

AM General is already building 60 vehicles a week and plans to amp up to 125 a week “at some point very soon,” said Jeff Adams, company spokesman.

As that happens, a “significant” number of jobs will be added, Hall said, declining to elaborate.

The MV-1 DX model, which is listed at $49,526, was on display Tuesday at the relaunch. The base price of the vehicle is $45,000. An MV-1 operating with an optional compressed natural gas engine has a base of $55,000.

A luxury model will be coming out in May, said John Walsh, vice president of sales and marketing.

Walsh, who used to be with the former ownership group, believes the MV-1 will work this time due to one big reason: AM General.

The expertise, the executive team, engineering and production teams and the ownership are all keys, he said. “And having us all under one umbrella versus being an outsourced model has made all the difference in the world,” Walsh added.

More dealers want to sell the vehicle this time with AM General behind it, Walsh said. Already 60 are on board, and he expects to have that number reach 120 by the end of this year.

The MV-1 was formerly owned by the Vehicle Production Group and produced by AM General. But VPG ran into financial difficulties and eventually shut down. It caused AM General to lay off workers in June of 2012 who did not return until recently.

In September, AM General reached an agreement to purchase VPG and it formed Mobility Ventures to oversee the MV-1 business.

“It’s a big day,” said Rick Smith, president of Mobility Ventures. “Everybody has hung in there with us as we have been able to bring the vehicle back to life and get it out to the dealers and customer community.”

The MV-1 features an access ramp, a low step-in floor and spacious entryway. It’s built with the user in mind, Hall noted. It can hold up to six occupants and has an optional jump seat.

The MV-1 was introduced in 2007 at the New York Auto Show as the Standard Taxi with the plan to use it as a handicapped-accessible taxi in big cities. It is still used in that role, but also for individual ownership.

AM General and VPG reached an agreement in 2008 for AM General to produce the vehicle. In August 2011 production got under way in Mishawaka, but less than a year later in June 2012, 75 workers were laid off.

“We believed in this product since the first time we laid eyes on it six or seven years ago,” Smith said. “We fell in love with its concept, its purpose and the fact that it really fits in AM General’s wheelhouse. We’ve been building purpose-built vehicles for more than 50 years.”

JIM MEENAN South Bend Tribune jmeenan@sbtinfo.com