Central Foundry Division
Written by Bill Bowman
In 1917, the Saginaw Malleable Iron Company was founded when 16 men signed a note for $4,000.00. The note provided financial backing for the company. The first castings produced here were steering gear housings for Jacox (Jackson-Church-Wilcox, later known as Saginaw Steering Gear). Capacity at this time was 40 tons per day.
In 1918, capacity was doubled to handle a large war contract, consisting of trench mortar shells and links for tanks. At this time 350 plant employees were producing 80 tons a day.
In 1919, the common stock was sold to General Motors for $1,100,000. The division was called Saginaw Products Company. It included 3 plants: Saginaw Malleable Iron, Grey Iron Foundry, and Saginaw Steering Gear. Chevrolet eventually took over Grey Iron. Saginaw Steering Gear later became a separate GM division. In 1921, the Saginaw Malleable Iron plant became part of a division of General Motors called the Saginaw Products Division.
By 1924 new production methods and plant improvements raised production to 200 tons a day. During 1925, the capacity increased to 280 tons a day. From 1925 to 1929 many more improvements were made raising the tonnage to 700 tons per day with ¼ of the original floor space required. In 1928, the Saginaw Products Division, consisting of Saginaw Malleable Iron and Saginaw Steering Gear was dissolved.
The year 1930 brought further expansion of land and buildings that were necessary to handle a big Chevrolet contract. During the depth of the depression this plant was on a 10-hour per day, 6 day per week schedule.
The first production of Armasteel (in 1936) opened up a whole field of products, including pistons, rocker arms, camshafts and transmission parts. During 1937, the first surface kiln was installed, providing a 24-hour annealing cycle. We Pour More to Win the War was the slogan in 1941. In addition to Armasteel gun parts, 2,500 tons of static cast steel castings for tank tracks was produced monthly. In 1943, the Defense Plant Corporation signed a lease with GM to construct a foundry in Danville, Illinois. Within six months the iron began to flow. The Danville plant was shut down after V-J Day.
GM organized the Central Foundry Division November 1, 1946. The division included 3 plants: Saginaw Malleable Iron, Danville (which was purchased from the Federal Government), and a foundry operated by the Harrison Radiator Division in Lockport, N.Y. This plant was closed in 1948 when a new Grey Iron Foundry in Defiance, Ohio was added. The year 1949 saw an addition to the existing foundry in Danville, Illinois.
The 1950s were a period of great progress when shell moldings, cast crankshafts, nuclear sand moisture controls, aluminum blocks and heads by permanent mold processes, and cast connecting rods were developed. In 1959, Fabricast Division was consolidated with Central Foundry Division and took over two additional plants in Bedford Indiana and a plant in Malvern Arkansas - which was later sold to Reynolds Aluminum.
In the 1960s, a divisional product engineering laboratory and new divisional office building were constructed in Saginaw and a new iron foundry was built adjacent to the Defiance plant. In 1967, the Central Foundry Division celebrated its Golden Anniversary and was recognized as the largest foundry organization in the world - employing approximately 11,000 people.
In 1974, however, the picture began to change. The Arab oil embargo and resulting sky-rocketing gasoline prices began to change America’s driving habits. Abruptly, the focus of the American car buyer began to fix on fuel economy. With that, the entire domestic auto industry shifted direction to redesign the automobile to use less fuel per mile traveled. To achieve this goal, automotive designers reduced the size of most vehicles and eliminated weight wherever possible. A major contribution to both of these efforts was the significant trend toward front-wheel drive in cars from compact to family size.
These moves sent shock waves through the foundry industry that have continued to this day. Plants geared to producing 700 to 900 pounds of castings per car found themselves supplying a newly designed vehicle that needed only half that amount. Iron foundries were significantly impacted. Smaller engines not only need smaller cylinder blocks and heads, but many parts of the engine could now be made in aluminum. With front-wheel drive, the rear axle castngs were eliminated altogether.
The total market for automobiles continued during this period, but the demand for iron castings by weight during the same period steadily declined, leaving foundries across the country operating well below their production capacity. A fallout of plants that could not be operated profitably began. Over 200 American foundries ceased operation and the importance of keeping pace with advancing foundry engineering and management technology became apparent.
In 1977, GM’s Pontiac Motor Division transferred its Grey Iron Foundry operation to Central Foundry. A year later, Buick Division announced plans to phase out its Grey Iron Foundry operations in Flint, Mich., with Central Foundry and other competing foundries picking up Buick’s casting supply needs. In 1983, Central Foundry assumed operational responsibility for all major General Motors foundry operations in the United States. This meant transfer of the Saginaw Metal Casting plants and the Grey Iron Foundry in Tonawanda, New York, to Central Foundry from Chevrolet Division. Following the consolidation, an extensive, ongoing study into available GM foundry capacity and projected casting requirements was begun. The excess capacity and congested foundry layout revealed by this study resulted in the phase out of the Tonawanda plant in mid-1984 and the planned closing of the Pontiac facility by mid-1987. Another recommendation of this study resulted in the nearly $220 million modernization of the Saginaw Grey Iron facility. This substantial investment made the Central Grey Iron plant the most modern of its type in the world.
On November 1, 1991, Central Foundry was integrated into the GM Powertrain Division. The division had begun as GM Engine Division and included engine operations from BOC and CPC groups. Later on, the Hydra-Matic Division was folded in, and the new organization became the GM Powertrain Division.