Jim Smart
September 1, 2004

Balancing OutBuilding new cars is a complex process. Those who do it daily don't completely understand this process because their jobs are but a small piece of a large and complicated puzzle. We spent five days in the Dearborn Assembly Plant and still don't have an understanding of how dealer orders become completed automobiles. But here's what we can tell you. Car building begins with raw materials and winds up with a working machine that has to perform reliably for many years. And Ford does this well thousands of times each day across the world.

As an assembly plant winds down to the last vehicle build of a given model year, production has to become less complicated as the clock ticks and the line moves. This means fewer options, fewer colors, and less complexity. At Dearborn, simplifying the 2004 "balance out" process was much as it has always been since 1964: build the more involved Mustangs first, then wind down to more modestly optioned examples toward the end. For example, the last '04 Cobra was built; then the last Mach 1 (which went to Rob Webber); then the last GT. These events happened in the weeks and days leading up to our arrival on May 5th.

When we arrived at Dearborn Assembly, there were only four colors left on the line: black, white, silver, and charcoal. Charcoal was on the home stretch, followed by black, silver, and white. Eventually, there would be only white, with the line becoming a sea of Oxford White V-6 coupes and convertibles, most destined for rental-car duty. The rest would be affordable Mustangs, easy for any Ford dealer to sell.

On our first day at D.A.P., we were introduced to Alan Honeycutt, body area superintendent. He took us through the process of building Mustang bodies in the dark, noisy, dusty segment of the manufacturing process. This is where assembly workers take raw steel stampings and begin to assemble a puzzle. Because manufacturing standards have become so strict, it takes a lot of attention to detail. Working in the Dearborn body shop isn't for everyone. It's grimy, backbreaking work for 10 hours a day.

The Mustang body-build process begins with the platform, which is produced in three sections: the front-end assembly, centersection, and trunk pan. Each of the assemblies is built on its own line, then fed into "the marriage," where all three are joined to become the platform. Classic Mustangs were built the same way-a platform consisting of three sections, just like the Fox-body '04 Mustang.

The three platform sections are then moved into a holding "corral," which allows flexibility for excess platforms. The body shop keeps additional platforms on hand in case there's an equipment failure or a shortage of parts. This allows the line to run normally for a given amount of time, with plenty of platforms to keep the body shop going. This, in turn, keeps the paint plant and trim/chassis lines moving.

Subassembly lines in the body shop build the front-end assembly, centersection, and trunk pan. Other subassembly lines build important assemblies like body sides, which consist of quarter-panels, A/B-pillars, and wheelhouses. Body sides are among the first subassemblies attached to the platform. When the body sides are tied to the platform, they are retained with fold-over "toy tabs," which is plant slang for metal tabs that are bent over to hold subassemblies loosely together as they travel toward the welding process.

Ride A Painted PonyFor many years, the Dearborn Assembly Plant had its own paint shop. The greatest challenge was paint quality due to the close proximity of heavy industry, which creates plenty of dust and ash in the air that contaminates paint. In 2000, Ford opened the new Dearborn Paint Plant to improve Mustang body finishes. The brand-new Dearborn Truck Plant, which opened in the spring of this year, also benefits from this new high-tech finishing plant. During our visit, both the Mustang and the '04 F-150 truck were being painted in the same space, something that will never happen again at Dearborn.