1/15/1998 | 6 MINUTE READ

Building Trucks-Then & Now

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The best-selling vehicle in America is a truck. Specifically, a Ford F-Series pickup. 1998 is the Golden Anniversary of the F-Series. So we talked with some veterans of F-Series manufacturing to get some insights on how things have changed over the years.


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On November 24, 1997, Ford Motor Co. announced that it had sold its two millionth truck so far that year, which was the earliest date than any company had ever accomplished such a market feat. And there was still more shopping time remaining for truck buyers. What's more, Ford was the first company in history to sell two million trucks in a year, which it did in 1995.

When commenting on the November event, Bob Rewey, Ford's group vp for marketing, sales, and service, noted, "Little wonder that Ford's two millionth truck this year was an F-Series pickup. After all, the F-Series has been the bedrock of the Ford Division franchise for the last 50 years." The F-Series has also been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the past 16 years and the best-selling truck for the past 21 years—note this is for any brand from any car or truck manufacturer.

The F-Series debuted on January 16, 1948. These trucks—the F-1 through F-8—were the first all-new postwar vehicles that Ford put on the market. The 1949 car line-up didn't appear for another five months. Although trucks had nothing like the popularity then that they do now, the precedence of the F-Series seems almost prophetic in retrospect.

1948 was an interesting year. It was the year that the "Ed Sullivan Show" debuted and the Hell's Angels organized. It was the year that Bell Labs announced the development of the transistor and the McDonald brothers started franchising their name for hamburger stands. In many ways, these things shaped the American landscape. And nowadays, it's difficult to traverse the landscape without encountering an F-Series.

Today, F-Series trucks are produced in eight plants, from Oakville, Ontario, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, from Kansas City, Missouri, to Valencia, Venezuela.


At Norfolk

One of the plants where the trucks are built is the Norfolk Assembly Plant, in Norfolk, VA. Norfolk Assembly was opened in 1925. By September, 1997, six million vehicles had been produced by the men and women of Norfolk Assembly. Not all were trucks. In fact, the first vehicles to roll out the doors were Model Ts. Total truck production began in the plant in 1974.

When the first cars were produced, there were 750 employees. Today there are some 2,400. The plant was originally 260,000 ft2. Today, after six additions, the plant is 2,154,440 ft2. One interesting aspect of Norfolk Assembly is that in 1942 the U.S. government purchased the plant from Ford. Because of its location in the tidewater area, it was used to repair landing craft and to house sailors. Ford bought the plant back from the government following the war and recommenced production of vehicles in August, 1946. It took until November, 1951, for one million vehicles to be produced in the plant. The daily production today (based on two eight hour shifts) is 752 vehicles.

When Ford launched the 1994 model F-Series pickups, which represented something of a radical redesign from what had been boxy to the "aero" look, Norfolk Assembly was the lead plant.


Looking Back

To get a sense of what changes have been experienced over the past 50 years, I talked to three men. William Boyd started working for Ford in 1947 at a long-since closed assembly plant. "I started work on a Thursday, running nuts on U-bolts for the rear axle springs. I used a big nut runner that had a spring balancer and was on a trolley. By Friday, I discovered that I had muscles that I didn't know that I had. When I look at that operation today, I see a pneumatic device that has torque control and feedback. There's no impact." No need to tighten one's stomach muscles when the threads stop. Boyd actually retired from the company after 35 years (he started at Norfolk in '61), yet he's been back, helping with coordination on construction and facilities upgrades.

Wayne White has worked at Norfolk Assembly for 25 years. He started in the body shop. When he started at the plant, his father worked there. Today, his son does. White, who has worked in a variety of jobs, is now the UAW Health & Safety representative. He says, "In 1971, when I started, there were preprogrammed jobs and people were expected to do them—and nothing more. But there have been changes." He explains, "The mindset now is not `Us and Them.' Everyone realizes that when we come in the gate we may have a different job, but everyone has the same goal." Both labor and management are working to produce the best-quality vehicles built anywhere. As for the preprogrammed nature of the work—that's given way to a situation where people are now providing input to make things better for all concerned.

Warren S. Ford is the Quality Control Manager at Norfolk Assembly. He started at the plant in 1976 as a process engineer. He recalls that in 1976, the plant couldn't keep up with the demand for the popular pickups. But things went sour. He was laid off in 1982. He was called back in 1986. Ford recalls that when he started at the plant, working in the chassis department, there were often problems with things not going together well. There were frames with mislocated holes; there were engineering changes that didn't catch up with production. "We might have missed an engineering change by a couple of days or a couple of weeks," he recalls. "There was a lot of running around verifying that we had the right part for the right truck. Everything was done on paper. Now we're automated; everything is done on the computer. There are no surprises."


How It Is

"Today," Boyd says, "you can't just bring in a person off the street, give him an apron and say, `Do this every day.' You have to explain to people that what they are doing is important."

"Today," White says, "we're using people in different, smarter ways. I know that when I retire, I want to have most of my health. Before, you were worn out when you got out."

"Today," Ford says, "we have excellent working relationships between labor and management. It's gotten better with every year that's gone by. Back then there was confrontation. Today we have empowerment."

Boyd recalls when the paint booths were like fog storms, when 10 or 12 people were wearing respirators and had Vaseline on their arms so they could clean up. The paint system at Norfolk Assembly today is state-of-the art.

White recalls that in 1971 the door opening was made up of 13 pieces—and trying to get everything to fit together was quite a challenge. Today it's one piece.

Ford recalls that measuring of vehicles used to be done with templates; it was a slow, labor-intensive, not-repeatable operation. Now there are coordinate measuring machines and vision systems employed at Norfolk.

Did they ever imagine that trucks would become as popular as they are today?

"When I left in '82, I didn't think that trucks would be well accepted," Ford says, adding, "but the products just keep getting more exciting."

White says that he was concerned in 1974 when the production of Galaxy 500s and LTDs were halted in the plant. "I thought the plant was doomed. I was laid off for 16 months. I couldn't envision that pick-up trucks—even though I had one—would become so integral to the culture of the country." 


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