The Automotive Century and Mass Production

On March 19, 1908, the Ford Model T was announced. Although the car would not begin shipping until September of that year, the response to the announcement was enthusiastic. One agent wrote, “we have rubbed our eyes several times to make sure we were not dreaming,” and another exclaimed, “It is without doubt the greatest creation in automobiles ever placed before a people, and it means that this circular alone will flood your factory with orders.”

Although the Model T is generally associated with the assembly line, the car was in fact not built on assembly lines until 1913, five years after its introduction. (Although production was from the beginning designed with a strong focus on efficiency.) The assembly line was initially used for making components–first the magneto, the labor content of which was cut from 20 man-minutes to 5 man-minutes. Next was the transmission cover–18 minutes reduced to 9–and then the engine–594 minutes to cut 226. Finally, line-based chassis assembly was tried. In the initial attempt, six assemblers followed the slowly-moving chassis, picking up appropriate parts at each location. This reduced the chassis assembly labor from 12.5 man-hours to just under 6. Next, the line was changed so that the workers would stay in place, thus making each task more specialized. By April 1914, chassis assembly time was down to 1.5 man-hours per car.

Workers mostly didn’t like the new system, and turnover soared. It was this distaste for assembly-line work, as well as the desire on the part of Ford and his partner James Couzens to be perceived as enlightened employers,that led to the famous five-dollar-a-day pay rate. For the first time, it was possible for a person making automobiles to have a realistic prospect of owning one.

In early 1914, the wife of a Ford assembly worker wrote anonymously to Henry Ford:

“The chain system you have is a slave driver! My God! Mr Ford. My husband has come home & thrown himself down and won’t eat his supper–so done out! Can’t it be remedied?…That $5 a day is a blessing–a bigger one than you know, but oh they earn it.”

Jobs like this are now referred to nostalgically by politicians and social critics as “good jobs”–and indeed, they were and are in many ways. It’s interesting to note, though, that there is almost a century’s worth of social criticism which attacked assembly line work as dehumanizing and specifically as a creator of anomie.

Here is the price history of the Model T–note that the price of the touring model fell from $850 initially to $290 in 1925. See also this analysis of the prices in terms of manufacturing learning-curve theory is here–note the linearity of the inflation-adjusted prices on the log-log scale. (p 39 & 40)

More Model T information here.

The information on assembly line productivity, and the quote from the Ford worker’s wife, are from the book From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, by David Hounshell.

8 thoughts on “The Automotive Century and Mass Production”

  1. The Hounshell book is excellent. It shows that “mass production” had deep roots, and cannot just be plunked down into an otherwise underdeveloped economy. The Soviets in 1920s tried to adopt “Fordism” but they were too backward to pull it off. Nonetheless, they managed to learn sufficient mass production skills in the arms-making sector, that they were able to make war goods on a “Fordist” basis during the Great Patriotic War. The USA and the Soviet Union learned to do this. The Germans never did, and the British much less so.

    A related and often-forgotten point is that a developed economy has lots of manufacturing that is not and cannot be done on an assembly-line. The ideological worship of Fordism, which Hounshell touches on, did a lot of damage.

    Another book that covers the non-Fordist part of the economy during the same era is Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925 by Philip Scranton. Scranton shows that the mass-production sector was only one part, though a major one, of a mature, consumer-centric economy. What could be more “modern” than machine tools and electrical generators? Yet these were made on a one-off, virtually hand-craft basis. Scranton is a good companion piece to Hounshell.

  2. The Model-T will always remind me of the Poconos. It made the mountains (Poconos and Catskills) accessible for the ordinary people of Philly and New York. Small resorts popped up at the edges of the new reach of city folk. One of the many small resorts was owned by my great-Grandfather (I still have the original business plan, now more than 100 years old!).

    Of course times changed. Cars got more reliable and roads got better so the edge of accessibility grew. By the time I was a kid you could drive from Philly to the Carolinas for a family vacation. Now flights are so cheap that even a middle class family can visit other continents annually.

    Hurray for capitalism.

  3. Following up on “Misvaluing Manufacturing” — about 15 years ago a friend who worked for Exxon said that the company would probably never build another refinery in the US, and was looking to divest those it had. Too much hassle, uncertainty and liability. I repeated this to some enviros, who were totally indifferent — glad to get rid of it; dirty; not a big employer; etc. My Exxon friend’s response to this reaction was: “They just don’t understand. It is not just the plant operation that goes. Over time, it is the engineering work; the architecture; the finance; the law. All of that can be done in Singapore as well as Texas, and it will shift to be done near the site, because there are always advantages for proximity. These people think the U.S. can hollow out manufacturing and keep the clean services, and it can’t.”

  4. Once a few years ago I did some air sampling for industrial hygiene at a factory that made car parts. I had to see what various people’s jobs were like, of course. Some people sat in the same spot and did the same little task all day, day in and day out. The person who accompanied me told me that people who gravitate to those jobs like them. They’re in them for years, they resist well-meaning efforts to move them out. I told him that that would drive me nuts and he said he felt the same. But you can’t project what you want onto other people. It takes all kinds.

    I’m tired at the end of the day. I suppose anybody working at a real grown-up job is. The man whose wife complained that he was tired – I’m sure he was, but was he any tireder than he would have been if he’d been trying to make a living for his family on a farm? Up at 4:00 AM to milk cows? Plowing behind a mule? That’s no piece of cake either.

  5. Laura…”was he any tireder than he would have been if he’d been trying to make a living for his family on a farm? Up at 4:00 AM to milk cows?”…possibly…as you say, it depends on the individual. Most assembly-line jobs are probably physically less-taxing than many farming tasks. On the other hand, doing a machine-paced job, in which you can’t pace yourself by working faster for a while, and then working slower for a while, is probably very draining for a substantial proportion of people. Even someone who wouldn’t mind tightening the same nut all day would likely find it easier to have a daily nut quote to meet than a minute-by-minute production demand.

    Peter Drucker once suggested that the assembly line is not the perfect engineering of human work, but rather the imperfect engineering of machine work.

  6. Peter Drucker quote – oh, yes.

    One of the air sampling jobs I did was at a factory that made the little bulbs that go into automobile lights – taillights and turn signal lights and such. Some of the equipment was originally manual and was automated later. I stood at one fully automated workstation where hearing protection was required because it was LOUD, watching the robotic equipment putting the little filaments in their spots, and thought about the women who used to stand there for hours at a stretch – no OSHA back in the 20’s, no decent hearing protection. It was really quite something.

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