March 28, 2005

Today in Automotive History 1941

Today in Automotive History

1941 Willit Run?

Construction of Ford's Willow Run Plant began. Due both to his admiration of the German people and his philosophical alignment as a pacifist, Henry Ford was reluctant to convert all of his production facilities to war manufacturing. Compounding his anxiety was the fact that one of his former employees, William Knudsen, who had defected to General Motors (GM), headed the bureau in Washington in charge of administrating Detroit's war effort. But with the U.S. declaration of war in 1941, Ford had no choice but to participate.

He contributed with his usual sense of competitive ambition. Before the war, Ford had boasted nonchalantly that Ford could produce 1,000 airplanes per day provided there was no interference from stockholders or labor unions. So when Ford was asked by Knudsen to build subassemblies for Consolidated Aircraft, it was no surprise that Ford Lieutenant Charles Sorensen pushed for a deal that would allow Ford to construct the entire B-24 Liberator bomber. The contract included $200 million toward the construction of a new production facility.

In exchange, Sorensen promised Ford would manufacture 500 planes per month, a quote nearly 10 times what Consolidated Aircraft was then capable of producing. Ground was broken on a vast piece of land in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to begin a plant called Willow Run. Over the course of the next few years, Willow Run would be a source of problems for the Ford Motor Company.

Squabbling within Ford over control of the company, government interference, the loss of much of the company's labor force to the draft, and other problems deterred Ford's war effort. By the end of 1942, Willow Run had only produced 56 B-24 bombers, and the plant had been saddled with the nickname "Willit Run?" The government considered taking over the operations at Willow Run.

Just when it seemed that Sorensen's project would fail, Willow Run began rolling out B-24's at a remarkable rate. The plant produced 190 bombers in June of 1943, 365 in December. By the middle of 1944, Willow Run churned out a plane every 63 minutes. "Willow Run looked like a city with a roof on it," remembered Esther Earthlene, one of the many women who worked there during the war. Willow Run was the largest factory of its day. Its workers built planes around the clock, rotating three eight-hour shifts. They were provided with housing and entertainment. Willow Run had a 24-hour movie theater.

By the end of the war, Willow Run had produced more than 8,500 bombers, and it had become a symbol of the American economy's successful response to war.

Posted by Quality Weenie at March 28, 2005 08:13 AM