Suppliers outfit Transit vans in massive Kansas City cave complex

Ford's Transit commercial van is being offered in three roof heights, shown here in the SubTropolis cave complex, a 55-million-square-foot area carved from limestone.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- "Parts Storage Area Completed After 560,000,000 Years" ran the headline in a 1965 Ford Motor Co. employee newsletter.

The story referred to an enormous underground storage cavern near Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant, where the company had begun storing car parts. The number wasn't a typographical error.

The 55-million-square-foot cavern system, carved from limestone deposited 560 million years ago and extensively mined until a few years ago, feels like it would be the world's safest place in a nuclear war.

Today, growing numbers of Ford upfitters are setting up shop in industrial pods carved out of the limestone caves. In these workspaces, the companies take bare-bones Transits from the plant and upfit them with systems for commercial customers. Such systems include racks, bins and shelves for delivery vehicles and in-vehicle mobile shops for tradespeople.

An underground supplier park called SubTropolis near Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant is home to six Ford Transit upfitters. Photo credit: ALL PHOTOS BY BRADFORD WERNLE

The complex is known as SubTropolis, touted by its owner, Hunt Midwest, as "the world's largest underground business complex." SubTropolis is occupied by a variety of businesses ranging from light manufacturing to storage. It's less than a 10-minute drive from Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant and that's why it figures big in Ford's plans to expand its commercial van dominance with the Transit, which is replacing the outgoing E series. 

Ford wants to attract a critical mass of upfitters near the Kansas City plant to customize the Transit for commercial vehicle customers with specific requirements. 

Six upfitters have set up shop in SubTropolis, including Knapheide Manufacturing Co., which installs commercial van interiors, and Adrian Steel, which makes ladder racks for vans. 

A Ford Transit van outfitted with a rack system developed by German interior customizer Sortimo and installed by American upfitter Knapheide

Hunt Midwest, the developer that owns SubTropolis and the surface land above it, is marketing the property under the moniker Automotive Alley. 

The SubTropolis numbers alone are enough to make a real-estate agent's head spin. Hunt has developed about 5 million square feet and plans to develop another 8 million. 

More than 50 companies are in the complex with about 1,600 employees. From the tunnel entrance to the end of the cavern is a two-mile drive. There are 11,000 pillars, each one 35 feet in diameter. Tenants have lower utility bills than they would above ground because the temperature stays a near constant 70 degrees no matter what the weather is outside.

A Transit arrives at upfitter Knapheide's workspace.

The humidity underground is about 50 percent, making it an ideal environment for storing many sensitive items. For instance, the original print of Gone with the Wind is stored in a vault here, according to Eric Ford, manager of marketing services for Hunt Midwest. The complex gets a perfect 100 score on the EPA's Energy Star certification system. Hunt Midwest says utility bills are 70 percent lower than they would be in an above-ground building. Hunt's brochure says lease rates are as much as 50 percent lower than in a surface building.

The rates are lower because "Mother Nature made the floors and ceilings," says Hunt's Ford. 

Ventilation comes from the five vehicle portals through which hundreds of semitrucks come daily. There are also four railway portals. Lighting comes mainly from fluorescent fixtures. Those who like windows probably wouldn't enjoy working here. 

Because the Transit was developed in Europe, Ford hopes European upfitters will move operations here or form ventures with U.S. companies. 

"We're constantly receiving requests from existing or all-new companies that either want to relocate or start a new company for Transits," said Tim Stoehr, Ford commercial vehicle product marketing manager. 

One such example is Sortimo International, a German maker of van interiors that has set up in the 100,000-square-foot subterranean workshop of Knapheide, which is installing Sortimo's rack systems. The system consists of racks, bins, shelves and toolboxes attached to the Transit's side walls. 

Knapheide, a Quincy, Ill., upfitter founded in 1848 as a coachbuilder, had worked with Ford to make boxes and flatbed bodies for Ford E-series and F-series cutaway and chassis cab bodies. But with the arrival of the Transit and Transit Connect, Knapheide got interested in supplying the commercial van market and hooked up with Sortimo, which had experience with Transit installations in Europe. 

"The Transit and Transit Connect has made the commercial van market a lot more attractive for us to be part of," said Brian Richards, Knapheide marketing communications manager. Plumbers, electricians and HVAC companies would be typical customers.

The Ford Transit KUV, built on a Transit cutaway chassis, in the SubTropolis workshop of Knapheide, which is converting Transit interiors for commercial customers

Knapheide set up shop in SubTropolis two years ago. The climate-controlled environment is also ideal for applying decals, graphics and logos on pickups for companies such as Terminix, Richards said. 

Proximity to the Ford plant is crucial, Richards said. 

"Because their plant's there, we can upfit the unit and put them right back in Ford's freight system. It's cost effective for us and the customer." 

The Transit, which comes in three roof heights, two wheelbases, three body lengths and three body styles, is more versatile than the E series, which was offered in only one roof height. 

Mike Jackson, director of North American vehicle production forecasting for IHS Automotive, said the Transit's unibody construction marks a step forward for Ford from the outgoing E series in terms of technology, utility and versatility. 

By going from the body-on-frame configuration of the E series to the unibody setup on the Transit, Ford has opened new aftermarket opportunities, Jackson said. 

"There are so many more elements that provide a much more comprehensive solution for fleets," he said. "In terms of aftermarkets, I think the sky's the limit."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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