Ford's Quality Horrors--and Turnaround--Detailed in Plant Foreman's Book

Last Updated Oct 30, 2009 9:16 AM EDT

Bob Dewar, author of the new book A Savage Factory, was general foreman at the Ford Sharonville transmission plant in Ohio in the 1970s, and says he saw upfront the industry's ethic of waste and meet-the-quota at all costs, quality be damned.

Car and Driver said A Savage Factory details "the savage but darkly funny war waged between the hourly line workers, the factory foreman, management, the UAW, and the 'Detroit Mafia'--a/k/a the 'suits from Dearborn.' If One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had taken place in a plant in the 1970s, it would be A Savage Factory."

So far so typical: Detroit meeting the worst of lowered expectations. But here's the twist. Dewar, who now works in packaging, took a tour of his old factory recently and found it transformed--and ready for the 21st century. In fact, he affirmed that Ford is now exhibiting the kind of quality control that justifies the automaker's stellar performance in this week's 2009 Consumer Reports reliability survey.

According to Dewar in an interview, the Sharonville transmission plant, which had 5,800 employees, made 5,000 C4 trannies a day for the F150 pickup, for the Lincoln line, and just about everything with a Ford badge, including the ill-fated Pinto.

"There was very little concern for quality," Dewar told me. I had gotten my MBA, worked at Procter and Gamble, and when I arrived at Ford I was appalled at the conditions in the factory, the way the plant was managed, and the quality standards. After I'd been there a couple of months, I was saying, 'No way can a place be managed like this and stay in business over the long term.' I would have bet my house and everything I owned that Ford would be bankrupt by 1990. So I began to take detailed notes so I could document how the American auto industry lost out in the global auto race."

Dewar said the quality standards on paper were not the real story. "On the ground, all that mattered was meeting the quota, and there was many times we turned out junk because we had to meet the numbers. These were transmissions that we knew would fail, and that's what led to the attempted recall of millions of Ford transmissions because they were reported to jump out of park and into reverse."

According to Dewar, only an appeal to newly elected President Reagan that the recall would bankrupt Ford Motor Company derailed the recall. "We had a thing called 'engineering deviation,'" Dewar said. "If a run of transmissions did not meet specifications, then quality control would reject it, but then production would say we had to meet the quota and engineering would then write an 'engineering deviation' allowing us to run the lot at those standards. That was done a lot."

Dewar was laid off in 1979 in one of the auto industry's periodic crises. Tens of thousands of others were terminated too, and Sharonville went from 5,800 employees to 1,800--retaining only workers with 25 years or more seniority.

But then a funny thing happened. Dewar was given a tour of his old Sharonville factory as research for his new book, and he found it fully modernized and efficient. "It was not even recognizable," he said. "All the old machines were gone, and they were turning out one heck of a good transmission [for the Lincoln LS and Ford Crown Victoria]. It was apparent that Alan Mulally had hit the ground running like a paratrooper and made changes immediately. It does indeed give me much more confidence about the future of the auto industry," said Dewar, who still drives a Ford today.

Sharonville was once slated for closing, but now it appears to be likely to stay open--to proudce ultra-modern six-speed transmissions. A revitalized Ford may need the production capacity.

"I wrote the book because I felt that the American people had a right to know how auto plants were run. If Detroit failed, I wanted it on the record that people turned to foreign makes because U.S. cars were junk, made that way in American factories. If we forget the past, we're doomed to repeat it. I just hope that if we have a recovery and auto sales go through the roof, companies like Ford just go back to their old ways just to make the numbers. But from what I saw, the whole attitude has changed, and much for the better."