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Ford of Canada plant — railway cars brought the parts that were assembled into complete vehicles
Mar 14, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The car assembly line demonstration during the annual Regina Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition, according to the July 28, 1919, Morning-Leader was as near “as possible under the existing conditions to the process adopted in Winnipeg.” The Regina-based newspaper reported that C.J. Lane, the superintendent of the Winnipeg plant, made sure that the 16 workers assembling the vehicle followed the steps used at the Ford building at the corner of Portage and Wall.
“From a simple frame consisting of a couple of tied steel girders to a completely equipped automobile operating under its own power, within the brief span of twenty minutes, is the remarkable story of the assembling of the Ford car which being daily demonstrated in the old winter fair building ...”
Since it was impossible to duplicate the electrical power source at the Winnipeg plant, a Fordson (Fordson was the brand name of early Ford tractors) engine was used to move the conveyor belt of the assembly line.
“Here in a continuous moving procession the spectator may see the evolution of the ‘tin lizzie’ under the hands of experienced workmen, assisted by the most modern power tools and labour-saving devices.”
The compressed-air tools also used a Fordson engine as their power source.
“The work is performed in a dozen major operations, the growing car, as part after part is added, moving slowly without a stop towards the door whence it presently emerges in all the glory of a brilliant shine and ready for the street with motor cranked by a self-starter.”
By the end of the week-long exhibition, 72 cars were built and delivered to the Saskatchewan Motor Company of Regina.
Even by 1920, the Winnipeg plant was restricted in hours of operation at a time when all the automobiles produced could easily have been sold, as 54 per cent of all cars sold in Canada were Fords.
Ford dealers in Winnipeg had sold just 118 vehicles in 1909, but by 1919, 5,000 cars were purchased.
The Norwood Garage & Motor Co. Ltd., warned customers in a February 1920 advertisement to buy their Ford “now ... as they are going to be scarce.”
“The capacity of the Winnipeg Ford Branch is 125 complete cars daily,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 7, 1920. “Just now shortage of materials which is the chief concern of the company at present, has curtailed production to 65 cars daily.
“The demand for Fords in Winnipeg and the West exceeds the supply to the extent of 5 to 35 orders for every 3 cars ...
“The popularity of the Ford, it is believed, is really just well underway. The merit which has placed it in its supreme position in the automotive world when enhanced by the recent improvements of self (Liberty) starter, etc., puts the Ford on a plane high and alone.”
In 1920, the company projected the Winnipeg Ford plant could employ 300 men, of which 50 per cent would be returned soldiers, if it operated at full capacity.
A May 24, 1924, Free Press article reported that Ford components were received at the Winnipeg plant “in carload lots, and the entire work of assembling this into cars constitutes a multitude of jobs. The greatest amount of work is placed on the open models and trucks (the trucks were based on the Model T and referred to as a Model TT, but had a heavier frame and rear axle) ... On the (Model T) touring cars and roadsters there are scores of different parts that must be placed before a car is ready to be sent out (of) the factory. Only one part of the car comes to Winnipeg assembled, and that is the rear axle. The body comes in a great many different parts, sides, backs, doors, and everything else being all separate and distinct parts when they reach Winnipeg ...
“On one side (of the assembly line) floor are piles of each section, while around the other is the completed body. This is sent into the paint shop to receive its first coat before being sent to the upholsterers, who put in the seats, which are made by another staff nearby.
“The chassis and frame are taken care of by another staff of workmen, and to watch a rear axle start out and gather its various attachments until in a comparatively short space of time a mechanic drives it over to the testing room is both interesting and fascinating.”
According to the article, it took 16 hours to completely assemble a touring car, and the daily output of all types of cars was then 68 units.
“In the closed models less time is required for the completion of the job, this being due to the fact that bodies of the closed models are completed, except for the final coat of paint, before they reach Winnipeg.”
It took 12.5 hours to completely assemble a closed model; that is, a two-door Tudor sedan or four-door Fordor (a name coined in Canada that eventually carried over to the U.S.) sedan.
In 1924, the Ford assembly plant in Winnipeg had 183 workers with 155 employed “in producing the finished product.”
All the different bodies available for Model Ts were mounted on the same chassis, whether it was the open (convertible) runabout, or the closed (body with windows) sedan, and all vehicles used the same four-cylinder motor.
“Knock-down kits” is the common industry term used to describe the components that were received at a plant from an outside source and then assembled into a final product at another location. It can be loosely likened to purchasing a packaged kit at a hobby store and then going home to glue or snap together the plastic pieces to make a fully-assembled model airplane or car. 
In the Winnipeg plant’s testing room, each car was subjected to a 45-minute run at all speeds (the top speed of a Model T was only 64 to 72 km/h). If any defects were discovered, the car was sent to the repair department for corrections before being sent out of the factory.
A description of the facility in the Free Press on December 16, 1937, said that in its heyday in 1926, the Winnipeg plant produced 25,000 cars. “At that time, 450 Winnipeg mechanics, electrical workers, cabinet makers, carpenters, upholsterers, painters and similar tradesmen were employed.”
It should be pointed out that the Winnipeg plant was responsible for a quarter of the 100,611 Model Ts produced by Ford of Canada in 1926. At the time, the Model T was at its cheapest price ever — $395 for a basic car without a starter ($290 in U.S.).
From 1909 to 1927, over three-quarters of a million Tin Lizzies were built by Ford of Canada with over 225,000 exported to Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Java and others (Auto Atlantic).
Even one year into the Great Depression, the Winnipeg plant was thriving, with a 14 per cent increase in production over the previous year. During a 1930 (March 8, Free Press) inspection of the Winnipeg facility, R.A. Sales, the assistant sales manager of Ford of Canada, commented: “In our plant on Portage Avenue, we are now making 75 cars a day. By next month this will be increased to 100.”
Sales predicted cars bought by the public in 1930 would surpass those of 1929, which was a record year for Ford of Canada. 
Ford of Canada was then producing the Model A (Ford’s first production car — 1,700 were built over 15 months by hand — was also called a Model A), which was introduced in 1928 to replace the Model T after other automobile makers began to offer more choices to consumers that didn’t count on utilitarian features, but cosmetics and luxury. 
The General Motors of Canada Ltd. Chevy was one of the competing models that contributed to a collapse in Model T sales, and it was GM that introduced the yearly model change, which in the end made the company the largest vehicle seller in the world. In 1931, a “new Chevrolet Six” (that is, six-cylinder engine) standard roadster cost $610, a “sports” coupe with rumble seat could be bought for $745, a “standard” coupe was $695 and a “special” sedan sold for $840.
The Model A line of automobiles was discontinued in 1931 and replaced in 1932 by the Model B. Another new line of cars was also introduced and called the Model 18, but with the exception of its flathead V-8 engine, it was virtually the same as the Model B.
It took 200 workers to turn out 75 Model As daily at the Winnipeg plant.
Large-scale production continued until 1932, when style changes cut the capacity of the plant. In fact, the Winnipeg factory ceased to assemble bodies for the Ford cars, which by then were all shipped in completed form to the city from Toronto. Even before 1932, select body styles were brought to Winnipeg, such as the Model A Ford Briggs body for the Fordor, which was manufactured in Michigan.
According to the 1937 article, the company was particularly proud of its history of good labour relations with its employees.
“Never in the 21 years of operation has the plant encountered labor difficulties.” The newspaper explained that the situation arose from many workers being long-time employees.
“At the plant, there are many instances of father and sons working together and the turnover of employees ... is practically nil.”
With so many long-term employees, the average age of a worker was over 40 years old. The Ford plant workers earned an average wage of 80-cents an hour for a five-day, 40-hour work week.
“No male employee receives less than $130 per month and the minimum for female employees is $100 per month.”
In 1935, Ford of Canada announced that it was bumping its minimum wage to $6 a day at the Winnipeg plant, which was the level just prior to the Great Depression. In Winnipeg, the $1 increase affected 213 workers. The higher paid employees at the plant received an increase of five-cents per hour.
When the Winnipeg Association of Purchasing Agents took a tour of the Ford factory on May 22, 1935, the Winnipeg assembly plant was turning out 85 cars and trucks each eight-hour shift.
The members of the association watched as parts from Eastern Canada were being unloaded, and then “followed the materials to the assembly line and witnessed cars and trucks being assembled into complete units, starting from the frame. The tour took the party over two assembly lines. On the third floor the completed chassis is assembled and run up via an elevator — under its own power — to the fourth floor, where it met on the assembly line by the body, which has been alloted to each particular chassis. The completed car was followed through the inspection department and finally down to the load platform, where units were being loaded into carloads for points in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British  Columbia.”
By 1937, over 200,000 vehicles  had rolled off the Winnipeg plant’s assembly line.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Henry Ford’s anti-war stand became problematic for Ford of Canada. Ford was fervently anti-semitic and an admirer of Adolf Hitler to the point that he helped fund the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, and Ford continued to do business with Germany after the war began on September 3, 1939 (Canada entered the war on September 10).
Hitler even cited “Henry Ford as my inspiration,” when interviewed by a Detroit News reporter.
When Rolls-Royce sought a U.S. manufacturer as an alternative source for the Merlin engine, which were fitted to Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, Ford first agreed to participate and then reneged. At the time, France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg in June 1940, and Britain was under imminent threat of invasion with its first line of protection being the Royal Air Force and its fighter aircraft.
At a Winnipeg meeting of the veterans of the 44th Battalion, a resolution was passed asking the public to boycott Ford cars.
“Much of the time of the meeting was taken in a discussion of Henry Ford’s announcement that he would refuse to manufacture aeroplane engines for war purposes outside the United States,” reported the July 22, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune.
The resolution passed at the meeting urged: “That the people of Canada and the Empire forthwith boycott Ford cars, trucks, tractors, and other products, and that an active campaign be instituted at once; and that the Canadian government be urged to take steps for control of Ford plants in Canada for use in interests of the State.”
In addition, the Winnipeg and District Trades and Labour Council passed a boycott resolution, but the reason behind it was the belief that Ford was an “anti-union employer.”
Winnipeg Mayor John Queen cancelled an order for two Ford automobiles that the city had ordered to protest Ford’s refusal to manufacture aircraft engines for Britain.
“If Henry Ford can’t build planes for the Allies, then he is not going to build cars for the city of Winnipeg, as far as I am concerned,” Queen told city council on June 26. 
In the Canadian House of Commons, Henry Ford was attacked for his “sudden refusal to manufacture aircraft engines for the British government (Tribune, June 28, 1940).
M.J. Coldwell, the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunner of the NDP), was so incensed that he proposed the Canadian government seize all the Ford plants in Canada as “enemy property.” He also pointed out that Ford had been decorated by Hitler with the Grand Cross of the Order of the German Eagle.
But there was a measure of sympathy expressed for Ford of Canada, although none was reserved for Henry Ford. 
MP Paul Martin supported the Canadian company, since it was a separate entity from Ford’s Detroit operations, “and (was) now engaged in making materials to help crush Hitler ... A good many of its directors were citizens of Canada, and neither they nor the company’s employees could be blamed for the ‘narrowmindedness’ of Mr. Ford, which would, he was sure, be just as repugnant to them as to Mr. Coldwell” (Tribune, June 28, 1940).
Wallace Campbell, the president of Ford of Canada, said that all Canadian Ford facilities were devoted to the production of war materials (Free Press, June 27, 1940).
“More than 50 per cent of the production of our Windsor plant consists of vehicles for military use ... We are supplying the British Empire with a total of approximately 35,000 of these units. Of this total nearly 10,000 are for the Canadian government and 25,000 are for the use by other Empire countries such as South Africa, Australia and India.”
For his part, Henry Ford said he would not build aircraft engines for any country in the British Empire, but he would build engines for the defence of the U.S. He said his position was to “keep this country (U.S.) out of the war,” and building engines for Britain would be a step toward bringing America into the war.
On the other hand, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was a strong supporter of Great Britain and its war effort. As a result, Ford didn’t trust and had a strong dislike for Roosevelt.
“I am against war in any form,” Ford commented. Actually, he was against war because it got in the way of his business.
“Make it profitable for everybody to attend to his own business and there will be no more war,” he said in 1933.
Ford said his policy only applied to the U.S. “The Ford Motor Company of Canada, Limited, at Windsor, Ont., and other Ford plants located in the British Empire are using their facilities to the utmost for the production of military equipment for the defence of the British Empire.
“They are serving their people as they should do and as I would do,” he added.
Ford didn’t actively support the Allies’ war effort until the U.S. entered the war following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — to do otherwise would have been tantamount to treason.
Ford’s musings, although they didn’t help, had only a slight influence on the eventual closure of the Winnipeg assembly plant, which was apparently doomed because it hadn’t been converted into full-time war production. Instead, Ford of Canada was concentrating most of its wartime manufacturing in Windsor and Eastern Canada.
The Winnipeg Ford plant was still running in late 1940, producing a few aircraft refuelling trucks for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). But a November 23, 1940, report in the Tribune also included a brief mention of similar trucks being “made in large numbers in the main Ford plant in Windsor, Ontario, where more than 50,000 military vehicles for Empire use are being produced.”
The Free Press on September 25, 1941, reported that the Ford plant in Winnipeg was closed and would not be reopening, “owing to the restrictions on the production of automotive vehicles for the domestic and civilian trade, and the extreme difficulty encountered in obtaining the necessary materials for such production.”
On April 21, 1942, the Winnipeg Tribune carried an article announcing that the Ford building at Portage and Wall was being purchased by the provincial government with the help of the federal government. The province’s plan was to convert the building into a school for vocational and technical training of wartime workers.
The Ford building was already being used for vocational training, sponsoring classes to instruct women for membership in the Women’s Auxiliary Motor Service, as well as teaching military cadets to become mechanics by working on Ford-built engines.
“Operation of the school will start as soon as the building can be made ready for classes and a principal and staff appointed,” said Manitoba Education Minister Ivan Schultz in a press release announcing the purchase of the Ford plant.
After it became a techical school, Ford leased office space in the building until 1949.
The large and prominent Ford signs on the front and sides of the building were taken down, and the assembly plant that was responsible for manufacturing tens of thousands of vehicles sold across Western Canada ended its presence in Winnipeg.