While the towns of Pico and Rivera were both agricultural towns that incorporated to become Pico Rivera in 1958, the Ford Motor Company already had plans in place to open a brand new factory. Known as the Los Angeles Assembly Plant, this new facility replaced the aging Maywood and Long Beach Assembly plants. Many of the employees from the closed plants transferred right here to the brand new state of the art Pico Rivera Facility where many of Ford’s familiar models and makes such as the Edsel, Mercury, and Ford Thunderbirds would be built.
With the trademark Ford assembly line in place, cars started to roll out of the Pico Rivera plant. From 1958 to 1960, Ford came out with an automobile built under the name of Edsel. The Edsel was produced at Ford plants throughout the United States including the Pico Rivera plant. The model was short lived due to lack of sales and production soon ceased at the Pico Rivera Plant.
The Edsel, of course, was not the only vehicle produced at the Ford Los Angeles Assembly Plant in Pico Rivera. Several models under the Ford and Mercury moniker were produced from 1958 to 1980. Models include the Ford Custom, Ford Galaxie, Ford LTD II, Mercury Monterey, Mercury Meteor, Mercury Cougar, and Mercury Marquis.
One of the more iconic cars assembled at the plant was the Ford Thunderbird. Seven generations of Thunderbirds from 1958 to 1979 rolled off the Los Angeles Assembly plant and carry the Pico Rivera name on the door certification decal. On June 22, 1972, a milestone was reached with the Thunderbird model, the one-millionth Thunderbird was assembled, and it came from the Los Angeles Assembly Plant in Pico Rivera. At the time, the base price for the 1972 Thunderbird was $5,293. But this vehicle was special. It was marked as the one-millionth and it was treated as such.
The vehicle was painted in gold with white leather interior. This Thunderbird was powered by a 460 Cubic inch V-8 Engine, one of two V-8 options available for this model Thunderbird. More bells and whistles came with this car, power windows, power seats, rear defroster, deluxe seat belts and other comforts. There was one distinction this vehicle had that no other Thunderbird would have, adorned in the roof landau bars are cast bronze medallions that proclaim, Millionth Thunderbird, 1955 – 1972.
The Ford Era
Being one in a million is a special feat. This car was a showpiece for Ford and an accomplishment for the Pico Rivera plant. In July 1972, the car was loaned for one year to the Best of Show Thunderbird owner at the Classic Thunderbird Club International national convention in Los Angeles. After the one year, Ford sold the one-millionth Thunderbird to a gentleman by the name of George Watts. George was the owner of the first ever Thunderbird to roll off a Ford Assembly line. The one-millionth Thunderbird would remain in the hands of George for 13 years until he sold it to a fellow Thunderbird enthusiast, Bob Peterson, in 1985. Bob founded a club in 1981, the Thunderbirds of America, an international club specifically for owners who had Thunderbirds that were built between 1967 through 1976. Many of those Thunderbirds came from the Los Angeles Assembly Plant in Pico Rivera. The club would later expand to include all Thunderbird models built by Ford. The interest in the larger style of Thunderbirds is what led Bob to the purchase of this showpiece vehicle.
Today, this vehicle, a glimpse into the Pico Rivera past, still runs. The license plate reads “Million,” registered in Iowa. The one-millionth Thunderbird has only 55,000 miles. 20,000 of those miles were clocked in during the one year loan to the Best of Show owner, George Watts tacked on an additional 30,000 miles during his 13 years of ownership, and current owner, Bob Peterson has put on only 5,000 miles since taking ownership in 1985. According to Peterson, he keeps his vehicle in the garage, covered up and only drives it every so often. Because this vehicle is the rarest production Thunderbird manufactured by Ford, today the vehicle is worth approximately $250,000.
The One-Millionth Thunderbird
Less than a decade later, another milestone would be reached, but it would have an effect on everyone who worked at the Pico Rivera plant. On January 26, 1980, the last car, number 1,419,498, rolled off the Assembly line. After 23 years, Ford would be no more in Pico Rivera. Soon after, another manufacturer would put the name Pico Rivera on their manufacturers’ certification decal. Only, the make and model of this particular mode of transportation would be kept secret for many years.
When the Ford Plant closed in 1980, the plant remained dormant. A once-booming reminder of the automotive dominance by American car makers, sales took a hit from overseas automakers, taking a bite out of the American share of sales. The Thunderbird, a Ford Classic, would now be built in the mid-west and on the east coast. The four letters that adorned the main office building would come down, and the building would welcome a new owner two years later.
It was during the years of the second cold war that President Ronald Reagan challenged defense contractors in building a state of the art stealth defense weapon. Northrop (now Northrop Grumman) was awarded the contract in October of 1981, beating out Lockheed to develop such a weapon.
Contract in place, a new facility was to be built, the location, in a former automotive plant located 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Northrop purchased the former Ford Automotive Plant and hit the ground running dismantling several buildings to accommodate their newest project, code-named Project Senior C.J. Unlike Ford’s identification as the Los Angeles Assembly Plant, Northrop’s name for this facility was simply “Peek.” Peek would become the headquarters and the place where the B-2 bomber would be developed, the only thing was, every employee here had to keep Peek’s secret.
Once Peek was operative, it became secretive. Employees from Northrop’s nearby facilities were transferred to Peek. Approximately 4,000 employees were tasked with developing a new stealth fighter. Outside the heavily shrouded fence, many residents who lived near the facility didn’t know what was behind the fence or what was being built. For the employees, they were sworn to secrecy. The United States government took every precaution imaginable to protect this top-secret development. Family and friends only knew that one was working for Northrop, if that, but nothing else. Everything stayed within the walls of Peek. Nothing left, not even outside the doors. As a resident and learning the history of the Northrop B-2 development, it’s a bit unnerving to know now that while I was residing a little bit over 1,000 feet away from the Rex and Rosemead entrance. According to an article that was published in the Washington Post, Northrop took steps to ensure that any electronic eavesdropping by Soviet offshore trawlers was deterred by having computers placed in metal lined offices. Secrecy was a big deal at Peek. According to the same published article, an employee was using the restroom when she heard a click sound coming from the next stall. She immediately called in security thinking it was a camera click. It turned out to be another employee balancing their checkbook in the next stall with a pocket calculator.
If you lived near this facility, one may remember un-marked trucks entering this facility. This was typical as deliveries were made to “front-companies” before making their way to Peek. However, never once did military personnel visit this facility, that anyone is aware of. That’s because they arrived in civilian clothing, so anyone from the outside would never know.
There were very few things residents knew of this facility. Neighborhood stories suggest that at one time, in the shroud of darkness, a loud roar could be heard coming from the secretive facility. Many believe that it was the testing of the B-2’s engine. However, that claim cannot be confirmed. What many do know at the time was that something big was going on in that facility.
What was known though was the work schedule for a majority of the workers at Peek. Like clock-work, there was a mad dash to get home at 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. As a young resident, I recounted waiting in the car with my parents to make a left turn at Rex and Rosemead and every day at 5:00 p.m., there would be a long line of cars waiting to make a left turn onto Rosemead Boulevard from the Northrop facility.
As development continued at this plant, the B-2 “Spirit” became known to the general public. The Stealth Bomber would be state of the art with its flight signature invisible to enemy radar. The first public display of the B-2 took place in 1988 in Palmdale, where final assembly of the B-2 was carried out. The cost per B-2 was approximately $2 billion.
Unlike Ford, an operational B-2 never made it out of Pico Rivera. The Pico Rivera Facility, or Peek, was part of a massive production line that included Northrop facilities in Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base. The high desert locations are where the bombers were tested and assembled. However, like Ford, the production at the Pico Rivera facility would come to an end.
As the 90’s decade rolled around, the need for cold war era protection was no longer a priority as military cutbacks were now put in place when President George H.W. Bush had limited the B-2 production to just 20. This would be a significant blow to Northrop and the future of the Pico Rivera facility. A decision was made in 1993 to close the Pico Rivera facility before the beginning of the 21st century. City Councilmembers at the time worked closely with Northrop to keep the facility from closing down completely. However, the decision was made and the once secretive facility was closing its doors. As time went on, the facility was coming down, piece by piece until all that was left was the administration building and finally that came down and Northrop was no more.
With Northrop leaving, that left a huge gap for the City, both property wise and job-wise. During production, taxes generated from Northrop helped the City with redevelopment projects, specifically on Whittier Boulevard. With such a huge tax contributor no longer in the City, that left many question marks as to what is to become of the huge property. City leaders at the time had a few options to ponder. One such option would have brought a water park to Pico Rivera.
After the departure of Northrop, the Rancho de Bartolo Specific Plan was devised by City officials as a guide to the redevelopment of the 200 acres that would be left behind by Northrop. Believe it or not, one of the plans listed for this site was a water park. Concept drawings developed by Nuvis Landscape Architecture & Planning had a sprawling water park called Caribe Jungle Water Park at Las Americas. The park was to have age-specific pools, slides, a performance stage, volcano waterfalls, flumes, snorkel pools, wave pool, concessions, and a parking structure. It was an idea that may have sparked the imagination of many, but it was an idea that didn’t quite fit for the City of Pico Rivera.
Proposed plans for the Caribe Jungle Water Park at Las Americas
After the departure of Northrop Grumman, 40 acres were developed by Majestic Realty as a Business Center. By September 2000, what was left of the Northrop Grumman property was sold to developer Sares-Regis Group. The proposed development for the remaining 160 acres would include a mix of retail, dining, and shopping opportunities in addition to office and industrial space.
After a couple of years of development, the Pico Rivera Towne Center started to take shape. Approximately 55 acres were dedicated to retail while approximately 100 acres was dedicated to the Pico Rivera Commerce Center.
As construction pushed through, Walmart became one of the first stores to open for business by August 2002. Other major retailers such as Staples, Ross, and Marshall’s followed soon after. Lowe’s would open in late August. In November of 2002 with many of the Towne Center’s 40 retailers already open for business, the Towne Center was officially christened with a ribbon cutting ceremony.
The Pico Rivera Towne Center would be completed in Spring of 2003. The Towne Center became the economic hub of Pico Rivera offering residents a wide variety of shopping options, options that were not available in the City. Often times, residents would have to shop in other cities, especially during the Holiday season. Many residents rejoiced when the Towne Center opened and this brought an opportunity for City officials to attract major retailers to the City. In March of 2005, it was announced that the City had attracted a major restaurant chain. Dallas, Texas-based Chili's Grill & Bar restaurant announced they would be building a brand new restaurant on the Towne Center Property.
Since the opening of the Pico Rivera Towne Center, stores have come and gone but the Towne Center has remained one of the busiest shopping centers in Pico Rivera. Today, many of the original tenants are still open while new ones have created a following for a new generation. In the few years, new businesses such as The Habit, PetSmart, Panera Bread, Del Taco have repurposed some of the once vacant spots. Just this past year, ALDI opened in the space that was once occupied by Staples, and Five Below took residence inside the Towne Center, both offering residents and visitors alike, with unique shopping opportunities.
Residents who may have moved here in the last 5 or 10 years would have never known that Mercurys or Thunderbirds rolled off this property or that a top-secret stealth fighter was being developed right where the Lowe’s Garden section is located. But the past is not lost. For those with a sharp eye, one may notice there are two streets behind the Towne Center that pay homage to the past, Stealth Parkway and Mercury Way. Next time you head out to the Towne Center, take a little detour off of Rex Road, and you’ll find the link to the past.