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Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 269-299

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The Failure of Fordism: Reform of the Automobile Repair Industry, 1913-1940

Stephen L. Mcintyre


In a letter to an industry trade journal in 1931, an automobile mechanic complained:

The [factory] 'Guy' that sets the price for the Flat Rate system . . . is one of those 'Bozos' who never has given the system a practical work-out under actual working conditions. He is one of those fellows with a collar and a clean white suit whose wrenches have never come in contact with grime and dirt when working on a car which has been out of the factory. The engine is spic and span with no sign of the customary grease, oil, grime or a combination of all. . . . I rebel against the manufacturer and its office mechanics being permitted to dictate the price on Flat Rate to the mechanic. Are the mechanics permitted, or have they ever attempted to set the price of any make of car? Why shouldn't they have the same privilege? 1

The Ford Motor Company pioneered the use of flat rates--standardized work times for hundreds of automotive repair operations--in the second decade of the twentieth century as part of a campaign to rationalize the repair of Model Ts. But far from solving chronic problems in dealer repair shops, the introduction of flat rates provoked an angry response from mechanics who condemned them as an unfair effort to speed up their work.

Ford's initial decision to develop flat rates was prompted by a crisis in dealer repair shops early in the decade. Between 1909 and 1914 Ford's mass [End Page 269] production methods reduced the retail sale price of the Model T from $950 to $490, leading John D. Rockefeller to call Ford's Highland Park plant the "industrial miracle of the age." But no matter how much new production methods lowered the Model T's price, mounting customer dissatisfaction with dealer service during this period threatened to reduce sales of the Model T. Faced with such a dilemma, Ford executives decided that the principles of Fordism developed in the factory--use of modern machine tool technology, rationalization and reorganization of the labor process along Taylorist lines, and progressive layout of production and assembly lines--could be transferred to dealers' shops. Most of the company's efforts to do so occurred between 1913 and 1925, although company officials continued to refine their approach to repair work into the 1930s. In 1913 Ford executives initiated time-and-motion studies of repair practices that in 1914 allowed them to establish flat rates. Between 1915 and 1920 company officials also introduced modern laborsaving repair tools and machine equipment to the industry, recommended extensive specialization and division of labor among dealers' mechanics, and championed progressive layout of repair shop departments. By 1925 Ford had completed its standardization of repair procedures and endorsed the use of piece-rate wages for mechanics. Ford was the first automobile manufacturer to attempt such a rationalization of repair work, but by the early 1920s many companies were copying the practice. 2

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= In retrospect, the dramatic differences between Highland Park and a "typical" Ford dealer in 1914 make it seem obvious that Ford factory methods [End Page 270] were ill suited for dealer repair shops. The main building on the sixty acre Highland Park site had four stories and measured 865 feet long and 75 feet wide, giving it nearly 260,000 square feet--and making it the largest building in the state of Michigan (fig. 1). The plant overwhelmed visitors with the constant motion and dizzying pace of conveyors, slides, and rollways and the final assembly line where workers completed a Model T every forty seconds (fig. 2). Henry Ford observed, "Every piece of work in the shop moves." Ford invested $2.8 million in nearly 15,000 specialized [End Page 271] machine tools used by almost 13,000 workers who produced more than 230,000 Model Ts at Highland Park in 1914. 3

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Customers seeking service for their...


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