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Flow Technology: The Road to the Annual Model

ANOTHER FORCE IN twentieth-century America that stimulated and multiplied novelty—or what passed for novelty—was an institution that was not originally devised for that purpose at all. Quite the contrary. The assembly-line system of production, which would flood the nation with automobiles and nearly everything else, was developed in the first place to produce most economically the maximum number of precisely similar copies of the same object.

But there was an ironic and paradoxical feature of the assembly line that did not at first appear. Assembly-line production was production by flow. To keep the line moving at a constant and continuous rate required the breaking down and the splitting of tasks which called for an unprecedented precision in the definition, management, and timing of each of the little jobs that kept the production line in motion. This, of course, required extensive planning, and an enormous expenditure on the machinery that made each of the separate parts. It required, too, an unprecedented investment in “machine tools,” the machines that made the intricate machines of a smoothly flowing production. In earlier days, when a carriage maker wanted to vary the design of the carriage he was making, or to introduce an attractive new feature on one particular carriage, that had been easy enough. He simply handled his tool differently, or spent more time on the wheel, the seat, the springs, or whatever had awakened his inventive interest. With flow technology, this was no longer possible. The production line would not flow, and the waste would have been intolerable if any workman on the line could delay the whole process just in order to satisfy his own taste or his inventive imagination. And the individual assembly-line workman who had in his hands nothing but a wrench, or who commanded a lathe or a press that was preset to perform one operation in only one specific way, had no power to vary the final product. He could fail to put in his part, he might neglect to tighten the screw or to trim off the excess material; that would make the final product shoddy, dangerous, or unusable, but it would not turn it into something desirably new.

Now, as assembly-line production triumphed, it began to shape profoundly the American’s need for novelty and his notions of novelty. The costliness and intricacy of this machinery of flow technology had the effect, oddly enough, of making production more rigid than ever before. The conservatism of an Old World guild craftsman was flexibility itself compared to the frozen modes of a factory once tooled up to produce one particular model of automobile. To change even the slightest detail of the product might require a year of planning and six months of machine tooling. The understandable temptation of the manufacturer, therefore, and the one to which Henry Ford fatally succumbed, was remarkably similar to the temptations of Old World guilds—to go on forever producing the same old thing.

And it did not take long, with production going full speed, before this inherent conservatism of assembly-line technology had resulted in a monotony of production which would incite far-reaching reactions, and in turn create a new institution. The result (the career of the automobile once again became a parable) was quite another temptation: to make regularly scheduled innovations, minor variations on the original theme, which were now motivated not by the need for some particular improvement, nor by the irresistible appeal of some new discovery. The annual model appeared, as much as for any other reason, simply to relieve the monotony itself, and so keep the consumers’ saliva flowing regularly and continually for more products of the assembly line.

For this purpose, too, flow technology would be providentially suited. Now it would be possible, by skillful planning, to change a doorknob or a windshield wiper on next year’s model, yet leave all the rest of the product’s design intact. Since flow technology was a technique of producing anything at all, the technology itself was always just as well suited for next year’s model. Instead of the demand for innovation arising from the object itself, whose actual functions somehow made their own demands, the design of the object became nothing more than a basic theme on which it became the duty of designers to invent annual variations. The extent and the character of these variations—which, to be marketable, had to be advertisable as innovations—were dictated by the pace and framework of production, inhibited and controlled by the tastes (real or supposed) of the consumers.

HENRY FORD’S DREAM was to make a new and better kind of family horse—a car which everybody could afford and which would last forever. Essential to the plan, of course, was the perfecting of his Model T. He was experimental in developing his car, but he believed that once the design was fixed, the object would be simply to find ways to make it by the millions.

It was essential, then, that all the cars should be alike. Mass production, what Henry Ford called “the democratization of the automobile,” required standardization. “The way to make automobiles,” Ford explained in 1903, “is to make one automobile like another automobile, to make them all alike, to make them come through the factory just alike; just as one pin is like another pin when it comes from a pin factory, or one match is like another when it comes from a match factory.” To Ford this meant finding ways to turn out millions of Model T’s. And he was confident that he could succeed. In 1909 a friend warned Ford that the automobile would create a “social problem” by frightening all the horses on the highway. “No, my friend,” Ford replied, “you’re mistaken. I’m not creating a social problem at all. I am going to democratize the automobile. When I’m through everybody will be able to afford one, and about everyone will have one. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted, and there won’t be any problem.”

To this end Ford focused his efforts on making his car as cheap as possible, making repairs inexpensive and easy. He continued to believe it was his mission simply to turn out copies of the same durable product. In 1922 he still insisted:

We cannot conceive how to serve the consumer unless we make for him something that, as far as we can provide, will last forever. We want to construct some kind of a machine that will last forever. It does not please us to have a buyer’s car wear out or become obsolete. The parts of a specific model are not only interchangeable with all other cars of that model, but they are interchangeable with similar parts on all the cars that we have turned out.

Henry Ford’s unique achievement was less in designing a durable automobile than in organizing newer, cheaper ways to make millions of one kind of automobile. He transformed the making of automobiles from a jerky, halting process to a smooth-flowing stream. His ideal (which he never quite achieved) was a continuous, nonstop flow from raw material to finished product, with no pauses even for warehousing or storage. If Ford had succeeded perfectly, a piece of iron would never have stopped moving, from the moment it was mined until it appeared in the dealer’s showroom as part of a completed car.

The watchword, then, was “Flow!” Ford sought and found ways to keep the raw materials flowing in and to keep the growing vehicle moving along. The factory was no longer a place where a skilled worker put together the many parts of a machine. Now it was where a machine grew on assembly lines that were tended by strategically located men.

Under the old arrangement, each part of the automobile had been put together by a single workman. One worker, for example, would assemble a single magneto (which would provide the car’s ignition), in about 20 minutes. In 1913, at his Highland Park factory, Ford began dividing the magneto-making operation among twenty-nine men spaced along a moving belt which carried the magneto as it took shape. The average time to make a magneto was reduced to 13 minutes, 10 seconds. A year later, when the moving belt was raised to a more convenient height, this time was reduced to 7 minutes; closer study then brought the time down to 5 minutes. The movingline technique of production was applied first to the motor, then to the transmission; to apply it to the bulky chassis required elaborate and neatly timed systems of hooks and hoists. But within less than a year, the assembling of a chassis too was reduced from 12½ hours to 1½ hours.

The assembly line, as we have seen, was not Ford’s invention. “The idea,” he said, “came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef.” The bold Frederick W. Taylor, the atomizing scientist of the new science of management, had been ingenious at breaking each task down into the tiniest units of matter and motion. Ford’s new emphasis was on flow, on devising production that was continuous. To do this, he had to keep his eye on the process as a whole. The automobile, in his mind’s eye, grew by a gestation process all its own. The men simply tended and fed the assembly lines, to keep the process continuous. The problem was to keep all the materials moving at a speed best suited to the growth of the automobile.

The new “mass production” was not merely “quantity production,” but, Ford himself explained, it was “the focussing upon a manufacturing project of the principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity, speed, and repetition.” Once Ford had transformed production from groups of disconnected operations into a flowing stream, it would not fit into the old machine shops which had been designed for the individual craftsman. Flow technology required a new architecture to fit, confine, channel, and hasten the flow—and so brought into being a new science of factory design.

The pioneer was Albert Kahn, a German immigrant who, as a boy of twelve, had come to the United States, where he became an architect specializing in concrete construction. In 1903, when there were still only eight hundred automobiles on the streets of Detroit, Kahn had provided a revolutionary design for the new Packard Company works. Although Packards were not yet being produced on a moving assembly line, Kahn arranged the building so that the materials which entered at one end were moved forward, with a minimum of carrying and hauling, to each of the operations needed to produce a finished automobile. Then in 1909 Kahn helped Ford solve his problem of railroad-freight charges by designing a new kind of branch assembly factory adjacent to the railroad yards in Kansas City, Missouri. This made it possible to ship Fords in a knocked-down form, which economized space and required no special freight cars, and then reassemble them at their destinations. In that same year, well before the assembly line was perfected, Kahn began building the new Highland Park Ford plant. It was a wonderfully airy structure, with sunlight streaming through its 50,000 square feet of glass; four stories high, 865 feet long and 75 feet wide, it was the largest building in Michigan under a single roof. When Ford’s River Rouge plant went up in 1917, the buildings were actually designed to accommodate the flowing streams of production. Ford himself watched over every step of the construction, and so helped shape a new industrial architecture.

In an age of great architects like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Kahn and his associates created a new genre of architectural greatness. Their factory buildings, fashioned for the new logic of production, brought a new man-made grandeur to the American landscape. The mystery in Thomas Moran’s vast canvases of Yellowstone and of the Grand Canyon was rivaled by the man-made brilliance of Charles Sheeler’s paintings of Ford’s plant at River Rouge.

TO KEEP THE PRODUCTION STREAM flowing, more and more Americans had to buy Fords. In January 1914, when Ford startled the nation with his $5-a-day wage, he explained that “this is neither charity nor wages, but profit sharing and efficiency engineering.” And better-paid workers would buy more Model T’s.

Ford had begun producing his Model T in 1908. The next year he announced that thereafter he would build only Model T’s, and that the same chassis would be used for the runabout, the touring car, the town car, and the delivery car. Three years later he made the famous pronouncement which became the conundrum describing the American consumer’s dubious new freedoms: “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black.” Despite temptations to “improve” his car, Ford stuck to his guns. On May 26, 1927, the fifteen millionth Model T was produced. In that year the number of Model T’s still being licensed (and therefore still presumably on the road) came to 11,325,521. But the Model T was in trouble.

By 1920, Henry Ford’s success in democratizing the automobile, in building an inexpensive car that would last almost forever, had produced a vast secondhand car market. Dealers faced a new kind of competition, no longer from the horse but from the millions of still usable used Fords. At the same time, the American buying public was stirred by a rising standard of living, by rising expectations (encouraged, of course, by Ford’s $5-a-day wage), and by a love of speed and a love of newness. Americans demanded something different.

But Henry Ford’s spectacular success had been in a static model. He had hardly thought of style or of consumer taste. His genius at producing new things was a genius at producing millions of the same thing, the Model T. Ironically, Henry Ford’s faith in the Model T was an Old World faith: a belief in the perfectible product rather than the novel product. And it was his old-fashioned insistence on craftsmanship and function rather than on consumer appeal that eventually left him behind. Without intending it, he had heralded and organized a new age beyond his imaginings, and not at all to his taste.

The spirit of this new age was expressed in 1932 by what Charles F. Kettering and Allan Orth, speaking from the vantage point of General Motors research, called the New Necessity. “We cannot reasonably expect to continue to make the same thing over and over,” they predicted. “The simplest way to assure safe production is to keep changing the product—the market for new things is infinitely elastic…. One of the fundamental purposes of research is to foster a healthy dissatisfaction.” Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., then led Americans toward this new ideal by shifting the manufacturer’s focus to the buyer. After Sloan went to General Motors, he developed a new and characteristically American institution, which by mid-century had become so familiar that Americans assumed it was part of the order of nature, as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.

This was the annual model. The spirit and the purpose of the annual model were, of course, quite opposite to those of Ford and his Model T. “The great problem of the future,” Sloan wrote to Lawrence P. Fisher, maker of the Fisher Bodies, on September 9, 1927, “is to have our cars different from each other and different from year to year.” The annual model, then, was part of a purposeful, planned program. And it was based on creating expectations of marvelous, if usually vague, novelties-always-to-come.

Sloan and his able collaborators at General Motors set up a styling department (which by 1963 would employ more than fourteen hundred workers). They showed a concern for color, they “invented” new colors, and gave aphrodisiac names to old colors. Now for the first time their automobile designers included women. “It is not too much to say,” Sloan explained, “that the ‘laws’ of the Paris dressmakers have come to be a factor in the automobile industry—and woe to the company which ignores them.”

The invention of the annual model widened the appeal and enlivened the drama of each year’s offerings. But it also created new problems for planning and production. The buyer demanded novelty, but how much novelty would he tolerate? How titillate and attract the buyer without frightening him by too much novelty too soon? The bulgy Buick of 1929 (nicknamed “the pregnant Buick”) was an admirably functioning car but a disaster on the market. Yet it was the result, according to Sloan, of a design mistake of not over 1¾ inches in excess body curve.

THE ANNUAL MODEL was an answer not only to the growing American demand for newness. While it institutionalized novelty, it responded to other distinctively American needs. In a democracy of cash, how were people to prove that they really were climbing the social ladder? The annual model, as Sloan elaborated it, provided a visible and easily understood symbol of personal progress, and so produced what we could call a “ladder of consumption.” When the Model T became cheap and reliable and almost universal, cheapness and reliability were no longer enough. Universality and uniformity actually became drawbacks. As the Model T helped more and more Americans move around the country, it became less useful than ever in helping Americans show that they were moving up in the world. While Sloan, in order to keep the automobile industry and General Motors flourishing, elaborated the idea of the annual model, he incidentally gave the automobile a new and wider symbolic role in American life.

When Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., went to General Motors, the company was manufacturing numerous makes of cars with confused and overlapping markets. Sloan decided to clarify the appeal of each General Motors make so that, for example, the Buick would plainly be a more desired car than a Chevrolet. He aimed to design a car for every purse, and to create a noticeable price gap between different makes. The gap, however, was not to be so great that many Chevrolet owners might not hope someday to be in the Buick class, or so that many Buick owners might not hope someday to move up to a Cadillac.

This ladder of consumption began to dominate General Motors production plans. Sloan started with a price schedule of six separate price ranges from $450-$600 up to $2,500-$3,500, and then he had automobiles designed to fit the prices. “Price lining,” which F. W. Woolworth had made the basis of his five-and-ten empire, was thus being extended to the most expensive American consumption items, and would become a framework for status in a democracy of cash. “We proposed in general that General Motors should place its cars at the top of each price range and make them of such a quality that they would attract sales from below that price, selling to those customers who might be willing to pay a little more for the additional quality, and attract sales also from above that price, selling to those customers who would see the price advantage in a car of close to the quality of the higher-priced competition. This amounted to quality competition against cars below a given price tag, and price competition against cars above that price tag.” Toward this end Sloan developed a new form of industrial organization in which a giant corporation was split into semi-autonomous divisions that at times competed with one another (e.g., Chevrolet and Pontiac competed at the borders of their price ranges).

In his objective, Sloan was just as clear as Ford had been. But Sloan had set himself a production problem even more complex than Ford’s, and requiring still another vast and unprecedented feat of coordination. Sloan now aimed at what he called the “mass-class” market. He saw that the future of the American economy lay not merely in providing machines to do things never done before. For Americans would always be reaching for a slightly better, slightly more appealing, slightly newer machine to do what was already being done. The American economy, then, would have to grow by displacing objects that were still usable. This need was rooted in the matrix of American life, in the expanding wealth, the personal uncertainties, and the vague social classes. Americans would climb the ladder of consumption by abandoning the new for the newer.

It was actually Ford’s unprecedented success at satisfying the need for inexpensive, durable, reliable automobiles that had forced Sloan, as he himself explained, to imagine this new kind of demand.

In 1921 Ford had about 60 per cent of the total car and truck market in units, and Chevrolet had about 4 per cent. With Ford in almost complete possession of the low-price field, it would have been suicidal to compete with him head on. No conceivable amount of capital short of the United States Treasury could have sustained the losses required to take volume away from him at his own game. The strategy we devised was to take a bite from the top of his position, conceived as a price class, and in this way build up Chevrolet volume on a profitable basis. In later years, as the consumer upgraded his preference, the new General Motors policy was to become critically attuned to the course of American history.

Sloan’s annual model, and the accompanying ladder of consumption, came closer than any earlier American institution to creating a visible and universal scheme of class distinction in the democratic United States of America.

But in the long run the annual model, as it spread through the American economy, actually became the enemy of novelty. No other institution would do so much to make Americans begin to doubt the newness of the new. By the late twentieth century the newness of new models had begun to consist of trivial minutiae such as concealed headlights and high-speed windshield wipers. To devise every year a full line of automobiles dramatically different from their predecessors defied the ingenuity of style-conscious designers and of imaginative production engineers.

Wracking their brains, they began to make nonsense of the ladder of consumption, as they offered some Chevrolets that looked more impressive than some Cadillacs. The economy luxury car and the luxurious economy car were beginning to be confused. The few manufacturers, mostly foreign-car makers like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, who did not visibly change their annual product, discovered that this refusal to change itself became a valued “special feature” with a sales appeal that was itself quite novel. By the 1900’s the desperate competition for novelty had led some American manufacturers to offer half-yearly new models, even though the gigantic machinery of production had made it slower, more complicated, and more expensive to change any detail. A new model now required two years of planning and retooling. As tastes became more volatile, and as buyers became more open to novelty and more hungry for the unfamiliar, it was more difficult than ever to produce a car that really satisfied the buyer’s latest whim. Each large manufacturer began to set his design destination at least five years ahead so that he could move toward it by measured steps. In this way newness became a commodity to be measured out sparingly and cautiously.

The deepest effect of the annual model, when it had become an American institution, was on the American’s attitude to all newness. The stories of the designing and marketing and testing often became more interesting to prospective purchasers, and hence more widely advertised, than the usable qualities of the final result. When novelty was no longer spontaneous, the future became more and more assimilated to the present. Next year’s model would be nothing but the next stage in somebody’s planned strategy of marketing. Then nothing was more predictable than the new.

Ford, in his fear of novelty, had been wiser than he realized. “Change is not always progress …,” he complained in 1926. “A fever of newness has been everywhere confused with the spirit of progress.” But even he had not imagined that the frenetic quest for novelty might make novelty itself pall. The success of the static Model T had itself created the demand for an annual model. And now the annual model was being dissolved by success. What next?

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