Jim Smart
May 25, 2016

Ford’s defunct Dearborn Assembly Plant (DAP) produced more than six million Mustangs for nearly one-half of its 90-year history before production ended on Monday, May 10, 2004. The 80-plus year-old plant designed by Albert Kahn was torn down in 2008. DAP, known as the “B” building in the big River Rouge Complex, wasn’t a car factory when it opened in 1918. Rather, it built submarine chasers known as Eagle Boats for the U.S. Navy in World War I. Henry Ford convinced Washington he could build boats as efficiently as he did his Model T automobiles. Dearborn launched its first Eagle Boat, in July 1918.

When Eagle Boat production ended, Ford produced Model Ts and Fordson tractors at Dearborn, which grew significantly in the years to follow to meet demand. Dearborn also produced Ford Models As and a host of other vehicle types during the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II Dearborn was enlisted for the war effort producing machines of combat for theaters a world away.

After the war ended DAP got back to the business of building cars including the all-new 1949 Ford that saved Ford and the stylish two-seat 1955-1957 Thunderbirds. The new intermediate 1962 Fairlane entered production as the first unit body automobile produced at Dearborn. Mustang entered production at Dearborn at the cusp of 1964 along with Fairlane and remained in continuous production for more than 50 years until May 2004.

Fox-body Mustangs began life as dozens of stampings that made up the platform. Here, stacks of floor pans from the stamping plant are readied for assembly. Then the floor pan is placed in an assembly jig, where it will be automatic welded (arrow) to rocker panels and other stampings to become the midsection.
Trunk pan and rear framerail assemblies have been spot-welded together and are headed up line to join the midsection and front end assembly.

I had many opportunities to visit DAP between 1983 and 2004 and had the good fortune to see how Mustangs were bucked and assembled. During those years Ford built Fox-body and SN95 Mustangs at Dearborn. From 1979 to 1981 Ford built Fox-body Mustangs in two plants, Dearborn and the plant in San Jose (Milpitas), California. Milpitas was closed in 1982 and became The Great Mall of Milpitas. Dearborn continued to build Ford Mustang and Mercury Capri. Capri production ended in the mid-1980s.

In late September 1986 I was invited to come to Dearborn for Balance Out when production of 1986 Mustangs was coming to an end to make way for the 1987s. It was a hectic pace of balancing out cars and parts to where, hopefully, there would be few leftover parts when the last 1986 unit was started and driven off the line.

In those days, Mustang assembly wasn’t much different than it was in the 1960s with the line travel basically the same way. Mustangs didn’t always go forward as they made their way down the line. Sometimes they were backwards. Other times they were sideways. They were spun and rolled around on assembly skids to get them where they needed to be during assembly. Some bodies were sidelined for quality issues.

The Fox Mustang’s platform consists of three sections: front end assembly, midsection, and trunk pan. The three are mated and welded together as one common platform, then, given the vehicle identification number from an IBM punch card, including the body buck tag attached to the radiator support. On the body buck tag is the VIN and the body line rotation number. The Rotation Number, or ROT, places the body in chronological order on the line where it can easily be found by personnel.

Raw steel stampings became bodies in the dark and ugly body line. There was a lot of noise and the constant zap of spot welders. Bodies emerged from the body line in fresh paint ready for parts and final assembly on the Trim & Chassis line. It was mesmerizing to see new 5.0L High Output engines being dressed and fitted with transmissions and exhaust systems ready to make noise for excited new car buyers.

When you consider the high-tech nature of Ford’s Flat Rock, Michigan assembly plant miles away from Dearborn where Mustangs are assembled today, the old Mustang factory at the Dearborn Rouge complex is a sharp contrast to the way things were for decades in assembly plants. Ford assembly plants have become bright, productive places to work, where build quality has never been better in the company’s 113-year history.

Body structure is welded to the platform for what is beginning to look like a Mustang. The automatic welder closes up around the body and clamps down tight. Robotic spot welders go to work zapping sheetmetal stampings into one strong cage.
Body structure is welded to the platform for what is beginning to look like a Mustang. The automatic welder closes up around the body and clamps down tight. Robotic spot welders go to work zapping sheetmetal stampings into one strong cage.
The roof pan has been positioned and is being spot welded by hand to the body.
Fox Mustang bodies lined up sideways headed toward E-coat and paint. E-coat is an electrostatic anticorrosion primer dipping, one weapon in the war on rust.
Not every Mustang body made it. This is a side assembly that failed inspection and was scrapped. Entire bodies were sometimes scrapped for failed inspection.
This assembly fixture contains the left-hand door, which fits the door to the body. It sets up the door properly and runs the hinge bolts down tight. Both doors were mounted and adjusted at the same time. This process began years earlier with classic 1965 Mustangs. Prior to that, car doors were mounted by hand. Look at the assembly skid the body sits on. Makes us wonder how many layers of paint were on the skid from previous builds.
In 1986 hoods were still mounted and adjusted by hand, much as the early classics were.
Door adjustment with a piece of band iron. Yeah, they really did it that way to get twist out of the door.
Raw steel Mustang bodies heading into E-coat for corrosion proofing. They emerge in battleship gray, are dried in an oven, get body sealer and sound deadening, and head into the paint shop.
Bodies emerge from E-coat in gray ready for sealing and paint. The white along the bottom of this hatchback is stone guard flexible coating for a Canadian export unit. Stone guard will be painted body color.

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