DETROIT – General Motors Corp. will announce today plans to drop its Chevy Astro and GMC safari minivans and permanently shutter its Baltimore assembly plant, Ward’s learns.

The factory’s closure has been widely speculated for several years. (See related story: Southern Hospitality)

GM will discontinue Astro sales following the ’05 model year.

The rear-wheel-drive Astro and Safari are outdated products in the front-wheel-drive dominated minivan segment. Sales have been dwindling for years.

Astro van deliveries, for example, finished 2003 at 15,709 in 2003 – down 16.1% from 2002 and less than half of 1998’s 32,736-unit total. Due to slow sales, one shift at the Baltimore plant was eliminated in mid 2003. With deliveries declining, the vans did not warrant the significant product investment needed to meet new safety standards in 2005. (See related story: GM Studying Astro/Safari Production Beyond ’03)

The Baltimore plant, which opened in 1935, is one of GM’s oldest in North America. It employs about 1,200 salaried and hourly workers.

A GM spokesman declines to comment on plans to close the plant and drop the Astro and Safari from the auto maker’s lineup.

But a source tells Ward’s the Baltimore factory will close sometime in 2005. A specific build-out date will not be known immediately, as plans call for GM to fulfill orders for the Astro and Safari for the entire ’05 model year.

Plants traditionally change over model-year production in the summer. But a small spike in Astro and Safari sales is expected as the public learns of the plans to discontinue the products, so output could be extended.

GM’s plans for the 1,200 workers are unclear.