Ford's System of Branch Assembly Plants

From the beginning, the Ford Motor Company had relied on a network of sales agencies-dealers who agreed to sell Model T cars, stock parts, and provide mechanics' services. Ford initially manufactured fully assembled cars in Detroit and then "knocked them down" (took off the wheels and otherwise prepared them for shipment) before shipping them to dealers around the country. The agents in distant cities reassembled the knocked-down cars before placing them in showrooms. To better serve the network of sales dealerships. Ford took direct control of agencies in New York and Philadelphia in 1905 and the following year established company-owned branches in Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Ford branches not only delivered reassembled cars to dealerships within their respective regions, but also they sold Ford cars themselves. In 1914, when Ford sold over 200,000 autos, the company's twenty-nine branches accounted for 80 percent of sales. Not surprisingly, branch managers were closely supervised by Ford headquarters in Detroit. As Ford sales throughout the U.S. continued to increase, the company terminated its leases for branch buildings and built its own, usually designed by Albert Kahn.

Almost as soon as the Ford Motor Company started selling cars in the U.S., it began forging relationships with foreign companies to assemble and sell Fords abroad as well. Ford's first deal with a foreign manufacturer was with Gordon McGregor, an Ontario wagon maker and the founder of the Ford Motor Company of Canada. McGregor signed a contract with Ford whereby he would give stockholders of the Detroit-based Ford company 51 percent of the stock in his new company in exchange for Ford granting him plans and specifications for the various Ford cars, technical assistance in producing them, and exclusive rights to make and sell Ford cars throughout Canada and the other British colonies. McGregor began making cars at his Walkerville Wagon Works across the Detroit River from Detroit and finished his first Ford in February 1905. At about the same time, Percival L.D. Perry of Birmingham, England, began negotiations with the Ford Motor Company to gain exclusive rights to sell or distribute Ford autos in England. Having secured that deal, he then began negotiating with the Ford organization to establish an actual branch operation in England. That branch opened in London in 1908, and Perry was soon managing a brisk business distributing Fords throughout Europe.

By 1914, Ford had also expanded the scope of work assigned to some of the branches by having them assemble autos from unassembled parts supplied by Highland Park. The company opened its first such plant in 1910 at Kansas City. Later that year, it opened a second branch assembly plant at Fargo, North Dakota. One of the advantages of assembling autos elsewhere was in reduced shipping rates. Whereas a standard railroad boxcar of the time could hold only three or four knocked-down Model T cars, it could hold the parts and sub-assemblies of twelve cars. This not only reduced freight rates but also reduced railroad congestion around the Highland Park plant. By 1914, fifteen of Ford's twenty-nine branches were branch assembly plants housing the usual showroom on the first floor and stock parts storage as well as an automobile assembly line modeled on the Highland Park plan on the floors above. The fifteen branch assembly plants were responsible for producing about a quarter of the company's total output of more than 200,000 cars. As Ford continued building branch assembly plants through the 1910s, its output continued to grow. Whereas the average Ford branch plant assembled about ten cars per day in 1914, that average increased to about seventy cars per day in 1917. That year. Ford's largest branch plant, Chicago, assembled more than 150 cars per day. The Ford system of branch plants was so successful that the company's competitors soon adopted the practice. Chevrolet, for example, established four branch assembly plants in 1915-1916 at strategic locations around the U.S., including one at Oakland.

Ford's branches overseas also made the transition to assembly. The first non-North American Ford assembly plant was opened by Percival Perry at Manchester, England, in 1911. The company expanded into the southern hemisphere by opening an assembly plant in Buenos Aires in 1914. During World War I, Canadian-made Fords served as ambulances for Canadian troops, British-made Fords carried ammunition, and American-made Fords accomplished many tasks for Americans. To meet the growing post-war market. Ford opened two new assembly plants, one in Copenhagen and one in Cadiz. By 1924, Ford had opened assembly plants at Trieste, Antwerp, and Stockholm. The company replaced its Copenhagen plant with a larger waterfront structure in 1924 as well, because Copenhagen was to serve as Ford's gateway to Russia and the Baltic countries. In 1925, Ford opened an assembly plant in a suburb of Paris and the following year a plant in Berlin. Meanwhile, Ford of Canada paralleled the growth of its parent in the U.S., adopting the five-dollar day and expanding across the country, opening branches in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, and Vancouver. Farther south, the Ford Motor Company opened assembly plants in Brazil and Mexico. Ford entered the Asian market in 1922, building an assembly plant at Yokohama, Japan.

Ford's scheme for expanding its continental system of assembly plants included a component featuring water transportation. Since 1917, Henry Ford had dictated that new branch plants be accessible at least by barge. With the opening of the Rouge plant, Ford started accumulating a fleet of Great Lakes freighters for transporting coal and iron ore to his coke ovens and blast furnaces. He also developed a fleet of ocean-going vessels for shipping Ford parts to the foreign assembly plants. Toward the end of the 1920s, he turned his attention to delivering parts to domestic branch plants via ocean-going ships. The company planned to transport parts manufactured at the River Rouge plant via the Great Lakes and the New York State Barge Canal to ports along the Atlantic Coast or through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Coast. The assembly plant at Edgewater, New Jersey, was the largest of the new facilities built on deep-water locations. Three new plants on the Pacific Coast would be at Long Beach, Richmond, and Seattle, each with docking facilities. Ford launched two new 300' cargo ships in 1931, the EDGEWATER and the CHESTER, each with a net capacity of 2,800 tons. They were said to be the largest ships designed to fit through the New York State Barge Canal and were equipped with folding funnels and masts and retractable pilot houses that would allow them to pass beneath bridges over the canal.