You're never going to announce another job one date? asks a wide-eyed reporter. "Never again!" declares Dennis K. Pawley, Chrysler Corp 's executive vice president of manufacturing, as he strides down the aisles of Chrysler's churning St. Louis minivan assembly plant.

First it killed oft the time-honored tradition of making 10. day sales reports. Now Chrysler is dumping the last few shovelfuls of dirt on the grave of yet another industry mainstay: the Job One date.

Job One -- the date when mass production of sellable vehicles is supposed to officially begin -- typically is set about a year in advance and often is criticized by manufacturing engineers as being contrived and artificial. You can't just flip a switch and flood line line with high-quality new vehicles, they argue. Hitting the date is no guarantee of smooth sailing, either. Nevertheless, if a Job One date is "missed" it's an instant red flag to reporters, stock analysts and others who track the industry. So, more often than automakers will admit, elaborate Job One celebrations are a sham. Sometimes the new cars coming off the line are scrapped as soon as the camera crews leave.

"We, like others, used to always hang on a Job One date, and then everyone would jump on you if you didn't make a date that was set 12, 13 months ahead of time. A lot of things can change in that amount of time," says Tom Kowaleski, Chrysler's director of product, platform and technical public relations.

Instead of setting more artificial dates, Chrysler's manufacturing and public relations officials now are trying to give reporters a more realistic look at how new products are launched (and, no doubt, hopefully head off bad publicity before it starts), he says.

This strategy led to the highly unusual move last February of inviting reporters to the refurbished St. Louis assembly plant to view the launch of Chrysler's all-new 1996 NS minivans up close (see p.67).

Hosting a plant media tour during the extremely hectic period of a new model startup "usually is the last thing we would want to do," says Mr. Pawley. However, he acknowledges his refusal to cite a Job One date for production startup at the plant may have caused some confusion. Nevertheless he seems dead-set against ever using them again. Instead, he invited the media to come back and see two more stages of the launch later, so they can understand the process better.

Despite abandoning official launch dates, Chrysler has had no problem producing enough vehicles in time for dealers to do proper launches, Mr. Pawley says. Now the only question is this: If other automakers joined Chrysler in eliminating 10-day sales reports, will they abandon Job One dates, too?

Manufacturing officials also showed off a variety of ergonomic and technological improvements at the plant. Among them:

* Price/class flexibility to cut complexity. One hypothetical example: each of three minivan plants worldwide is capable of painting the vehicles 10 different colors. Ten colors is a relatively manageable number for one plant, but that means 30 colors altogether are available to buyers. In the past, each plant might have tried to do a greater number of the same colors, leading to more manufacturing complexity, but fewer choices to the customer. This strategy is being applied to many, many aspects of minivan production.

* Use of open areas or "white space" in the production line that allows room for future production systems to be installed. This modular approach greatly improves plant flexibility and should permit model changeovers a few years from now to be almost instantaneous, officials say.

* Pay-per-build is becoming increasingly common at Chrysler plants. For instance, PPG Industries, the paint supplier, gets paid only for the paint that ends up on the vehicle. "Now, if they (PPG officials) see a leaky paint line, they're the first ones to holler," says Mr. Pawley. The next step, he says, is pay-per-build for everything. It's already being done with tires, seats and trim panels.

* Minivans don't get adjacent stamping plants, but they get the next best thing: a "home line" concept. Specific presses and personnel at Chrysler's central stamping plants are dedicated solely to minivan production. "It's like having their own line at the plant except its not adjacent," says Shamel T. Rushwin, vice president-international manufacturing and minivan assembly operations. "By doing that, you don't et into the variability of a die being inserted into a different press with different tonnage and getting little variances in the part. It's much more stable. And the team around the stamping presses is the same team dedicated to the minivan platform, so they are truly part of the extended team."

Other highlights from the St. Louis plant tour:

* Chrysler's Windsor, Ont., Canada, and Graz, Austria, plants are producing the old AS models to keep product in the pipeline for the busy spring selling season. They will change over to the new-generation NS minivans during the third and fourth quarters, respectively. Windsor is building mostly short-wheelbase, low-content AS models to cover the low end of the price spectrum, while St. Louis gears up first to make long-wheelbase, heavily loaded luxury versions of the new NS to cover the high end of the market. Graz will build only 4-door high-content versions for the European market. Once the changeover is complete, however, each plant will be capable of making all configurations.