LOS ANGELES -- The bright red Chevrolet Camaro that rolled off the line at the last General Motors assembly plant in Southern California was a special order model for a collector from Iowa with a penchant for the sporty coupes.
It was also a symbol of the changing car industry and the last vehicle the 44-year-old Van Nuys Assembly Plant's 2,600 workers will make at the suburban facility.
The Camaro was the last of more than 6 million cars produced at the Van Nuys plant in the San Fernando Valley.
Each employee who worked on the Camaro left his autograph on some unseen portion of the car -- mostly on the floorboards under the carpeting.
After years of layoffs and temporary closures, and despite pleas from workers and local government, General Motors is moving its Camaro and Pontiac Firebird assembly operations to St. Therese, Quebec.
'All you can say is that it's devastating,' said Ed Johnsen, who has worked at the plant for 16 years. 'I hope we can take care of each other now. Our question is: What is the American Dream now? Now they're moving on and leaving everybody in the dust.'
After the final shift, Virginia Miramontes, who was the plant's first female assembly line worker, plucked the first red rose she had ever taken off a bush in front of the company's headquarters.
Miramontes, 42, said the drooping rose 'looks just like us.'
'The rose feels sad because they've been neglected in the same sense they're neglecting us,' she said. 'An American car is being sent to Canada.'
The 2,350 employees who are members of the United Auto Workers will receive full pay through September 1993 if they agree to attend school for re-training, either at the Van Nuys plant or elsewhere.
Employees who choose not to attend school will receive 85 percent of their pay through September 1993.
But many workers who have decades with General Motors said they do not know how they will ever be able to find a job that can match the union paychecks they made at GM.
The workers average about $17 an hour.
Some, like Ed Johnsen and John Ochoa, Jr., said they already have begun attending local community colleges to learn a new trade. Others will return to the GM plant to take retraining classes the company is offering.
For many, the plant was a home away from home.
Many families, like John Ochoa, Sr., and Jr., had worked at the plant for 10 to 20 years. The plant even boasts a roster of married couples, like Ed and Patti Johnsen, who met on the job.
Although GM announced it would stop production at the 100-acre plant in July 1991 as part of a streamlining operation, the long lead time did not ease the pain.
'Some of us couldn't say goodbye to each other because we had lumps in our throats,' Miramontes said. 'There were good times and bad times, but we pulled through it. I've left a part of me here.'
At one time, the plant employed about 5,000 people, but the company was forced to lay off employees in 1979 and temporarily shut the plant down several times when sales lagged.
In an effort to save the plant, the UAW even reluctantly agreed to switch to a Japanese team-oriented style of running the assembly line, but the economy, GM said, just would not allow the company to continue operating the plant. One of the plant's disadvantages was its location -- far from the mostly Midwestern parts suppliers.
The company still operates a joint venture facility with Toyota Motors in Fremont, Calif., near San Jose.
The closure will have a ripple effect on surrounding businesses. More than half the customers at a nearby restaurant were GM workers and a neighborhood tire store says about 40 percent of its customers work at the plant.
The plant's last car was picked up and driven away by Leonard Stevenson, of Des Moines, who collects Camaros. He said he liked having the workers' autographs on his floorboards.
'It's like a part of them will always be with the car,' he said.