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FORD AT 100: 5 ideas shaped industrial America
May 29, 2003
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
'Ford has a better idea," an old advertising campaign proudly trumpeted.
In fact, a few key Ford ideas have shaped the world. Throughout its 100-year history, the company has been faithful to Henry Ford's two commandments: Build a lot of cars and make them affordable.
Along the way, the company helped create the American middle class.
From its 1932 V8 engine to the 1986 Taurus, Ford brought many engineering ideas to manufacturing.
1. Assembly line jobs at $5 a day
"Henry Ford's Highland Park assembly plant has astonishing historical significance," said Thomas Bryant, longtime editor in chief of Road & Track magazine. "The idea that anybody could buy a car was unheard of."
It was an idea that helped create the consumer society we live in, where most people have more goods, money and free time than would have been imaginable in an earlier day.
Henry Ford began paying assembly workers $5 a day at the Highland Park plant in 1914. He didn't do it out of the goodness of his heart, but to cut down on employee turnover.
He also created a new class of customers for his products.
"Ford's action transformed American industrial society," economist Peter Drucker wrote in 1974. "It established the American workingman as fundamentally middle-class."
"Ford made its mark initially with how it assembled the vehicles," said Robert Casey, the John and Horace Dodge curator of historical resources at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
"Highland Park emphasized the use of standardized parts even before it pioneered the assembly line."
Before then, workers would assemble cars by trial and error, picking parts out of a bin until one fit.
Using Model T components that were nearly identical allowed Ford to assemble the cars more quickly and efficiently than other automakers, Casey said.
The plant also pioneered the use of subassemblies, he said. Components like the engine, transmission and axles were put together off-line, then moved to the assembly line for installation in the car's chassis.
"It was another way to keep the product moving," Casey said. "Ford did it first, and everybody else realized this was the way to make cars." The assembly plant was also designed for the efficient flow of parts from the loading dock to subassembly stations and the assembly line.
Today, the hottest methods in lean manufacturing and productivity rely on those principles pioneered in Highland Park.
The breakthrough came Oct. 7, 1913, when Ford created the first moving assembly line for cars.
"They studied the process, figured out the optimum speed for the assembly line, and it's the same speed assembly lines move at today," said John McElroy, host of the television program "Autoline Detroit."
Production at Highland Park skyrocketed from 82,388 Model T's in 1912 to 308,162 in 1914.
Ford stopped assembling cars in Highland Park when the 1928 Model A went into production at its Rouge plant, but the modest brick building where the American middle class was born still stands on Woodward Avenue, half a mile south of 8 Mile Road, adjacent to the new Model T shopping plaza.
2. An affordable V8
Henry Ford insisted his cars be light and inexpensive, historian Casey said. Ford also preferred engines whose cylinders came in multiples of four because he thought they were the smoothest and most reliable power plants.
By the 1930s, Ford's four-cylinder engines left it at a disadvantage to Chevrolet's more powerful new six-cylinder.
Henry Ford told his engineers to do what conventional wisdom said was impossible: develop an inexpensive V8 for a high-volume car.
The Ford monoblock or flathead V8 debuted in 1932 and reshaped the automotive landscape.
"All the previous V8s were superluxury cars," said Frank Markus, technical director of Car and Driver magazine. "The flathead Ford was the first affordable V8," thanks to a revolutionary design that reduced the engine's complexity and made it affordable for the masses.
"The monoblock V8 is Ford's only technical invention," McElroy said. "Ford is not a pioneer."
The engine's block was cast as a single piece of iron, while other V8s at the time consisted of several pieces that workers assembled in a laborious process. Ford engineers developed the revolutionary block in Thomas Edison's old laboratory, which had been moved to the grounds of Greenfield Village in Dearborn.
"It was a hell of an achievement," Casey said. "The castings were very intricate for the time."
Ford sold 825,000 V8 Model A's the year the engine debuted, more cars than Chevrolet and Plymouth combined.
The monoblock V8 remained in production until 1953. Ford built 16,388,762 of the engines, many of which live on today in classic cars and street rods.
"Every hot-rodder had a flathead Ford V8," Bryant said. "It was a brilliant engine for its time."
Its power and reliability also made it the choice of gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde.
Clyde Barrow wrote Henry Ford in 1934: "I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has every other car skinned, and even if my business hasn't been strictly legal, it don't hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in your V8."
3. 1932 Roadster
Ford's next innovation was the 1932 Roadster. With the inexpensive V8, Ford created the grandfather of all street rods as enthusiasts from 16 to 60 modified it with everything from flame jobs to 400-horsepower supercharged V8s.
"The '32 Roadster was a fabulous lump of clay from which to start a project," Bryant said. "Generations of street rodders used it."
True to Ford tradition, the Roadster was inexpensive, "and they built about a zillion of them," Markus said. "They were cheap and easy to modify."
The hot-rod scene of the '50s, the muscle '60s car craze and today's "Fast and Furious" subcompact performance tuners all have their roots in the Ford V8 and the '32 Roadster.
4. GT40 race car
The pinnacle of Ford's drive for simple, inexpensive engineering also came in the 1960s, with the successful GT40 race car.
Henry Ford II set out to beat Ferrari at its own game, building a supercar that swept the top three spots in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race. The GT40 went on to win the historic race four consecutive years.
"The fact that it was a Ford captured everybody's imagination," Bryant said. "The car took your breath away when you saw it. I couldn't believe it had a Ford badge."
The GT40 didn't break new ground technically, but it took the best ideas everyone in racing had at the time and combined them in a single car, Markus said.
"The success was in using proven components, spending a ton of money, and Henry Ford II saying 'We're going to win,' " Bryant said.
5. Ford Taurus
Ford changed the look of American highways in the 1980s with the Taurus, an affordable family sedan that matched the aerodynamic styling of Audi's trend-setting luxury sedans.
"The aero look was not just styling," Casey said. "It was serious engineering."
Markus said the Taurus was "one of the first American cars in a long time to capture your imagination. It looked different and it felt different."
The car reversed Ford's sliding fortunes and made design chief Jack Telnack an icon of American style.
"Once a decade, Ford nails exactly what the market wants," McElroy said."They did that with the Taurus in the '80s, the Mustang in the '60s and the Explorer in the '90s."
Perhaps that's one key to Ford's longevity. When it has a good idea, it recognizes it and runs with it.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....