People have to wonder how the quality of American cars got so bad in the first place. What caused the American car buyer to flock to foreign made cars and all but abandon the Big Three? I cannot answer that question in its entirety. But I can detail what I know about working in the Sharonville Transmission Plant producing automatic transmissions that killed 200, injured 1400, and resulted in the largest recall in automotive history.

In my opinion, after supervising the building of transmissions for six years, there were four major components of the incredible deterioration in American car quality: Machine maintainance, purchased components, enforcement of quality standards, and the rage inside auto workers at how Ford treated them.

Lets do machine maintainence first.  Everyone knows that you have to keep equipment oiled, clean, and properly maintained if you want a good lawnmower, gas furnace, car, or any other mechanical or electrical device. At Ford machines were run until they simply would not run anymore. Then they were patched up to continue running, whether they worked right or not.

For example, there were machines in department 285 that would not run unless the operator tied a gigantic rubber band to hold a moving part steady so it would not wobble. To fix the machine properly would require a complete overhaul, and Ford never, in my experience completely overhauled machines. Numbers were all that counted. Not people, not machines, just numbers. If the machine produced the number of parts it was supposed to produce, whether they were good or bad, they machine was kept running.

Ford constantly pressured vendors to lower the cost of purchased components. If they did not, Ford would go to another vendor. Cheap, cheap, cheap. That is what Ford wanted, and that is what Ford got. How did vendors get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper parts? By lowering quality. There was no other way. They speeded up machines. They pressured their suppliers to get cheaper raw materials to make the components. They cut inspection of the parts to a “statistical” system. This meant every 100th part was inspected, whereas previously every part was inspected.

Ford switched from aluminum stators in torque converters to plastic stators. When the first batch of plastic stators came in they were chipped, cracked, and some of the bearings fell out when you picked up the stator. But, hey, they saved money. We went from heavy gave copper welding wire to thin gauge that did not give a proper weld. We got bolts with no threads. We got coils of steel that was so thin that you you bend it in your hands. Did you have a Ford transmission that leaked oil? Bingo. Thin out on steel coils produce oil pans that leadk under metal stress.

So what kind of sub assemblys did all of this off quality produce. A good example would be torque converters that would not rotate internally. If it does not rotate, your transmission doesn’t work.Why did they not rotate? Because of all the above. What did Ford do about it? 

They invented an “expanding machine.” What was that? It forced pressure (hydraulic) into the converter and pushed out the sides, much like you blow up a baloon. What did that do? It made so much play in the converter that it would rotate, even with a bad stator, poor welds, etc. After all, it only had to work for 12,000 miles, because  Ford’s warranty was 12,000 miles or 12 months. After that it was YOUR problem, not Fords.

Then there was enforcement of quality standards. Oh, yes indeed, Ford had very specific quality standards for each and every part, sub assembly, and finished transmission. But when machines are not maintained, and components are crap, those quality standards can not be met. So they are rejected. Right?

Right. Rejected. Until the manager comes out of the office screaming like an attacking Apache that the numbers are not being met because of reject tags. Then what happens? The manager overrides the reject, and production goes on. One inspector at Sharonville had 17 years of copies of reject tags he had issued, along with the QC supervisor’s signature overriding his reject. Why did he do this? He told me it was because someday all this crap Sharonville was producing was goin to come back to haunt Ford, and by Gawd he had proof that he had done his job.

The final leg of the bad quality story lies with the treatment of hourly employees by Ford Motor Company. They were thought of as scum, they were treated like prisinors of war. They seethed with resentment. Some of them drank heavily to forget what they had to face at work. Some took dope. Some took it out on their families, and there was massive divorce numbers, as well as family breakdown.

But they felt good to fight back at the enemy, Ford Motor Company. Sabotage was common. A man could put an entire department down by banging on certain electronic controls, or spitting a mouthful of water into an electrical. The only weapons the hourly had to fight an oppressive, unbearable work place was to sabotage both production and quality.

The result of all this? The largest recall in automotive history. 23,000,000 transmissions. Ford would have gone bankrupt had the Reagan Administration not revoked the authority to order mandatory recalls.