Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Production for the Civilian Market in the Early 1940s

Henry Ford had an extensive empire of auto plants throughout Europe at the end of the 1930s. Dearborn managed all of them through Dagenham, England, except the plants in Germany and France, which were autonomous from Dagenham but still managed by Dearborn. While Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were appalling much of the world with their treatment of Jews and imposing military escalation, Henry Ford showed little concern. In 1938, Ford was even willing to become the first American to receive an award, the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, from Hitler's government. Ford also tried to remain neutral in Asia, even as Japan invaded and occupied countries like China and Korea. The company produced and shipped several thousand military trucks to Japan from the Richmond dock in 1937. Although Ford wanted to remain neutral as hostilities loomed, nationalistic forces soon wrested control of Ford production in Germany away from Dearborn and placed it in support of the building Nazi war machine. As the Nazis swept through most of western Europe, Ford plants in Hungary, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands also came under German control. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor and formal declarations of war in December 1941 made Germany and Japan enemies of the United States, Ford managers in Dearborn maintained limited communications with the German managers and even continued shipping some auto parts to Ford plants in occupied countries. Meanwhile, Ford's plant at Dagenham turned its production to the defense of England.

In 1940, while Europe and Asia had gone to war and the United States still struggled with economic depression, the Richmond Branch produced about 100 cars each day. As in previous years, the plant turned out many but not all of the models Ford offered. As mentioned earlier, Richmond was now a Mercury assembly plant, so five models of Mercuries including sedans, coupes, and convertibles comprised about one-quarter of Richmond's output. About half of the Mercuries Richmond produced were Town Sedans. All the Mercuries had 95-hp engines. Richmond produced Fords in seven body types, including sedans, coupes, convertibles, and station wagons. Most were equipped with 85-hp engines, but some had either 60-hp or 95-hp engines. The plant produced no trucks during the first seven months of the year. Then in August, while much of the plant was converting for production of the new 1941 model cars, Richmond produced 200 light trucks of the 1941 model, including pick-ups, panel delivery trucks, and commercial cab-over-engine truck chassis that others bought to finish as dump-trucks and delivery trucks. About half of the trucks had 85-hp engines and the rest had 95-hp engines. In September, the plant turned out 1,130 light trucks as well as nearly 800 1941-model cars. Even with the possibility of war looming for the U.S. and with Ford and other automakers beginning to increase military production. Ford's 1941 models featured a variety of changes. Wheelbases and overall lengths were longer, the cars were wider, and the greater size led to changes in exterior and interior styling. With more of the nation's workers returning to work because of huge increases in production of military ordnance, sales of Ford's 1941 models were among the best ever.'

When Ford rolled out its new 1942 models, however, a different set of parameters shaped the design. The federal government had started to divert certain strategic metals to the production of military weapons, ammunition, and equipment, leaving less for the automobile industry. Ford responded by nearly eliminating the use of aluminum in its 1942 cars and trucks and reducing dramatically the amounts of nickel, magnesium, and tungsten. This led to visual changes, like the elimination of nickel and chrome finishes on wheel rings, headlights, hood ornaments, and other decorative features, as well as to heavier cars. Those changes in design became moot in January 1942, however, when Donald Nelson and the War Production Board issued a decree that after the end of the month no materials would be authorized for use in manufacturing new passenger cars and trucks for civilian use.

America's auto industry was one of the nation's largest, so with the termination of civilian car production the industry could turn its entire attention and energy to the production of ordnance for the military. The converted auto industry therefore achieved a remarkable record during the years 1942-1945. Of the United States' total output for the military during the war, American auto makers produced more than 20 percent, including more than 50 percent of the aircraft engines, 33 percent of the machine guns, 80 percent of the tanks and tank parts, 50 percent of the diesel engines, and 100 percent of the trucks. The U.S. built more B-24 bombers during the war than any other airplane, and the auto industry built most of those B-24s. The next section on WWII describes the role of Ford's Richmond assembly plant in helping to accomplish that tremendous output.