Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Operation during the 1930s

Ford's three new assembly plants on the Pacific Coast opened in the early 1930s. The Long Beach plant was the first to open in 1930. The Richmond plant opened on August 1, 1931, and the Seattle plant commenced operations in early 1932. Because of the onset of the Great Depression, demand for autos was down, and the Richmond plant employed only 1,000 at the outset. Despite the Depression, Ford maintained its record of expansion around the world. The year 1931 saw the opening of four other assembly plants in addition to the one at Richmond. Plants went into service at Buffalo, New York; Cologne, Germany; and Madras, India, and the new facility at Dagenham, near London, England, became the second-largest automobile manufacturing plant in the world after Ford's River Rouge plant. At about the time the Richmond plant began operating. Ford also inaugurated the manufacture of body parts and pressed sheet steel parts at its Long Beach Plant. The new department at Long Beach supplied hoods, fenders, and other body parts to the Ford assembly plants at Long Beach, Richmond, Portland, and Seattle.

Getting the Richmond plant ready to operate entailed completing the building and installing the assembly-line and ancillary equipment necessary for the assembly of parts made elsewhere into finished autos. Ford moved very little of that equipment from the San Francisco plant. By mid-July, equipment was installed and the plant, under the management of Charles A. Bulwinkel, began assembling Model A and Model AA cars.

The Richmond plant was originally organized into several departments, including the Sales Department, Accounting Department, Production Department, Inspection Department, Stock Department, and Receiving Department, each of which was headed by a superintendent. The Production Department was sub-divided into several of its own departments, each headed by a foreman. Those departments were the assembly line, body production, body trim, body paint, enameling, and the stock department. Shift foremen supervised the workers and reported to their respective department foremen.

The Ford Motor Company and local organizations sponsored a variety of events to celebrate the Richmond plant's opening on August 1st. The night before, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce held a banquet featuring a speech by California's governor. The day of the opening, caravans of Ford cars carrying dealers and enthusiasts said to represent more than 250 cities in northern and central California converged on Richmond. The Ford Motor Company hosted a luncheon for about 1,000 of California's business people and then dedicated the plant with speeches, after which the first automobile rolled off the assembly line. Following the official ceremony, the company opened the plant to visitors, giving tours throughout the day to about 20,000 people. The operating plant remained open to tours for a week, and as many as 100,000 people observed the assembly line in operation during the festivities.

The Ford Motor Company's first ship to deliver parts to Richmond, under the command of Capt. O.L. St. Marie, arrived later in August carrying engines, axles, and frames. It had already stopped at the Long Beach plant. After Richmond, it was bound for the Ford plant at Portland before returning to the Atlantic Coast. The parts had not traveled all the way to Richmond by water; however. Ford had sent them by rail to Chester, Pennsylvania, where they were loaded on the ship.

The Richmond Branch supplied autos to Ford dealerships in its territory, which included Hawaii. Depending on demand in other regions and the output of the assembly plants serving those regions, the Richmond Branch also supplied cars to the Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Long Beach territories. The Richmond plant also housed a Stock Department, which stored a stock of Ford parts to supply dealerships throughout the Pacific Coast region.

The Richmond and other Pacific Coast plants had opened during an inauspicious time, though, because of the lagging demand for autos. Several Ford assembly plants around the country closed temporarily at the end of 1931 and did not open again until late in the spring of 1932. Ford's problems were compounded by stiff competition from Chevrolet and the newcomer in the economy-car market, Plymouth. After a peak in car sales in 1929, when the economy was still robust, the market slumped through the early 1930s. The three economy makes-Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth-sold a combined 2,174,000 autos in 1929, with Ford accounting for more than 60 percent of those sales. Even though the three automakers' combined sales slumped to 1,737,000 in 1930, Ford retained its 60 percent share. In 1931 and 1932, even as overall sales continue to decline each year. Ford's share of that total fell to 44 percent and 35 percent respectively. In 1932, Ford sold only 258,000 autos. During those years, Chevrolet's sales declined, but not as precipitously as Ford's, and Plymouth's sales actually grew. One reason for the slip in Ford sales was the difficulty the company had in changing the Rouge plant over to the V-8 engine.

The Ford Motor Company introduced its new V-8 engine to great fanfare in 1932. Conscious of the pioneering role the Model T had played twenty-five years earlier. Ford News claimed that its V-8 was pioneering into the next stage of the automobile age:
"The Model T blazed the way for the motor industry. It was almost entirely utilitarian in character. It pioneered in an era when the public was not conscious of its need for motor cars. The V-8 pioneers in an era when that conscious need is universal. "

"Personal transportation should never be a luxury. It and the latest of its refinements are the rightful heritage of every man, woman, and child in America. Modem civilization has given it to them. This heritage is the wholly reasonable and logical outgrowth of higher standards of living."

The change was very disruptive to Ford sales, however. Just as the switch from the Model T to the Model A disrupted production schedules, leading to a sharp drop in sales in 1927, the switch to the V-8 led to cuts in 1932 Ford sales to a number less than half of 1931 sales. Conversion to the V-8 was delayed because of mechanical problems with the new engine block that Ford engineers discovered at the River Rouge plant.

The Ford Motor Company began manufacturing Mercuries at the Richmond plant in 1938. The Richmond Branch supplied Mercuries to all the Ford territories on the Pacific Coast and to the Hawaiian Islands.

The Ford Motor Company assembled its ceremonial twenty-seven-millionth car at the Richmond Branch on 15 February 1939. It was the first time the company had designated one of its assembly plants outside of Detroit or Dearborn for the honor of producing a "millionth" Ford.

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the Richmond Branch remained fully integrated into the Ford Motor Company's continent-wide and world-wide system of production. Thus, managers of the Richmond Branch had to obtain authority from Dearborn to conduct extraordinary activities, whether large or small. A relatively large project for which Richmond sought approval in the summer of 1940 concerned repairs to the rock rip-rap along the water's edge of the Ford property, necessitated by recent storm damage. Manager W.A. Abbott sent photographs of the damage to the Branch Operations Superintendent's Office in Dearborn, described the remedy he proposed, and asked for comments on his proposal and for the authority to solicit bids from contractors to make the specified repairs. Dearborn authorized the repairs and instructed Abbott in the specifications he should issue to bidders. Upon receipt of bids, Abbott forwarded them to Dearborn, along with his recommendation of which contractor's bid to select. Dearborn approved the recommendation, pending the contractor's certification that it was properly insured against liability and workers compensation.

Likewise, Abbott needed Dearborn's approval for something as significant as raising employees' pay. In 1940, for example, Abbott wanted raise the pay for several salaried superintendents, foremen, and clerks. Some of the individuals had recently been transferred to new, more responsible positions, but they had not yet received raises commensurate with their new posts. Others had taken on challenging new tasks in their existing positions, and Abbott wanted to give them raises to reward the quality of work they were doing. Abbott did not, however, have the authority to grant raises without approval from Dearborn, so he wrote to the Payroll Office there explaining his reasons for wanting to issue the raises.

Ford's central Branch Operations Office in Dearborn also maintained control of seemingly more minor matters. Thus, when Branch Operations decided to make a system-wide change, each branch, including Richmond, was expected to implement it unless some local condition suggested an exception be made, in which case the local branch needed to request such an exception. Letters from the 1940s in the Records of the Ford Motor Company at the Henry Ford Museum indicate the extent to which Dearborn supervised small details at the branch operations. For example, the Dearborn Superintendent's Office sent a letter to all branch plants in 1940 describing the kinds of oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus they were expected to have in their first aid departments. The plant physician at the Richmond plant, however, recommended against the purchase, because the City of Richmond had such emergency equipment available within five minutes of a call. Richmond branch superintendent W. A. Abbott therefore requested that Richmond be exempted from the required purchase, stating that he would buy the equipment, though, if the Dearborn office required it nevertheless. In another instance, Richmond's general foreman Charles Johnson wished to remove a spray booth and oven that was intended for use on small parts. His crews had begun painting in small booths in other departments, so he wished to remove the booth and oven in question to make space available for other purposes, but he needed to seek authority from Dearborn to do so. This experience of working as a component in a much larger system perhaps helped prepare Ford's Richmond managers for their participation in the World War II production.