Re-thinking the '50s in the US auto industry

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I never knew that. I was very, extremely, totally young in the 1950s, though.

I’m not at all surprised about how tenuous employment was for hourly workers. It was like that when I worked in a steel mill in the 1970s and 1980s, and I imagine it I said still that way in most union shops. The pay is great when you can get it, but young workers have to weather the layoffs until they have the seniority to work regularly. I always thought of it as getting a raise when work became more regular. That’s the down side of great hourly pay and the seniority system. Good pay and seniority are great when you have them, but it’s not all good.

The 50s were times of great style and engineering advancements but the cost of annual model changes and the post Korean War recession,killed Kaiser,Studebaker and Packard, and caused Nash and Hudson to morph into AMC.
The 50s are still my favorite decade of collector cars.

GM pushed the annual model change hard because they knew it would increase their competitors costs more than their own.
GM made so many cars they wore out a lot of their tooling in a year or less anyway.

I remember the 1950s. I lived, and still do, an area which produced auto parts. Those factories are all gone now.
For many factory workers, it was boom or bust. 1950 and 1955 were great years with many workers able to work overtime. In 1957 the “Eisenhower Recession” hit. Layoffs hit the factories. “You Auto Buy Now” was a campaign started in 1958 to encourage people to buy cars.
One thing that happened in the late 1950s was that the VW Beetle became popular. Buyers often waited 6 months for delivery. The Renault Dauphine, Morris Minor, and Simca hit the streets. GM sold Vauxhall and Opel through its Pontiac and Buick dealers respectively. Ford dealers sold small cars imported from England. All this hurt the American worker.
The AMC Rambler did do well in 1958 and 1959. Tastes had changed and the Big 3 was asleep at the switch.

In my town, there were several Dauphines, and the owners quickly discovered that they were fragile cars with an extremely poor parts network. My brother and some friends of his were in a prankish mood one night, and they got together to carry the Morris Minor of a local woman onto the sidewalk. I worked with a woman whose husband bought a Simca–over her objections–and it was so bad that it almost ended their marriage.

When my brother and his first wife went on their honeymoon in Hawaii in the late '60s, their rental car was one of those English Fords (a Capri, perhaps?), and the rental company had to send a mechanic to their hotel every morning in order to start that damn thing.

And, of course, there was also Fiat, with its notoriously bad parts network. Some dealers resorted to removing needed parts from cars sitting on their storage lots, rather than force customers to wait 3 or 4 months for replacement parts. Then, when “the customer’s part” arrived, they would install it on the car from which they had… borrowed it.

VW had longevity in this country because they were the only foreign company to establish an excellent parts network and to provide good training to the mechanics employed at their dealerships.

I’ll have to read the article later, but anyone who has worked in manufacturing knows lay offs are just SOP. Overtime with 12 hour shifts, seven days a week to meet production/sales schedules, then laid off for a month or two until production levels need to increase. Just the way it is and you plan for it.

Of course unions needed to be relevant to workers so always attempted wage and benefit increases. As long as the increases could be passed on to consumers, no problem. Then boom, competition didn’t allow the pass through anymore but unions continued with the same strategy to their demise. So we have the mess now with Ford’s tiered wage system and global parts production. Its a mess run by corporate fools and greed that will not be pretty unraveling again.

@VDCdriver. In my town, the Big 3 dealers picked up some of the foreign makes to sell as well as their main line of cars. The Buick dealer sold Renault as well as Buick and Opel. The DeSoto/Plymouth dealer also sold the Morris Minor and Austin. The mechanics that worked in these dealerships that I talked to hated these imports.

That tale from the 1950’s continued into the 60’s, then the 70’s, and then the 80’s. Boom and bust, boom and bust. My father-in-law was a skilled tool and die maker in Detroit. He worked 60 plus hour weeks whenever possible in Detroit for shops supplying the Big 3 in the 50’s and 60’s. He’d roll his toolbox down the street for a penny an hour more wages or more overtime hours. Until there was no work. He’ drive a truck or anything else until the shops started working again.

Both my wife and my uncle worked for GM in the 70’s and 80’s. Hired, laid off, brought back, laid off again. My uncle got the 5 years seniority he needed to insulate him from most layoffs and became a skilled tradesman so he could work as much overtime as he could stand - Mon-Sat, 10 hours and Sunday 8 at double-time for a total of 80 hours pay.That lasted about 15 years (30 years worth of seniority!) Because of a stupid arrangement within the labor contract, he basically read novels the entire time he was at work. After 5 years laid off, my wife was called back while she was attending college. She just laughed at them.

The article is correct. What you THINK it was like as an auto worked in the 50’s (or 60’s, 70’s 0r 80’s) is FAR from reality.

If you want the real story of hourly autoworker’s work life at ANY auto or parts plant, read Rivethead by Ben Stamper.

I dunno, after reading the thing it is really a very narrow and biased article. By a supposed historian? Under contract by the Smithsonian no less?

"Throughout most of the 1950s, the big three automakers mostly earned hefty profits—but auto workers themselves suffered from layoffs and insecurity beneath those numbers. " Well of course. Were they expected to just pay folks to stand around with no cars to produce? I worked summers in plants and gotta say after a week of sweeping, cleaning, etc. with nothing else to do, it was time to send people home for a while until production was needed.

Back before the big crash, the average cost per auto worker was something like $80,000 a year with OT and pensions. That was well beyond the standard cost of other unskilled workers in other industries. The other thing is he keeps talking about the Detroit unemployment and folks flocking to Detroit to be taken advantage of. But Ford and everyone else had plants in other areas around the country and Canada.

Full disclosure, I did not read the article.

I used to be totally anti-union. I’m willing to do any type of work that needs to be done. Don’t believe me? Check out the grease stains and holes in my uniforms, which shouldn’t be worn by “management”.

Lately, I’m not so sure. Responsibility laid on one person allows others to shirk responsibility. At the expense of…me.

That may have nothing to do with the article. I don’t know. I’m venting, dammit. Lol

I worked at a Buick dealership 1975/76. They also sold Opels and for some reason did not think Renaults were bad enough chose SAABs. If you really want a totally strange automobile, buy a SAAB. Our line mechanics referred to them as "S.O.B"s! The Opels were pretty straight forward. There was also a major loss of jobs in late 1945. My parents built Liberty cargo ships starting in 1943. My Father was a master welder and my Mother used a pantograph linked to a huge cutting torch to cut out large pieces of steel. As a take-off on Rosie the riveter she was called Beulah the burner. After the end of WW2 in September 1945 many thousands of these workers were suddenly unemployed! My parents were married in 1927 and survived the great depression with my 2 much older brothers by buying what you need and saving for what you want. That advice has served me well. My Father was to young for WW1 and to old for WW2. When my Father started his 50 mile one way commute he purchased a late 1920s Excelsior inline 4 cylinder motorcycle for $30 and rode it every day to his job. Why didn’t he keep it to give to me!!! When my Mother started her job at the shipyard she rode a few times on the back! She drew the line when it was cold and wet. She drove the old Buick and hauled a few others to the shipyard.

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Interesting. That’s what my dad did in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Leahthom Smith Shipyards. I’ve never been able to figure out which ships they built though. Of course when the war ended, they just moved back to Minnesota so loss of a job was not an issue. Drove a milk route too in off hours and patrolled the harbor with the Civil Air Patrol. I think everyone there had two or three jobs from what I heard.

General Motors CEO Collects $22 Million Salary While Cutting 15,000 Jobs

When my brother picked-up his son’s Saab from their mechanic after its umpteenth repair issue, the mechanic said, “There’s just one thing that I can’t figure out about these cars”.
My brother asked, “What’s that?”, and the mechanic’s reply was…
Why they make the damn things!

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My neighbor was a true environmentalist etc. and had two SAABs. He called our Lincoln a pimp mobile driven mainly by my wife. Nice guy but driven. At any rate he was sold on SAABs. One winter it was time for an engine overhaul. He just took the thing out and carried it down to his basement to work on it. He had a finished basement but he had engine parts laying all over the place. Got it back together though but not sure if it worked any better after the overhaul. The only thing I liked was the FWD which was rare back then and worked well since our street was the last in town to get plowed. I think the street department had it in for the mayor who lived across the street. Cost me a few snow days but the other neighbor ended up going to work at the hospital on a snow mobile. Pimp mobile, no way, snow mobile and SAAB yeah. Do they get a lot of snow in China now though?

GM made just shy of $8 Billion last year and paid $474 Million in taxes. Mary’s salary was 0.27 Percent of those earnings. Seems fair

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Still I remember the days when CEOs were making $5-800,000 with stock options, a company car, and free reign in the cafeteria. But then that meant 60-80 hour work weeks.

Thare are some that make that and even les now. I suppose you are thinking about larger companies, like maybe an automobile company. You probably didn’t adjust for inflation. If you remember 1955, that $800k would be more than $7.6 million today.

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@bing. If the Saabs that your neighbor owned had the two stroke engines, he wasn’t much of an environmentalist.
I can have the wind blowing into my garage, start the engines on my car and the smoke detector in the garage remains silent. However, if I start my two stroke snowblower outside the garage, but don’t shut the garage door, the smoke alarm will go off.

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I had a friend in High school who had an early 2 stroke,3 cylinder Saab. I seem to recall the it wasn;t a transverse engine, could be wrong but I do remember the cooling fan for the radiator was on a long shaft driven off the engine near the firewall.
He proudly stated his Saab had a single overhead fanshaft. You can all groan now.