Jim Smart
September 1, 2004

For as long as there have been Mustangs, there has been Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, assembly plant. The Dearborn Assembly Plant-or D.A.P., as it is affectionately known at Ford-has been building Mustangs ever since production began in early 1964. Few nameplates survive 40 years, much less continue production in the same plant for just as long.

Along the way, there have been two other Mustang assembly plants-Edison (Metuchen), New Jersey, and San Jose (Milpitas), California-both of which are now closed. While Mustang production ended at Metuchen during the '71 model year and San Jose stopped producing Mustangs after 1970, Dearborn continued to produce them at a healthy clip, even in the leanest sales years. During the Mustang's 40-year history, Dearborn has produced some 6.7 million of them. The other 2 million plus were produced at San Jose and Edison. This makes Dearborn the undisputed champ in Mustang manufacturing.

When the Edison assembly plant built its last Ford vehicle, an '04 Ranger, in March of this year, our attention immediately turned to Dearborn, which was scheduled to close in May. A call to Ford SVT boss John Coletti, and a call back from Dearborn Assembly Plant Manager Rob Webber, confirmed our wildest fantasy: We were invited to the closing of one of the greatest chapters in Ford history and the opening of two new ones.

The Dearborn Truck assembly plant, a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility right next to Dearborn Assembly, represents a new chapter in the rich Dearborn Rouge history. The second plant is AutoAlliance, the Ford/Mazda joint venture in Flat Rock, Michigan, where the all-new '05 Mustang will be built. AutoAlliance has been building new cars since 1988, including the Ford Probe, Mazda 626 and 6, and the more recent Mercury Cougar. Mustang quality will be the best it has ever been at AutoAlliance.

Webber graciously invited us into the Dearborn Assembly Plant for an up-close look at the last five days of '04 Mustang production before wrapping it all up at precisely 1:07 p.m. on Monday, May 10, in a crowd of more than 1,000 people. It would prove to be one of the most incredible journeys of our careers as historians and journalists.

The Last Dearborn MustangWhen we asked Plant Manager Rob Webber how we could photo-document the assembly of the last Dearborn Mustang, I didn't realize how challenging my question would be. It's difficult to define the "last" anything when it comes to mass production. There are too many variables: You have the last Cobra, last Mach 1, last GT, last red car, last black car, last yellow car, and so on. Because units get shuffled around during production, it becomes nearly impossible to define the "last" Mustang. Units get sidelined for repairs. And they get pulled from the line when specific parts don't arrive. The last unit out of the body shop might wind up 20 units up the line in the paint plant, then five units from the end of the line in trim and chassis.

Webber and his manufacturing team developed a decisive plan for the last Dearborn Mustang, a red GT convertible ordered internally by Ford for display at its new Dearborn Rouge Visitor's Center. In April, Webber scheduled the last Dearborn Mustang for assembly. The body was built in Redfire Clearcoat paint, then placed in storage and wrapped in a huge plastic bag. But it wouldn't exactly be the last Mustang body Dearborn produced. There would be hundreds more over the next couple of weeks. This teaches us something about the confusion of mass production. "Last" is a loose term at best because it encompasses many variables.

After all of the remaining Mustang orders had been processed into trim and chassis, "Mustang Last" was retrieved from storage and placed on the line. So were all of its components. I would be there to see it happen at 11 o'clock on a Friday night. For the next two days, I would walk the entire length of the Dearborn assembly line with the last vehicle this plant would ever produce.

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.

John Grace, manufacturing engineering manager at the Dearborn Paint Plant, took us on a tour. Because the paint plant is hospital clean, we had to don coveralls and wear a hairnet [We'd love to see those pictures-Ed.] to minimize fallout that can contaminate a Mustang's new finish. It was like being in an episode of ER. Environmentally controlled segments of the paint shop, such as E-Coat and the paint booths, must be kept closed to keep out unwanted contaminants. This tightly controlled environment yields the best paint quality in Ford history.

Trim & ChassisAfter painted Mustang bodies pass Ford's tough paint standards, they go through a long, dark tunnel back to D.A.P. to begin a 24-hour journey through Trim & Chassis, which begins on the second floor. Every component you can imagine (and even some you can't) is fastened to the body as it makes its way down the trim and chassis line. At first, it's a lot of little stuff: trunk lock, nut plates, fasteners, heating and air conditioning, wiring, automatic shifter, brake and clutch-pedal assembly, and so on.

Once many of the things you don't see are installed, the things you do see are installed, such as the instrument panel, engine and transmission, suspension, headlights and taillights, and rear axle. It's a long process performed by dozens of people, each one experienced at a specific task.

When we arrived at Trim & Chassis, we were introduced to Dan Klebe, launch manager at the new Dearborn Truck Plant. Dan's job was to make sure Trim & Chassis ran smoothly for Mustang Balance Out. Dan introduced us to Tom Sea and Tommy Demeester, two guys who are familiar with Dearborn Assembly. These gentlemen and Dan were our sidekicks for the next couple of days as we documented the building of Mustang Last.

A Note Of ThanksWe want to thank everyone at Ford Motor Company who made this article possible: John Coletti, Rob Webber, Will Cowell, Dan Klebe, Tommy Demeester, Tom Sea, Anne Marie Gattari, Art Cairo, Alan C. Honeycutt, John F. Grace, and the dozens of Dearborn Assembly Plant associates who grabbed the ball and ran with it those last days at this legendary facility.

D.A.P. HistoryMost of us think of Dearborn Assembly for Mustangs, Cougars, Falcons, and two-seat Thunderbirds, but these nameplates represent less than half of the plant's 86-year history. When Dearborn Assembly opened in 1918 as a three-story factory building, it was constructed to produce Eagle boats, known as submarine chasers, for World War I.

After the war, Dearborn became home to the production of Fordson tractors and Model T parts. By 1927, Dearborn was building the highly successful Model A. Some 10 years later, in 1937, Dearborn was producing Ford trucks. In 1939, Ford added a line at Dearborn for the new Mercury Division.

When World War II broke out, Dearborn went to war as well, building tanks, staff cars, and Jeeps. When the war ended in 1945, Dearborn went back to the business of building automobiles for a bustling post-war economy. If you visited Dearborn Assembly during the '50s, you saw Fords of all kinds moving down the line, including the '55-'57 Thunderbirds.

In the fall of 1961, Dearborn turned its attention to smaller cars, like the new '62 Fairlane, a nice fit between big Fords and smallish Falcons. If you're thinking Falcon at Dearborn, that didn't happen until 1966, the only year Mustang and Falcon shared a line at Dearborn. When Ford began developing the Mustang in the early '60s, Dearborn was the targeted plant for Job 1.

When Mustang assembly began at Dearborn early in 1964, no one would have believed the nameplate would still be in production at the plant four decades later. Mustang and Fairlane shared the Dearborn line for a few months in 1964 until Fairlane production was moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in June. Mustang and Cougar were built bumper to bumper at Dearborn from 1967 to 1973. From 1974 to 1978, Dearborn became one of two birthplaces for the Mustang II.