By Lorin Sorensen
article appeared in the May/June 2005 edition of The Restorer
magazine, a publication of the
Model A Ford Club of America.
It was written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of
the Model A Ford Club of America. It is reprinted here with permission of
the author and The Restorer magazine. Some photo captions have been
condensed. — Editor, California Historian
Lorin Sorensen, longtime Ford historian, is past editor of the V-8 Times
and Ford Life magazine. He was editor of The Restorer magazine from 1974 to
1976. In 1978 he was asked by Ford Motor Company to produce its official
75th anniversary book. A consultant to Ford on many history projects, to
date he has written 12 books and produced 23 vintage film videos about Ford
cars. Lorin’s website:
— Editor, The Restorer
Congratulations Model A Ford Club of America on the celebration of your 50th
anniversary! It’s worth noting that this year also marks the 75th
anniversary of four important U.S. “branch” assembly plants that were built
to produce the Model A. Opened in 1930 was the company’s largest and main
exporter at Edgewater, New Jersey, across the water from Manhattan. The
others put into production that year were key plants at Buffalo, New York,
and at Richmond and Long Beach, California.
Back when I was writing
and publishing my old Ford Life magazine (1970-1974) I came across a trove
of crisp original 8 x 10 photos taken in 1930-31 at the new Ford plant at
Long Beach. So, when asked by our editor, Jim Spawn, if I would contribute
something to this commemorative issue, the first idea that came to mind was
to share some of those great old photos with you.
But first we have to ask:
what was Henry Ford thinking — to open more plants to make more cars, right
after the cataclysmic stock market crash of 1929 that wiped out so many of
The answer, of course, is
that those facilities were already under construction at the time and no one
could imagine how desperate the economy was going to be until it really hit
hard later in 1932. Besides, when it came to making and selling cars, Henry
Ford always seemed to make the right moves. To him, the sudden shock to the
economy was just temporary — there would always be a demand for his snappy
new “built to last a buyer’s lifetime” Model A!
So the sparkling new
modern Ford plant at Long Beach opened for production in April 1930. It was
the 35th of 35 Ford assembly plants placed strategically across the United
States. Typical of the high-ceiling, two-story, brick-and-glass plants the
company would bring online from 1929 to 1932, it would replace the old
multi-story building in downtown Los Angeles that had supplied Fords for the
booming area since 1915.
Plant visitors admire 1931 Model
A’s on final assembly line.
Henry Ford always liked
to locate his plants where there was good access to shipping by rail and
water. The site at Long Beach couldn’t have been more perfect! Located on
Cerritos Channel off the Pacific Ocean, with deep-water dock space for two
ships to bring in parts via the Great Lakes from Detroit, it also had three
sets of railroad tracks with room for 60 freight cars to off-load parts and
supplies and take out cars to the plant’s dealers throughout Southern
California, Arizona and parts of Nevada and New Mexico.
Initial 1930 Model A
output at Long Beach was set at 370 cars per eight-hour shift. This included
building, painting, trimming and finishing from shipped-in parts most of the
open and closed bodies, as well as most of the commercial body types for the
A and AA chassis.
Model A bodies came from
each assembly jig at the rate of one every five minutes and were then
transferred to floor-mounted slat-type conveyors where the finish work was
done. At Long Beach, there were two body assembly lines, one 250 feet long
for closed bodies, and another shorter one for the lower-production open and
A total of about 235
bodies were completed on the open and closed body conveyors during each of
the two eight-hour shifts. Another 100 to 130 special-type finished bodies
needed for each shift came in by rail from the outside suppliers — Briggs,
Murray, Budd and Baker-Raulang.
The final assembly line,
where components such as chassis, bodies and parts came in from feeder
lines, was 620 feet long.
Long Beach also had its
own “pressed steel” operation that stamped fenders, splash aprons and other
parts for its own use, as well as for shipment to other plants. Each of the
huge Cleveland presses had a capacity of about 200 fenders an hour.
While 1929 found Henry
Ford selling as many Model A’s as he could build, after the Wall Street
crash, it was clearly apparent that sales weren’t the same. From its opening
in April 1930, Long Beach, like other Ford plants, was running at just a
third of capacity. By late summer some ominous and uncertain sales patterns
would lead the company to — at one time — announce an increase of Model A
production at its Chicago plant by 5000 cars per month because of the
demand; at another shortly after — to slow car assembly at Louisville
because territory sales were off 33 percent. These were sure signs of
rougher times ahead.
Quickly and steadily,
Ford sales were drying up. From a million-and-a-half units sold in 1929, the
company would deliver just a third of that in 1931. It was not just the
economy. The Ford Model A was now up against some strong competition from
the other makes.
In the high-stakes,
boom-or-bust business of selling cars — and losing thousands of dollars a
day in unused production capacity — Henry Ford was forced by events to take
drastic action and come up with a revolutionary new idea. On July 29, 1931,
he made the announcement that he was closing all but a few of his assembly
plants (Long Beach was spared) as the first step in the changeover to an
entirely new model (later announced as the low-priced V-8) — designed to
beat the competition — and the Depression!
After struggling along on
short hours assembling 1931 model commercial vehicles until the new V-8s
went into limited production, the Long Beach Ford assembly plant would
completely shut down in December 1932. It would not reopen until the spring
leave it to the luck of Old Henry! A rich oil field had been discovered
under his Long Beach plant property, and 31 gushing wells were merrily
producing great heaps of cash. The bad news was that with all the pumping
from under the reclaimed landfill, over time the plant began sinking below
sea level, and for years the encroaching tide had to he held in check by
high walls of steel shoring.
Long Beach Ford assembly operations would
resume for the 1934 model and continue as the Depression eased, until
February 1942 when general civilian car production was stopped throughout
the United States auto industry because of the onset of World War II. For
the war’s duration the plant was used by the U.S. Army Air Corps. As the war
ended, civilian Ford vehicle production would resume here in late 1945, and
in 1946 a total of 18,647 cars and 6051 trucks were turned out.
Expanded and modernized during 1949-52,
the Ford plant at Long Beach was still in major production until 1959 when
production was shifted to a new plant at Pico Rivera near Los Angeles.
When I visited the old plant in 1972
there were still a few bobbing old pumps to be seen, but the place was no
longer owned by Ford. In fact, the once proud building was suffering the
ultimate humiliation — as dry storage for a shipment of Japanese cars!
As I wrote in Ford Life, “What a painful
sight! The old plant will never again manufacture Fords and is on its way
towards slipping beneath the tidelands. But in this plastic age of little
substance it was well worth the visit just to look back in time.”
I don’t know the status of the old Long
Beach assembly building today, but all that’s left of it in its heyday are
the pictures. So, with some envy, on these pages is a look at some of the
amazing sights enjoyed by local folks as they found out how Fords were made
at Long Beach on the special Visiting Days of 1930 and 1931.
Editor’s note, The Restorer. Curiosity
got the best of us as we wondered if the Long Beach plant was still
standing. With the help of Steve Newton in Culver City, California, and
Sandi Badgett of Ford Motor Company’s Western Region Public Affairs in
Mission Viejo, California, we learned that the building served in several
warehouse-type capacities into the 1980s. Then it gained additional fame as
a movie set for such films as Robo Cop and Lethal Weapon. It was finally
razed in 1990.