From Duryea to Rivian: Illinois Automobile Manufacturing Heritage and Future

The roots of automobile manufacturing in the United States can be traced back to Illinois, and specifically Peoria. Brothers Frank and Charles Duryea, working in their barn on West Barker Street, are credited as the first Americans to mass produce and market the first gasoline-powered car in 1893. This vehicle included a four-horsepower, two-stroke engine. The Duryea Manufacturing Company in present-day Peoria Heights was established five years later by Charles Duryea, and he began making the Peoria Duryea Motor Trap. In August 1898, the first Duryea was driving in Peoria. 

Drivers of a Duryea vehicle used the single handle of the three-wheel vehicle to steer, shift gears, and throttle the engine. Duryea vehicles were manufactured for sale in 1899 and 1900, but the business soon failed after an economic depression. Charles Duryea, who relocated to Pennsylvania and proceeded to manufacture automobiles there, never returned to Peoria. 

The automotive industry has had its ups and downs in Illinois over the years, with automotive giant Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, idling its assembly plant in Belvidere in February 2023 and laying off 1,350 employees. The factory has served as an economic engine for the town of 25,000 residents since the 1960s. 

After a six-week strike by United Auto Workers, Stellantis reached a tentative contract agreement with the UAW in late October 2023. As part of the agreement, the Belvidere plant was to be reopened. Stellantis is committing nearly $5 billion to remodel the plant over the next four years. In addition to the $3.2 billion for the battery plant that is expected to open in 2028, Stellantis is committing $1.5 billion to remodel Belvidere for electric midsize truck production. UAW members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new contract on November 12. 

In early November 2023, it was announced that the Stellantis plant in Milwaukee would be closing and merge with the one in Belvidere. Company officials added that in order to raise wages for union workers, a merger of the plants needed to happen. 

A Mitsubishi plant in Normal that opened in 1988 closed in 2015, putting nearly 1,300 people out of work. Start-up electric truck manufacturer Rivian bought the closed Mitsubishi plant in 2017. 

Currently, the automobile industry is in the midst of its greatest transformation in over a century. The transition to electric vehicles brings unprecedented opportunity for Illinois to benefit from an enormous wave of automotive investment while bringing risk to producers of components not used on electric vehicles. 

Rivian’s unprecedented early success has met some bumps in the road, with a market peak of $162 billion shrinking to $12.5 billion earlier this year. Rivian is working to position itself as an electric vehicle hub, and with a workforce of 7,500, it is a major engine for the local economy. Following initial ambitious production goals, Rivian is now adjusting and revamping but still looking to bounce back. Plans call for 50,000 vehicles to be produced in 2023, with workforce expansion up to 1,700. 

Lion Electric in Joliet is an innovative manufacturer of zero emission vehicles, including all-electric school buses, minibuses for special needs and urban trucks. The 900,000 square foot plant opened in 2021 with an emphasis on medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicle production. At full scale, the plant has an estimated production capacity of 20,000 vehicles per year while employing 1,400. 

In 2019, Ford invested $1 billion in its Chicago Assembly and Stamping plants and added 500 jobs to expand capacity for production of the Ford Explorer, Explorer Hybrid, Police Interceptor Utility, and Lincoln Aviator. The facility, located on the city’s south side, saw its body shop stripped to the concrete floor and completely rebuilt. Modern equipment, including 600 robots, were installed at the 100-year-old plant. Upgrades included $40 million for employee-centered areas, including new lighting, break areas and security upgrades. 

The future of automobile manufacturing in Illinois currently resides in Normal with Rivian and Joliet with Lion Electric, along with the Ford Assembly Plant in Chicago that is ramping up its electric vehicle efforts. Industry reports indicate that by 2040 the majority of American cars sold are going to be electric. Lion Electric boasts the largest electric vehicle-only plant in the U.S.