How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Once, Detroit's carmakers wanted to be the nation's aircraft kings. For a short time during World War II, they were. Then things fell apart. Dr. Daniel Uziel of The Future of Things explains what happened. —Ed.

Henry Ford brought with his Model T not only the first affordable and practical car, but also revolutionary production methods for complicated mechanical products. Ford's Highland Park factory in Michigan, opened in 1910, introduced the modern production line, which enabled mass, and therefore cheap, production of the Model T. This production line was based on a long line of assembly stations that added parts and components to the product as it moved along. The line moved forward at a predetermined pace, therefore forcing the workers on each station to adhere to a strict timetable. Conveyor belts were used to move most of the products along the line, as well as to feed workers parts. This type of production line was perfectly portrayed in Charlie Chaplin's classic movie Modern Times. By contrast, in the traditional workbench technique, most of the manufacturing tasks were performed on static stands by relatively small teams of highly skilled workers.

One of the main benefits of Ford's production technique was that it lowered the training level required for employees. Since most workers performed specific manufacturing tasks that required only relatively brief training, car factories became massive employers of cheap workforces.

By the end of WWI, several car factories in America and elsewhere were using the production methods introduced by Ford, and other branches of the industry also adopted them. The aviation industry, however, was not among them. Although several countries produced large numbers of aircraft during the war, the aircraft industry stuck to traditional workbench production methods due to the products they were creating: aircraft are complicated and often delicate machines that require extreme precision and care in assembly. Furthermore, at the time airplanes were constructed mainly from traditional materials, such as wood and fabric, that were difficult to adapt to the automobile industry's new techniques.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Final assembly of B-24 bombers at Detroit's Willow Run factory. (National Air & Space Museum)

Commercial aviation expanded rapidly during the interwar years, but the demand for large numbers of aircraft diminished due to economical difficulties and defense cuts. The looming clouds of war and massive rearmament in the second half of the 1930s brought a change. In Great Britain, political decision-makers were occupied largely by two concerns: aerial threats and the need to take the war to the enemy through bombers. As a result, a large portion of Great Britain's rearmament was dedicated to modern aircraft. The need to produce large numbers within a short time caused the British government to think outside the box.

In May of 1938, the Air Ministry contracted Lord William Morris (a.k.a. Viscount Nuffield) owner and director of Morris Motors, and pioneer of inexpensive mass-produced cars in Britain, to bring his car-manufacturing expertise to aircraft and aero engine production. Nuffield's most urgent task was to expend the production of the new Spitfire fighter (some people suggested jokingly to change the name of the plane to "Spitfield" or "Nuffire"). He established his first big so-called "shadow factory" at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, taking advantage of the presence of several car manufacturers in the area and the availability of a relatively large pool of skilled workers. (Note: This location still houses a large chunk of Britain's automotive industry, including Jaguar's main assembly plant —Ed.) At the same time, he increased the recruitment of women. By 1940, Nuffield factories were the main source of British fighters and their engines, using modern production lines; however, British plants continued to produce bigger planes on old-fashioned production lines because they were considered to be too complicated for the new system.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Final assembly of B-25 medium bombers at North American's factory in Kansas City. (Library of Congress)

On the other side of the Atlantic, the application of automotive methods to aircraft manufacturing was taken even further. In May of 1940, Henry Ford offered to the U.S. government the production of 1000 aircraft of standard design. Both the U.S. and British governments, shocked by the quick fall of France, soon began to consult him. His greatest rival, General Motors, also offered to produce aircraft for the United States before the country entered WWII. Both firms influenced the conversion of the American aviation industry to modern production methods while converting some of their own plants to aviation production. GM, in particular, formed a useful and effective partnership with Grumman to produce naval fighters.

The conversion of the car industry into aviation production and the conversion of the aviation industry to a Detroit-like mass production system was far from smooth.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Aircraft and aero-engines were much more complicated machines than cars and automakers encountered numerous problems when they tried to mass-produce aircraft with their existing machinery and production lines. Furthermore, by definition, the car industry was far less flexible and unable to incorporate the frequent changes of design that typified military products, particularly military aircraft.

This was a major problem typical to military products, which requires an explanation: The whole idea of the Fordian mass production system was to develop a production line and let it produce, almost independently, large numbers of a standard product. Any important change in design meant a line stoppage for retooling and rearrangement, so civilian manufacturers tended to introduce improvements only after large periods of time. By contrast, military production demanded almost constant changes as required by the more dynamic wartime environment. It was easier to incorporate such changes on the old-style production lines because it interrupted only part of the production. On the more modern lines, retooling and rearrangement disrupted the entire line.

As a result of these problems, the American and British aviation industries never fully adopted the mass production methods of the car industry. They instead devised as a compromise different flexible production processes. This meant that while some parts and smaller components were produced on conveyor-belt production lines, bigger components were still assembled on stationary workbenches. The influence of Ford, General Motors, and Nuffield was still crucial in pushing the aviation industry to seek new ways to increase its output.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

The American car industry reached its peak wartime efficiency and publicity with Ford's mile-long and 40,000-worker-strong Willow Run Bomber Plant, constructed in Ypsilanti, near Detroit. Willow Run rolled out its first B-24 Liberator bomber in October of 1942. In March of 1944, this factory produced 14 Liberators, each made from 1.25 million parts, per day. Ford achieved this rate by redesigning the bomber for ease of manufacture and creating a larger number of production breaks, where work was divided into smaller portions. However, Willow Run also demonstrated the problems of mass-producing complicated warplanes. In contrast to what was portrayed in wartime propaganda, it took around two years to reach reasonable output, and the plant suffered from continuous problems during the critical years of 1942 and 1943. Many of the planes produced at Willow Run went straight to other factories upon leaving the production line in order to receive the latest updates before the Air Force accepted them into service. In early 1943, Willow Run came under congressional scrutiny because of its failures. Senator Harry Truman, chairman of the War Investigating Committee, alleged that production at the plant amounted to virtually nothing. The nickname "Will It Run" appeared at that time and stuck. Willow Run eventually produced 8,685 Liberator bombers and exemplified the possibility of modern production lines, but it also proved that building a bomber was nothing like building a car.

Both Nuffield and Ford offered to design their own aircraft and make it easier to produce more aircraft more quickly. Their offers were declined because of their inexperience in aircraft design, and they were wisely tasked to produce existing designs. General Motors attempted in 1942-1943 to develop a high-performance heavy fighter using many components from existing aircraft types, significantly cutting down the time it would take to ready such an aircraft for mass production. The resulting P-75 Eagle fighter was a complete failure, even after a major redesign. The debacle cost the Air Force $49.75 million.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Compromise at the Volkswagen Fellersleben factory: highly mechanized production line using an old-fashioned layout to manufacture medium bomber wings. (U.S. National Archives)

In contrast to the Allies, the Germans were much slower in adopting modern production lines. The main reasons for their failure were mismanagement by the Air Ministry and the reluctance of industrialists and factory managers to disrupt production in order to convert existing production lines. Furthermore, apart from few exceptions, Germany's modern car industry stayed out of the specialized and exclusive branch of aviation production. Among the few exceptions was Volkswagen, which was contracted to manufacture wing sets for medium bombers and the cheap and simple V-1 cruise missile. Only after reports of the high production rates of the American aviation industry, and particularly Willow Run, reached Germany did the German aviation industry begin to modernize its production lines. It was a lengthy process that largely ended in mid-1943. The German equivalent to Willow Run was supposed to be the "thousand-bomber plant," codenamed Ultra, a project began in mid-1942. The plant was never constructed, however, due to shifts in production priorities from bombers to fighters, and the project was canceled at the end of 1943. By that point, the Germans had already lost the production war.

One of the most important aftereffects of the introduction of modern production methods to the aviation industry was social. On the Allied side, the drastic reduction in training and skill required from production technicians enabled mass recruitment of unskilled women to perform production tasks. Technology played a central role here. The development of easy-to-operate riveting machines enabled the unskilled female workforce to skillfully use them after short training periods. Rosie the Riveter became an iconic figure symbolizing the thousands of women working in the war industry. The same thing happened in Great Britain and the USSR, where simplification of aircraft for easier production became an art.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

Layout of an old-fashioned ME-109 fighter wing production line by the Erla firm. (U.S. National Archives)

In Germany, the effect of new production technology was more sinister. While German women mostly stayed at home, modern production lines allowed the Germans to employ foreigners from occupied Europe and concentration-camp inmates in aircraft production. This change was a major factor in the so-called "production wonder" of the German aviation industry in 1944. The "wonder" was a significant increase in aircraft production, an increase that was useless because the German air force was already defeated lacked skilled pilots to fly the new planes.

How Detroit's Aircraft Production Dream Crashed and BurnedS

The same production line after being converted to a flow line in
early 1943. (U.S. National Archives)

Mass military aviation production disappeared gradually after WWII. One reason was defense cuts and the raising costs of modern aircraft: Ford's production methods were efficient only for the production of large batches. Another reason was the increasing complication of military aircraft, which made it almost impossible to produce them like consumer goods.

There was, however, one sector of the aviation industry that kept producing a regularly large series of easy-to-produce aircraft. The flourishing general aviation market — first in the USA and then elsewhere during the 1950s — saw the mass production of light aircraft on lines that resembled the production lines of the automotive industry. Companies like Piper, Cessna, and Beechcraft were major producers of utility aircraft during WWII; in the postwar years, the production lines of these giants and of lesser manufacturers began to deliver thousands of light aircraft to the developing civilian market. The ERCO Company, for example, once turned out 34 Ercoupe light planes per day.

Production of modern military aircraft and airliners, however, is far from being simple or straightforward. Automatic and partially robotic production lines, like those common in modern car industry, are not used by the aviation industry. Most modern military and commercial planes are basically handmade, just as they were before WWII, but the Detroit dream of mass-produced aircraft still lives on in the general aviation sector.

Further reading:

  • Budrass, Lutz, Flugzeigindustrie und Luftrüstung in Deutschland 1918-1945, Düsseldorf: Droste, 1998.

  • Braun, Hans-Joachim, "Aero-engine Production in the Third Reich", in History and Technology 14 (1992), pp.1-15.
  • Ferguson, Robert G., "One Thousand Planes a Day: Ford, Grumman, General Motors and the arsenal of Democracy" History and Technology, Vol.21, No.2 (June 2005), pp.149-175.

  • Hounshel, David A., From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1984.
  • Holley, Irving Brinton jr. "A Detroit Dream of Mass-Produced Fighter Aircraft: The XP-75 Fiasco" Technology and Culture 28 (1987), pp.578-593.

  • Mommsen, H. Grieger, M, Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich. Düsseldorf: Econ, 1996. Sabel, Charles F.. Zeitlin, Jonathan (eds.), World of Possibilities : Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, Cambridge: University Press, 1997.

  • Zeitlin, Jonathan, "Flexibility and Mass Production at War: Aircraft Manufacture in Britain, the United States and Germany," in Technology and Culture, 36 (1995), pp.46-79.

  • Michigan Historical Center, Department of History.



About the author: Dr. Daniel Uziel researches different aspects of modern German history, military history, and war and media. He conducted part of this research as a fellow at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

This story originally appeared on The Future of Things on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. You can find all of Dr. Uziel's columns on TFOT here.