Car: A Drama of the American Workplace

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace

by Mary Walton
     
 
[Tom] Breault . . . came up with a system to guide [top engineer Lew Veraldi]through dense material. When Breault presented a report, he would highlight both his copy and Veraldi's. . . . Eventually, Veraldi realized something was odd. 'Am I the only one in the room with a highlighted copy?' he asked suspiciously. 'Why? Am I the only one who can't follow this?'

Overview

[Tom] Breault . . . came up with a system to guide [top engineer Lew Veraldi]through dense material. When Breault presented a report, he would highlight both his copy and Veraldi's. . . . Eventually, Veraldi realized something was odd. 'Am I the only one in the room with a highlighted copy?' he asked suspiciously. 'Why? Am I the only one who can't follow this?' Breault thought quickly. 'No, sir,' he answered. 'It's because you're the only vice president in the room.'

An astonishing journey into the belly of our most important industry, a portrait of the energy and ingenuity of America at work. Their job, as the wife of the chief engineer put it, was to repaint the Mona Lisa. Faced with redesigning the Taurus, America's best-selling car and the flagship of its fleet, Ford Motor Company assembles 700 designers, engineers, planners, and bean-counters under a tough manager who set out to retake ground lost to the Japanese. On their shoulders rest the reputation and the profits of Ford, not to mention an investment of about 3 billion dollars. A cross between The Reckoning and The Dilbert Principle, this biting, insightful, and often funny account by a seasoned journalist follows the 1996 Taurus from its conception as a clay model in Detroit to its birth in an Atlanta assembly plant to its public debut in a New Jersey dealership. Mary Walton all but lived with the team for two years in a damp Dearborn basement, and she chronicles firsthand the clashes of designers and engineers over shapes, of marketers and accountants over costs, of product guys in Detroit and manufacturing guys in Atlanta as the new machine takes shape on the assembly line. And all of them, all of the time,are looking over their shoulders at the Japanese competition. The Taurus is a single product, but it contains thousands of parts, and just as many stories. Walton has woven these together brilliantly into a book that reveals the tension, the passions, and the pride that fuel the race to #1.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her acknowledgments, Walton says she envisioned this book "as less a technical treatise than the story of the people who make and market the cars, touching on as many lives as possible." While this is not a corporate expos, Walton (Deming Management at Work) doesn't pull any punches. In fact, as she says in her introduction, Ford came to regret the wide access it had given her. But the result is an engrossing drama with a protagonist (Ford Motor Company), a goal (redesigning its bestselling Taurus) and obstacles (budget struggles; Japanese competition). The reason Walton chose the 1996 Taurus was that it was not just a new car design but represented Ford's attempt to build cars the "Japanese" way, through cooperation and teamwork. Walton spent three years observing the Taurus team in action, and her compulsive note-taking pays off with fascinating insights into every aspect of the car's creation. Taking advantage of the remarkable access Ford granted her, she covers everything: the designers' original vision, the engineers' struggle to make that vision a reality, the hand-aching work on the assembly line, endless marketing schemes to sell the Taurus "dream." Walton keeps the spotlight on the workers, all of whom feel passionate about the parts of the car for which they're responsible. Walton's tone is not reverent and she finds ample opportunities for humor, especially within the bloated Ford bureaucracy ("corporate jargon... had spread through the company like an evil computer virus, attacking nouns and twisting them into verbs." While the cast of characters may at times be too extensive, Walton does an admirable job of making the redesign of a car into a compelling human-interest story. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
In her acknowledgments, Walton says she envisioned this book "as less a technical treatise than the story of the people who make and market the cars, touching on as many lives as possible." While this is not a corporate exposé, Walton (Deming Management at Work) doesn't pull any punches. In fact, as she says in her introduction, Ford came to regret the wide access it had given her. But the result is an engrossing drama with a protagonist (Ford Motor Company), a goal (redesigning its bestselling Taurus) and obstacles (budget struggles; Japanese competition). The reason Walton chose the 1996 Taurus was that it was not just a new car design but represented Ford's attempt to build cars the "Japanese" way, through cooperation and teamwork. Walton spent three years observing the Taurus team in action, and her compulsive note-taking pays off with fascinating insights into every aspect of the car's creation. Taking advantage of the remarkable access Ford granted her, she covers everything: the designers' original vision, the engineers' struggle to make that vision a reality, the hand-aching work on the assembly line, endless marketing schemes to sell the Taurus "dream." Walton keeps the spotlight on the workers, all of whom feel passionate about the parts of the car for which they're responsible. Walton's tone is not reverent and she finds ample opportunities for humor, especially within the bloated Ford bureaucracy ("corporate jargon_ had spread through the company like an evil computer virus, attacking nouns and twisting them into verbs." While the cast of characters may at times be too extensive, Walton does an admirable job of making the redesign of a car into a compelling human-interest story.
Library Journal
For the two-year period when the Ford Motor Co. redesigned its Taurus for the 1996 model year, Philadelphia journalist Walton lived in Dearborn, Michigan. Here she chronicles not only the technical details of this endeavor but the major personalities involved. She delves into Ford's policies and procedures, especially how they affected her story and ability to get information; competition from Toyota and Chrysler; and insights into Ford's managementissues that affected over 700 people involved in the effort. This intriguing, very human story shows the result of teamwork, pride, and skill. Recommended for public libraries.Steven J. Mayover, Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
The newest entry in the burgeoning genre of behind-the-scenes auto books.

Journalist Walton (Deming Management at Work, 1990) here turns to Ford to observe how the company updates its top seller, the Taurus. As in other recent books on automakers designing new models or updating old ones, Waltons approach is fast, jumping from smoky boardrooms to the clay-filled basements where the real design work is done. And her characters, too, take cues from central casting: the aging leader, uncomfortable with women, who takes on one last car; the rising young female exec he clashes with and comes to admire; the rogue designers who want style, no matter what. Walton certainly has fun with her subject and revels in revealing the Dilbert-esque machinations of a large corporation. When one engineer new to the Taurus project tries to get his phone fixed, he discovers that the intricate Ford hierarchy is such that only his supervisor is allowed to make a service call. Another supervisor announces that the black rubber gap hiders universally known as "gimps" would now be called "aeroshields"—though that word has already been chosen to designate another part on the car; much confusion results. The gorier details of the car industry also appeal to Walton, who explains how federal crash regulations were developed using human cadavers. (The testers had just 24 hours to work with the bodies.) The larger story here is well done, and the race between Honda, Ford, and Toyota for market share is fairly interesting. But much of the script is familiar, and the insights amount to little more than that the American spirit of competition, as well as corporate bureaucracy and workplace pettiness, are alive and well.

A late entry in a crowded field, but solidly written and reported.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393040807
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
06/01/1997
Pages:
346
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.35(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Car: A Drama of the American Workplace

On the third Monday in May, 1993, a shiny black Lincoln Town Car pulled up to a low metal shed at Ford Motor Company's Dearborn Proving Ground, where a knot of men waited in bright sunshine. A small, tanned, compact man with little button eyes, an outdated mod haircut, and a commanding nose climbed out of the back seat and began to complain. What a trying time this little man had had! His weekend had been exhausting, there had been a golf tournament with movie stars, followed by some of the worst weather known to man, bad even for the inhospitable British Isles, and on the way to this Ford gig he'd very nearly missed the Concorde. He was still tired, even after a night's sleep.

The people waiting for the little man ushered him into the shed, displaying the respect due a dignitary, especially one with so fatiguing a schedule. "Would you like something to eat,Jackie?" A cloth-covered table held plates of fruit and muffins, assorted sodas and bottled spring water. Jackie Stewart, one of the finest automobile drivers in the world, winner of three Formula One World Championships a couple of decades back, declined refreshments and took a seat for a briefing on the day's agenda.

He had been summoned by Ford to drive three prototypes of the 1996 Taurus, which would go into production in two years. The Taurus was the most important car in Ford's lineup. In 1992 it had been the best-selling car in America, and it appeared headed for first place again in 1993. For the four years before that, it had been in the number-two spot, just behind the Honda Accord. The Taurus had history, the Taurus had class, the Taurus had status. It was the flagship of the Ford fleet. America's car! Not only was it Ford's most successful car, but it was widely credited with rescuing the company from its downward slide in the 1980s. It was The Car That Saved Ford. Redesigning it was like reformulating Coca-Cola. Misreading the customer in some fundamental way would be a disaster.

A redesign of this magnitude was like a gigantic cinematic extravaganza, years in the making, with a mega-million-dollar budget, a staff of thousands, and no guarantees. For all its collective research and artistic convictions, neither Ford nor any other car company could predict with certainty the direction of public lust. The Taurus was the company's best, most educated guess in terms of style, content, performance, and price, but it was still a guess. It could be a smash hit, a must-have, or it could be merely okay, another capable car from Ford. But if it were neither, if in fact people did not like the 1996 Taurus when the curtain went up, if they did not buy it when the wraps came off, the flop would be spectacular.

Motor vehicles ruled America. The nation's paved landscape was tooled for cars and trucks, not the other away around. A stone's throw away from Ford's test track in a replica of Independence Hall, was the Henry Ford Museum, which housed a representation of gasoline-powered vehicles since the dawn of the automobile age, just a century ago. In so brief a time the car had transformed the American landscape. One might speculate about how a map of the United States would look had the same amount of capital, labor, and ingenuity been poured into tbe housing industry, so that every year there was a new crop of houses witb added features and a variety of price tags. Or one might consider whether, if the taxpayer were footing the bill for new cars, so many billions of dollars would be spent on retooling to give them a little less vibration and noise than last year's models, or a different palette of colors, or devices designed to pamper -- heated seats, heated side-view mirrors, lumbar cushions, speed control, compass readouts, keyless entry, automatic temperature control, power door locks, power windows, power seats, power radio antennas. Not to mention micron air filters, storage consoles, lighted glove compartments, and cupholders in three different sizes. But the United States was car country.

People looked to their cars not only for transportation but for independence, identity, and escape. Amid the hurly-burly of work, friends, foes, and family, the car was a refuge, a man-made shell in the ocean of life. Your car stood for who you were or aspired to be. You were thrifty, bold, a sport, or a mom. To the extent you had a choice, you drove what drove you.

No consumer product was as complex as a car. ln the final assembly plants in Atlanta and Chicago, 1,775 major parts would come together on the line to form the new Taurus, and most of those parts also had parts. The seats alone had 82 subcomponents. That didn't include the 12,000 or so nuts and bolts and screws and rings that held everything together, and had to be accounted for. There were 810 electrical circuits and 3,425 feet of wiring.

The two dozen or so people hosting Jackie on this spring day were among the 6,742,808 Americans -- over 7 percent of the workforce -- who had jobs in automotive and related industries such as highways, transportation, petroleum. (And there were millions more who made automotive commercials, staged automotive trade shows, worked for scores of automotive publications, from Road & Track to Car Wash News, or had occupations several times removed but nonetheless dependent on the industry -- a count that by one oft-cited estimate constituted one of every seven Americans.) At any given moment, these Ford engineers and thousands of their colleagues at other car companies were performing minor or major surgery on some 140 models sold in North America, or they were creating new models altogether.

And it was all for this, never more than this: to create a car that by its very nature would be, could be, only marginally different from any car on the road, and then to persuade buyers otherwise, that this was a car to dream for. "This is a business of smoke and mirrors," automotive writer Paul Eisenstein would say, sitting behind the wheel of a Taurus prototype in the spring of 1995. "Above all, never forget that. Why do you need a Lincoln when a Hyundai will get you to your office? This is a business that appeals to us for emotion."

Reprinted from CAR: THE MAKING OF THE NUMBER 1 AUTOMOBILE IN AMERICA, Copyright © 1997 by Mary Walton. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >