Monday, August 15, 2011

Motor City Madness

Last week, a quick two day visit to Detroit to see The Motor Company afforded (no pun intended) an afternoon to visit The Henry Ford Museum and the legendary Rouge plant. The museum was great, the assembly plant was jaw-dropping.

The Henry Ford Museum houses JFK's Lincoln from that fateful day in 1963 (cleaned up of course - actually it was in service through the Carter administration).

The museum has what has to be the largest collection of steam engines anywhere in the world. One of these contraptions is so big that apparently they built the museum around it. Then there is the Allegheny locomotive, built in 1941 and weighing 600 tons. "Behemoth" does not adequately capture the size of this thing.

We somehow conspired to miss Abe Lincoln's chair and the Rosa Parks bus. The auto section was being redone and we only got to see a few cool cars one of which, a Bugatti Royale, is (if an original and not a reproduction) worth over $10 million. The way it was sort of out in the public makes me think it was a copy. Only six of these 12.7L works of art were built and Wikipedia does not list the Ford Museum as an owner. It could be on loan but this thing was just sort of sitting in the middle of an aisle...

The tour of the Rouge plant was incredible. The plant itself dates to 1917 and at one time the factory was about a square mile in size and at its peak in the 1930's had over 100,000 workers. Over the years it has churned out boats, tractors, Model A's, Mustangs and Thunderbirds. Almost every component from engine to screw was made here. It has since been downsized, revamped, retooled and automated. The best selling vehicle in the US*, the venerable F-150, is assembled here to the tune of 54 per hour. That's right, just about every minute, a brand new F-150 in XL, XLT, Lariat, single-cab, crew-cab etc, is completed. The assembly is a thing of beautiful precision. Parts show up in just-in-time fashion (thank you Japan) and at each station, two or three of the UAW's finest spend about a minute completing a few tasks as the truck creeps along to the next spot. Our vantage points focused on what was almost the end of the line. We watched mesmerized as workers fitted the interior, added the manual to the glove box, glued on trim, added the Ford logo, installed the wipers, etc. The only downside: no photo's allowed.

Henry Ford got the concept of the auto assembly line from the slaughter houses. In the Rouge plant, the line snakes back and forth through the cavernous building a multitude of times. We got to see maybe 10% of the process. It was fascinating to see all the different colored cabs and box beds come in from different directions on two different lines but yet be matched perfectly in terms of color at the meeting point. The robot that affixed the windscreen was just too cool. But Mr. Roboto has replaced thousands of jobs; the plant now employs about 6,000.

*In 2010, sales for Ford’s F-Series truck were 528,349, up 28 percent. The F-Series was the best-selling truck in America for the 34th year in a row and the best-selling vehicle, car or truck, for the 29th year in a row.

One final note, our hotel was next to a mall where I found a Redwings t-shirt for the princely sum of $2. Easily the coolest logo in all of sports...

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