Rich LaGrasta talks about his time at the GM Van Nuys Assembly Plant
Words: Cam Benty; Photos: Rich LaGrasta, GM 2016, Cam Benty
Opened on Dec. 1, 1947, the General Motors (Los Angeles) Assembly plant in Van Nuys, California, operated for 45 years. It was a huge part of Rich LaGrasta’s life, a family thing, his father having started his employment building Fleetline Chevrolets in February 1948.
In all, the plant built 6.3 million vehicles on its 68-acre location in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, finally closing in 1992. To punctuate the event, a high option IROC Camaro was to be the final vehicle, signed by each employee as it passed down the line.
The main reason for the closure, according to LaGrasta, was “the out of control cost of healthcare coverage for the work force.” In Canada, the cost of healthcare, by comparison, was almost zero, picked up by Canada’s socialized healthcare. That’s a big part of why those 4th Generation Camaros were built in Canada.”
In addition, the rising cost of shipping parts from the East Coast out to the West Coast for assembly and then, shipping the finished product back to the Mid-West or East Coast for product sales became prohibitive. That got to be real expensive when the Van Nuys Plant was the only working “F” Car Plant, since the older Norwood, Ohio, plant shut down years earlier.
In the end, more than 2,600 employees were employed to construct Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, the third generation of that marque. During its time, Van Nuys was responsible for the building of such legendary vehicles as the Chevelle (1964-1972), Impala (1958-67), Camaro/Firebird (1967-72, 1982-92), Tri-5 Chevys (1955-57), Monte Carlo (1970-71), Nova/Omega/Apollo/Ventura (1973-76), and Corvair (1961-63), just to hit the highlights.
Rich LaGrasta – Van Nuys Enthusiast
I was at General Motors for 38 years, beginning when I was 18 years old. I was going to Pierce Junior College in the San Fernando Valley in 1966 but was hired by General Motors after I asked my dad for a job. It was easy to get hired, in part, due to the new vehicles we were about to build – something called an F-Body – Camaros and Firebirds.
My dad also worked at the plant as a Soft Trim Supervisor; he started in February 1948, three months after they opened. At that time, they were building Fleetline Chevys, sedans, and, later, Fleetline half-ton trucks, but just for about eight years or so.
We began building the ’67 Camaros in Sept. 1966 and continued through to 1972, when there was a big UAW strike that cut production dramatically. The F-Body (Camaros and Firebirds) were truly amazing vehicles. While I started working at the plant in May in Quality Control, they needed more people to work the F-Body assembly line. Shortly thereafter, I transferred over there, joining the UAW and enjoying a modest wage and benefit increase. They asked me where I wanted to work, and I asked for the motor line.
On the motor line, I was hired to install the carburetors on the engines. At the time, we had just started making the all-new Z/28 model. That was a particularly interesting car. We had a special parts cage that kept the Z/28 engines and another cage that housed the carburetors for this engine, a special 780cfm Holley. If you did not lock up the cage, they would disappear real fast [uh, stolen?], so a locked cage was needed to keep them in stock. Incidentally, we were using those same carburetors on the L72 big block engines (427c.i./425hp) that went into the Biscayne’s and Impalas. In ’69, we built some Camaros with four-wheel disc brakes, a new option – that was special and expensive, too.
It was interesting watching the train cars come in from all over the country, especially when the shipment was a load of 302ci.. Z28 engines or 427c.i. big-blocks. There were also train cars full of aluminum 4-speed transmissions and Positraction rear ends. You have to remember, at the time, there were many different engine options for these cars. A platform could have as many as six different engines.
So, when the new Camaros arrived, I was impressed. In 1967, they offered a new 350c.i. engine that only went in the Camaros. I remember driving a 350c.i., 295 hp, 4-speed stick shift SS Camaro that really ran strong. Then I saw the first 396c.i. big-block Camaro, and I was hooked.
For the building of the 396c.i., 375 hp L-78 engine at the plant, I had to once again go to the special cage that housed the parts and engines for these applications. Driving those stick shift L-78 396 cars produced crazy wheel hop in every gear. With the 3.55:1 gearing for ’67 big blocks only, plus a Turbo 400 automatic transmission, it was still a fast ride, far more streetable and easier to launch off the line — sweet!
My last year of high school, I had a white ’62 Corvette with the 340 hp, 327, with 3.36:1 gears and a BW T-10 4 speed trans. It was also the car I drove when I first began working at the plant. There were always a bunch of hot rod guys who worked at the plant, and we would meet across the street at a muffler shop, which is no longer there, and wait for the plant traffic to clear Van Nuys Blvd.
Not long after those 396c.i. cars appeared on the line, I went to Rancho Chevrolet in Reseda, California, looking for one. All of 19, I was certain I would not be able to find one, but they proved me wrong and they actually had one on the lot that “just came in.” It had the 400 Turbo Hydro transmission, gauge package, and the console, but it had 2.73:1 open rear end gearing. It needed a lot stiffer gearing if I was going to do some serious quarter-mile work; as it was, that car would pull the quarter mile in second gear! I changed it out for set of 4:10: (Posi) gears, and it immediately woke it up, that was one strong runner.
I quickly “upgraded” my Camaro with a set of Cragar SS wheels, Bill Thomas traction bars, and bigger tires, to change the way it drove and handled. At Fiasco Automotive in the San Fernando Valley, they went through the ignition and the carburetor and then dynoed my Camaro. It peaked right at 330 hp at the rear tires, which was 40 hp increase over stock.
Of course, I’d be out at San Fernando Raceway every Sunday morning (after church) racing my SS 396 Camaro. That was just the way it was back then. It was a fairly strong running Camaro; with cheater slicks and closed exhaust (no headers) after the dyno tune, it would easily click off some low 13 second ETs at more than 106 mph. With a set of headers, uncorked, it would easily have been a mid-12 sec. car. That was moving out way back in 1967, for an auto trans Camaro through the dual Cherry Bombs!
Working for a Living
All of my family worked at the plant like me, brother Larry, sister Marie, my future father-in-law, and brother-in-law, even my next-door neighbor; it was crazy. It sounds like a lot of nepotism, but we all enjoyed the work. And if you didn’t like one job, you could move around. If you were in the paint department and wanted to go to trim department, you could do that, if you had the seniority.
As you can tell, I enjoyed working at VN Plant; it was an adventure if you wanted it to be.
When my 20-minute breaks would come, while most of the other workers were getting a cigarette or catching a snack, I would head for DVT – Dynamic Vehicle Testing. That’s where the cars would go on the rollers and the operator would go through the gears and make sure all of the car’s mechanical systems were working properly.
I thought that was the coolest job. These guys get to drive all the new cars coming off the assembly line. Years later, I got my wish about the time that computers became part of the engine management systems. I loved the computer-controlled cars. Computers were the future for the industry, but that was not the case with all of the employees, some didn’t want “change.”
I worked both day and nights shifts. For a time, I transferred into the inspection department, which I felt was a much better job than assembly line work. There were different types of inspection operations – you could be on body and paint or chassis, or in trim. But I liked being on the final inspection team, which led to my DVT position. I liked working on the plant floor rather than in the offices. That’s just who I am, I enjoy seeing things moving.
Special Orders Don’t Upset Us
As a young kid, 18 to 19 years old, if you looked for it, you could find gold in a lot of places at the Van Nuys Plant. There were cars with 4.11, 4.56, 4.88 gear ratios, 427c.i. engine in 1966-67 Biscayne and Bel Air coupes, and, yes, even big-block station wagons, with 4-speeds! These very unique cars would be special ordered and produced at that plant.
We also made COPO police cars at the plant. The police cars we produced in ’66 and ’67 were destined for places like Wyoming and South Dakota and had some strange engine combinations. Some came with 390 hp big-blocks, and even 4-speed transmissions and 2.73 Posi gears. Talk about fast highway patrol cruisers, these were unbelievable cars!
At one time in the early 1960s, Van Nuys was making the Impalas and Biscaynes, the B- Body Chevys. They were also making Corvairs. That was really something to see the big cars all in a row on the assembly and then these little Corvairs in between. In 1964, they quit building Corvairs and started making the very popular Chevelles, again on the same line.
I was going to high school about the same time as the Chevelles were being produced, and my dad brought me into the plant to see these new cars. The Chevelle Super Sport was just gorgeous. About the size of a ’55 Chevy, they were perfect. My dad mentioned he saw them make a few special order 365 hp, 327c.i. 1964 Chevelles – that was a solid lifter Corvette engine.
Most of the ’64s were 283, and later they shifted to the 327c.i. engines with 250 or 300 hp. But there were some special orders like these 365 hp cars – and you could hear them when they fired ’em up with those solid lifter camshafts and cool exhaust note. That was impressive; to the trained ear, it was music.
In ’65, they went to the 350 hp, 327c.i. engine, along with some very rare (201) Z16 396c.i. Chevelles. I remember a neighbor had a yellow Z16 with a black vinyl top. I think he worked for some hot rod magazine. Nothing got by me on my street where I lived, and I remember running out there to check out his car when he drove past my house.
I found the car parked around the corner, along with the driver of this very special Chevelle SS. We began talking about hot cars in general, and he could tell I was really jazzed by what he was driving, so he offered me a ride in this beautiful yellow SS Z-16 Chevelle. Not one to turn down the chance of lifetime, I jumped in, buckled up, and we hit Victory Blvd. in Van Nuys. He just hit the first “two gears” and I could tell that this Chevelle SS really was something special. Little did I know how rare and valuable these cars would become today?
What was interesting was making a lot of cars that were just a little odd. We made Monte Carlos starting in 1970, along with Chevelles on the same assembly line. For my future neighbor, Van Nuys built him a special 4-speed manual, 350c.i. Monte Carlo, one of 32 built. When he decided to sell the car many years later, I bought it from him. It was a 300 hp, 350c.i. engine with a 3.31 Posi rear end.
The Monte Carlos were built on the same line as the big B-Body wagons and the Chevelles, and to build one with a 4-speed manual big- or small-block took some special parts. The Camaros and Firebirds were on a completely different line within the Van Nuys plant. Talk about a versatile assembly plant, we could darn near build anything at one time that GM threw at us.
I remember building a 1970 Monte Carlo with power steering and brakes (standard equipment) and a three-speed manual shift on the column with a bench seat. It was a very low option vehicle with the base engine, no gauges or radio, black wall tires, and no options on the option sheet. It went to Hawaii, and I spent some time thinking about who would order such as car? Remember, sometimes the rarity of the build does not equate to valuable in the end. However, “back in the day” special orders were common.
Knight Rider Fails
In 1982, the soon-to-be popular “Knight Rider” TV show debuted, and we built a lot car for the show. This was the new 3rd generation of Camaro/Firebird, and we were once again building these models after a 10-year hiatus. Right away, the studio began doing tests on the ’82 Firebird, and some guys from Universal came back with some questions about how to make the new Firebirds run stronger. I had to laugh. Their TV script would call for smoky burnouts and other kinds of stunts. These cars had a base 305c.i. engine with an automatic. Burnout? Ha! They ran just like stepping on a wet sponge, nothing but a little noise and no real action!
The TV crew from Universal was upset. They were used to the old 400c.i. Pontiacs, and the new cars were gutless. They asked if there was anything we could do to increase the performance, and we sent them the names of hot rodder guys that could help make them perform better with lower gearing and other engine accessory changes. We were not allowed to do anything for them due to strict emissions regulation reasons. Luckily those hot rodding tricks worked wonders and soon, they were “smokin’ ’em” at will for the cameras.
But then came the warranty issues that began to crop up. The “Knight Rider” cars were constantly at the dealer. Of course, the first jump they made on the show, the T-Tops flew off, followed by suspension damage, and ultimately tossing the driveshaft and added body components. It was a crazy mess as they wanted “to get this car to fly a little bit” for their action shots.
As if that was not enough, it was not long before mechanical problems increased, including the doors coming out of alignment, the windows popping out, and the rear hatch, well that was a problem even if you didn’t want your car to fly. In the end, the show was a huge success, but it took a lot of creativity and modifications to make those early 3rd Gen F-body cars “star material.”
Dawn of the RS Camaro
We began making the 3rd Gen Camaros in 1982. The new design was advanced for the time and a big jump from the ’81 model. While the engine power took time to develop, this was a great car, and today it has so much potential. In 1987, we undertook a project that ultimately became the RS model.
Based on the V6 engine platform but with the available throttle body-injected 305 engines too, we added a number of SS exterior treatments that greatly improved the looks of the car, including body-matching wheel accents, SS wheels, and the custom interior option. In effect, we made an SS that was far more affordable and got better fuel mileage, and if you wanted to go faster, well….the speed shops could take care of your needs real easy.
We built three of these prototype cars (red, white, and black) and took them to a number of local dealerships around the plant. The dealers could not have been more excited, and the result was that for 1987, the RS option was available in California only and 5,518 cars were sold. The “test” continued in 1988 with a similar total of 7,038 reaching the public. Due to the success of those California sales, it became a 50-state option in 1989.
It was not long after the RS that we began building a number of the 1LE optioned cars. A result of Chevrolet’s success in Showroom Stock competition, these cars had the highest horsepower engine and used the 12-inch Caprice brake rotors, along with other handling upgrades. To keep the car light, air conditioning and other power options were removed. The result was a somewhat lighter car that was purpose-built for racing. It was extremely fast for its day and very successful. In all, 111 cars were constructed that first year at the Van Nuys plant. These are highly sought after Camaro F cars today.
It was in the late 1980s that we went to the Team Concept. Toyota had joined up with GM in the conversion of the Fremont, California, plant – the NUMI plant – where the team concept was initiated in this country. We began using more positive affirmation for the workers to generate a better product, took more pride in the workmanship, and our engineering departments placed more demands on building better production systems with better paint and tighter body panel fits.
Face it, at the time there were some paint jobs that were good and some that were really lousy. Some employees got an attitude; some were disappointed when they considered that this is “what I’m going to do the rest of my life.” The team concept allowed them to learn different jobs and know more about the complete vehicle build. Along with that knowledge came increased pay and benefits, so this helped raise morale too.
Sometimes, I would give tours to special groups. On one occasion, I took a group of Japanese auto makers around and showed them the plant. At the end of the tour, I asked what they thought of our system. Their response, “unbelievable.” As I was to learn from further questioning, it was (not) unbelievable good, but unbelievable bad!
Said one of the men, “why do you elongate the bolt holes so much in the fenders and hood. Why do you need that much adjustment travel?” I had not really thought about it, but they were right. Because we had such a variance in the product quality we received for assembly through an antiquated stamping process, we needed to be able to adjust the parts to fit each car. In fact we had guys with rubber mallets who would hammer on the edge of the hood, fender or door to get it to the exactly right spot and then lock it down with the hardware. A hammer! How accurate is a hammer when it comes to adjusting panel fits! In Japan, it was clear their manufacturing was far more precise.
Perhaps the most unique project ever undertaken by the Van Nuys plant was exporting of 3rd Gen Camaros and Firebirds to Japan. In an effort to counteract the huge influx of Japanese cars being sold in the US, GM felt they could sell F-Body cars in Japan. It was an ill-fated plan for a number of reasons, not least of which was the issue with huge cubic inch engines that were offered in the US. A 5.7L V8 in Japan was unheard of – most Japanese car engines displaced under 2 liters at the time.
The Kimono Test
To prepare for sending Camaros and Firebirds over to Japan, we were required to pass the Kimono test, which meant these cars were to be significantly different in ways than our usual production line vehicles. In effect, a Japanese import representative would put on a Kimono, a large flowing Japanese ceremonial gown, and he would walk around the car. Any part of the exterior of the car that snagged his Kimono had to be changed or re-engineered to safely clear his Kimono sleeves.
In some cases we had to use Cadillac parts. First to go were the non-breakaway side view mirrors in exchange for breakaway mirrors, similar to those used on cars today. But at the time, the change out of the mirrors was a major modification. This was just the beginning of some interesting demands the Japanese government was asking of General Motors at the time.
In 1982, the radio antenna was fixed to the car. For Japan, a power antenna hidden in the fender was mandated, the fixed antenna deemed a hazard. The rear spoiler was modified to avoid snagging the Kimono, so we had to either remove the Pontiac rear deck spoiler or find another spoiler that did not cause a problem. Other changes had to do with certain Pontiac WS6 T/A tire and wheel combinations that were “too wide” to fit in the Japanese container ships tie downs, so narrower WS4 Firebird wheels were sometimes added for export.
The power seat tracks had to modified to allow the seat to move both closer and higher to the dashboard than typical American driver seating positions. A special exhaust temp gauge was also added, the catalytic converter exhaust being a fairly unknown component in Japan, and with a gauge, they could better monitor its temperature. Also some HiPo dual exhaust systems had to be changed over to the single cross flow muffler (with dual tips) due to noise restrictions in Japan.
Even after all of these and more modifications were made to the Camaros and Firebirds, once they got to Japan, they spent months in warehouses, being checked over and rechecked. From overall fit and finish to unacceptable paint jobs, Japan did its best to keep Japanese, who laid down some serious money, from owning one of these wild and crazy “American Road Rockets!”
The importing business in Japan was closely watched by the Japanese government, and between taxes and high tariffs, especially on American products, needless to say, the exporting of our big, brash, noisy, and wild looking Z-28s and Trans Ams was pretty much a failure. However, Europe had some fun with our F Cars, they loved ’em!
Setting the Hook to a Lifetime Being a Car Guy
My dad, of course, had cars built for himself that we’d drive. No surprise they were all GM and built at the Van Nuys Plant. One was a beautiful 1953 Chevy Bel Air sedan, which I remember well.
My dad would take my brother and me to the plant on occasion when we were younger, and they used to have a new product car show/picnic there annually for the employees. It was an open house, and your family had a chance to not only see the plant in operation but to sometimes meet celebrities and racecar drivers.
Dinah Shore and her husband (actor Robert Montgomery, at the time) had attended these events; she was one of Chevrolet’s major spokespersons. She was given a brand new white Chevrolet Impala Convertible as part of her involvement making those famous Chevrolet commercials. She sang the Chevrolet song “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” for many years.
In later years, we would see actors from famous shows like “Bonanza,” “Man from U.N.C.L.E,” “Bewitched,” “My Three Sons,” etc. In late 1966, we started building the first of the Camaros and Firebirds, and the celebrity line up changed to include actors from “Simon & Simon” (private eyes) and various other TV shows popular at the time. But nothing compared to that famous Universal Movie made in 1977, called “Smokey and The Bandit,” with Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Sally Fields, and Jerry Reed.
As a kid, the process enthralled me. Watching the orchestration of jobs, people, and parts was just amazing, especially when you saw the cool cars we were producing. That was a big bonus. I was quite literally like a kid in a candy store; I had to run around and touch everything that had wheels and sounded good through those dual pipes!
The biggest news for the Van Nuys plant came in ’55 when the V8 Chevy engines came out. They started pumping those things out, and I remember my dad was working a lot of overtime. On occasion, he was allowed to bring home a company car after being given a supervisors position in the Trim Department. He would go into the plant’s corporate garage and bring home whatever vehicle was assigned to him to drive. He would drive these employee-ordered cars, putting somewhere over a 1,000 miles on them before they were cleaned up and sold at a discount to employees.
I can remember back in 1961 when my dad brought home the first 409 Impala. Of course, it was only a single four-barrel, but it was a Super Sport! He arrives home and the first think he says is, “hop in, let’s go for a ride.” We lived around Victory and White Oak Avenues (in California’s San Fernando Valley – where the Van Nuys factory was located), and the sound as he accelerated through the gears was just so sweet, you could just hear the thunder of that new Chevy 409 solid lifter, high compression engine.
In 1962, the dual quad 409s were being produced, and I went nuts over these things. All during that time, we had various vehicles, all from GM. When I got older and started driving (1963), I was allowed to order cars for my mom and dad as a family vehicle. It had to be an automatic transmission with power brakes, power steering, air conditioning, etc. — a car my Mom could drive us kids around in — but no stick shifts. That didn’t stop me from ordering the highest horsepower engines with auto trannys and posi-traction as a “family car.”
They might have been a Caprice or Impala Sports Sedan, but darn if they didn’t end up at San Fernando Raceway on Sunday mornings (again, after church, ahem), and oh yeah, I had to hide those trophies I won under the bed for a while or explain how I acquired a “racing trophy” when I didn’t own a car, not yet anyway.
Product of the ’60s
In the mid-1960s, the draft was in full swing, and draft notices were coming down from our government for all of us “young men.” I figured initially that I could do the 18 months service required if I were just drafted into the Army, until a friend of mine, who thought that same thing, was killed in action in Vietnam. My dad was in WWII, Army Air Corps, 8th Air Force and was a tail gunner on a B17 Heavy Bomber. He flew 35 missions and was lucky to make it back home from the ware in 1944.
So instead of being drafted, I enlisted in the Navy, made two Vietnam WestPac Tours on two different aircraft carriers (one an Anti-Submarine, the other a full on Attack Carrier) from 1968 through 1971. After my term in the Navy was up, it was back to work at the good old Los Angeles, Van Nuys plant, where I was given corporate seniority for my time serving “Uncle Sam,” and where they held my job (if I wanted it back) and was allowed to return to my UAW status, now an official GM Van Nuys Military Vietnam Veteran.
But it was those early GM Assembly plant experiences that were to not only draw me closer to the Van Nuys plant, but allow me to continue to love and appreciate all cars. I’ve enjoyed many older classic cars (mostly Van Nuys cars) that I have managed to purchase, restore, show, and enjoy, some from every GM Division, except Cadillac, uh, just not old enough yet. I have my dad, Joe, to thank for getting me a job with GM. “Pop” who is currently 92 and doing well put in his 35 years with GM and retired back in 1980. In fact, he’s been a retiree longer than he worked for the company — now that’s getting your GM retirement money’s worth I’d say.
I was able to retire from GM in 2004, just like my dad at the ripe old age of 56, but I went out with more than 38 years of seniority, not too shabby a life’s history from a “Baby Boomer” kid from The San Fernando Valley. Funny, but thinking back, if I had to do it all over again, what would I change? Probably not a darn thing, I think that for me, I pretty much nailed it right the first time around; can’t ask for more than that from life.