NORMAL - Nearly a quarter-century after plans for a Normal automotive manufacturing plant were first announced, Mitsubishi Motors North America celebrated production of its 3 millionth car Thursday.
Amid a tough year for MMNA and the industry, about 800 employees cheered as a rally red 2010 Eclipse GT was driven off the assembly line about 2:30 p.m., marking the milestone.
"The vast majority of the production associates that were here today have had a hand in all 3 million cars," spokesman Dan Irvin said of the veteran work force.
The milestone comes more than eight years after the company produced its 2 millionth vehicle in February 2001 and 14 years after its 1 millionth vehicle in October 1995.
"How could I have imagined that I would be here as president almost 25 years and 3 million vehicles later?" said MMNA President and CEO Shin Kurihara, recalling his visit to the planned site of the plant, then a vacant field, in 1985.
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Kurihara, who arrived from MMNA headquarters in Cypress, Calif., was among several officials from the plant and United Auto Workers Local 2488 who spoke during the 20-minute private ceremony.
Lined up bumper-to-bumper, the 3 million cars produced at the plant would stretch from Normal to Cypress, Calif., and back, twice, according to calculations by Chief Operating Officer Jerry Berwanger.
The company milestone is a bright spot during a difficult year for the company and the U.S. automotive industry at large.
MMNA vehicle sales for the first nine months of the year totaled 42,839, down nearly 47 percent from the 80,105 sold during the same time in 2008, and well off sales of previous years. Earlier this year, the company also had an unprecedented 12-week production shutdown.
In tandem with that, the U.S. auto industry is on pace to sell about 9 million to 10 million vehicles this year, a drop of 25 percent or more from the 13.2 million sold in 2008.
Meanwhile, Thursday's ceremony was videotaped and will be part of a company documentary on the production of the Eclipse that will be made and given to employees before the end of the year, Irvin said.
And the 3 millionth car? Sometime in the next week it should leave the plant, destined for a Midwestern dealership, already purchased by a customer.