Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Closure

In the early 1950s, speculation arose that Ford would move its plant out of Richmond. This was due, in part, to the huge increase in population on the West Coast because of all the people who had moved there during the war years to work in industries supplying the war effort. The increased population meant an expanded market for cars and trucks, and Ford wanted to correspondingly expand its West Coast capacity to assembly vehicles. Ford management in Dearborn wanted to double its assembly capacity in the San Francisco Bay Area to meet demand, and the property in Richmond did not have the space needed to accommodate expansion of the plant. The Richmond community, of course, wanted to persuade Ford to stay. Dearborn sent W.A. Abbott a memorandum in February 1953 describing how he should explain to local people why additional land near the existing Richmond plant would not induce Ford to stay. He was instructed to tell people, "You can't 'splice on' to an assembly line. To increase capacity, each department within a plant must be expanded, and the building of an addition is not the simple solution. Shortly thereafter, the Ford Motor Company sent its Richmond employees a letter stating that the company would build a new plant elsewhere within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco and assuring the employees that they would be offered transfers to the new plant when it opened. At the same time, the company issued a general press release announcing that it had sent the letter to its employees and indicating that the company welcomed inquiries from parties who might be interested in acquiring the Richmond plant.

Two weeks later. Ford issued another press release stating that the company had acquired 160 acres of ground in Milpitas, north of San Jose. The new assembly plant to be built there would be one story, enclosing 1,000,000' feet of industrial space (about twice that in the Richmond plant). There would also be a two-story office building attached to the plant. Interestingly, the press release described how the building would be designed. Just as in the early part of the twentieth century, the company would first develop a complete layout for the operation, and then it would design an appropriate building to envelope the layout.

Ford closed its Richmond plant in February 1955. Most of the Ford employees moved with the operation to Milpitas. Members of the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley conducted a study, headed by John T. Wheeler of the School of Business Administration, to explore the social and economic consequences of the move on the workers. One of the academics, Bennett M. Berger, published his findings as a book: Working-Class suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia. In his preface, Bennett mentions that about 25,000 people lived in Richmond in 1941, and that the population quadrupled in two years because of the surge in employment at Richmond's Kaiser shipyards. In an effort to provide housing for those new workers and their families, the federal government built "row upon row of barracks-like emergency housing." Many of Ford's employees at the time of the Richmond closure had moved to Richmond because of the wartime employment. People from Arkansas and Oklahoma were especially numerous among Ford's post-war workers in Richmond. Many of those new arrivals to Richmond had lived in emergency housing during the war, and Bennett reported that 38 percent of the Ford employees he interviewed in Milpitas had still been living in emergency housing when Ford's Richmond branch plant closed in February 1955. According to Bennett, more than half of the Ford workers who moved to Milpitas told him that they were immediately happy to learn the news that the Ford operation would be moving out of Richmond, in part because of the substandard housing.

That preference on the part of Ford's Richmond workers to leave for what they considered a more desirable living environment does not subtract from the historical significance of the built environment in which they lived and worked during World War II.