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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Essay: The Machine That Powered the 20th Century : The automobile gave the world a new concept of freedom. And it remains an engine for change.

March 01, 1994|JAMES FLANIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The words of the founder remain true. "We have remade this country with automobiles," Henry Ford wrote in 1926. "But we do not have these automobiles because we are prosperous. We are prosperous because we have them."

The automobile has been an industrial and a social revolution rolled into one; its importance transcends categorization.

It has employed people and improved them. From the start, when Ford hired unskilled immigrant workers to produce his Model T, right through to the present when one job in six in the United States, Japan and Western Europe is linked to the automobile, the car has been an economic and social engine.

Auto workers bought cars and houses and educations for their children. The auto industry drove science and technology, spurring knowledge of power and propulsion, metallurgy and manufacturing. And it created highways and suburbs and new kinds of cities. It raised living standards in the United States and other countries.

And more recently it has brought all those wonders to new countries. South Korean farm boys fresh from the fields now are capable of fashioning Hyundai cars--and the engines and computer chips that power them. Chinese, Indian, Russian and Indonesian farmers are learning to do likewise. The revolution continues.

Yet a successor to Henry Ford, like many Americans now frustrated by clogged freeways, had forgotten that when he met a boss of the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Robert S. McNamara, former secretary of defense and former head of Ford Motor Co., was president of the World Bank when he visited Moscow for the first time and met with the late Leonid I. Brezhnev.

The Soviet Union, then as always, was struggling to create a civilian economy. But McNamara opened the conversation by telling Brezhnev how pleasant it was that Moscow streets were relatively free of traffic. The Soviets could "avoid the problems of the automobile," McNamara said sunnily.

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In reply, Brezhnev slapped his desk for emphasis and growled: "We must have an automobile industry."

The Russian had it right, perhaps because he recalled a visit by Soviet emissaries to Henry Ford in the 1920s. They wanted Ford to build tractors in the Soviet Union--tractors, not cars, because they did not need "luxury" goods just yet.

"The car is not a luxury," Ford told them. "You ought to buy automobiles and get your people used to machinery and moving about with some freedom. The motor car will bring roads and then it will be possible to get the products of your farms to the cities."

The Soviets never got the crops to town, probably because they did not share Ford's belief in the importance of "freedom." Perhaps the Russians will.

It should be understood that Ford did not invent the car. He invented a process for making cars called the assembly line that profoundly affected labor relations the world over.

In a similar way in 1949, Taiichi Ohno, a Toyota production engineer, concentrated on what workers did to invent a system called lean production that improved upon Ford's assembly line.

Ford's insight was that through interchangeable parts he could reduce the time and cost of the craft system in which a skilled artisan assembled most of an automobile. It took more than 12 hours of work to make a car that way. Ford's assembly line, in which each worker performed only a single task, reduced that to 1 1/2 hours, an 88% reduction in cost.

The system greatly broadened the industrial working class, and it paid them more.

Ford paid his workers $5 a day in 1914, arousing protests from other employers but creating new customers for the motor car, the new mass transportation.

Ford himself was neither a model employer nor a model businessman. He hired goons and gun-toting executives to rough up unionizing workers in the 1930s and almost sank his company by insisting on selling cars in only one color, black.

His rival, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., chairman of General Motors, moved past Ford by offering customers cars in five styles and price ranges.

But both their systems relied on the economies of mass production--making as many cars as possible so as to spread the costs of plant and machinery over more units and thereby reduce the price of each car.

It was a big-company strategy, seemingly impregnable to competition from smaller car makers.

But in postwar Japan, Ohno of Toyota couldn't count on long production runs--his company made 2,685 cars in all of 1950, less than half the daily output of a single Ford plant.

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But Ohno, who with his boss, Toyota Chairman Eiji Toyoda, toured Ford's Rouge plant in Detroit, noticed that in their eagerness to run as many cars as possible through the assembly line, U.S. makers allowed defects to go through and corrected them at the end of the line.

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