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But, Chevrolet also deserves recognition for its manufacturing heritage. By adopting state-of-the-art mass production techniques and incorporating annual styling changes into its vehicles, Chevrolet sales rose dramatically during the 1920s. In 1922, GM hired a former Ford engineer named William Knudsen. He previously served as production chief at Ford’s famous Highland Park plant that perfected the moving assembly line.
Knudsen’s first task at GM was to develop a long-range production plan for Chevrolet. When he took over, Chevrolet sold only 153,270 vehicles annually. Within 5 years, the division became the industry’s top seller, with sales topping 752,000 units. In 1927, Chevrolet sold more than 1 million vehicles and became the No. 1 brand in the United States.
Under Knudsen’s leadership, Chevrolet became the foundation for GM’s long-term production strategy. He built an organization and production system that could accommodate change and expansion.
Chevrolet pioneered the concept of flexible mass production in the 1920s. At the time, manufacturing at GM was far more decentralized and much less vertically integrated than at Ford. Knudsen and his Chevrolet production team adopted sequence lines and productivity went through the roof. However, there was a downside to all that.
Chevy plants played a key role in the labor movement during the 1930s. During the famous sit-down strike in Flint, MI, in early 1937, all 12 plants of the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. were surrounded by machine gun emplacements set up by National Guard troops. Hundreds of workers barricaded themselves inside the body plant and the engine plant.
The assemblers held their ground for more than 40 days until GM eventually made an historic agreement with the fledgling United Auto Workers of America. Union members received a 5 percent pay raise; piece work was abolished in favor of straight hourly rates; and there was mutual agreement on “speed of production,” among other concessions.
Chevrolet assembly plants have also been instrumental in adopting new production technology. For instance, GM spent more than $75 million retooling its Lordstown, OH, plant in the late 1960s to produce the infamous Chevy Vega. The subcompact sedan was aimed at imports, which were slowly trickling into the United States.
When it opened in 1970, Lordstown was touted as the most automated automotive plant in the world. Thanks to computer-controlled automation, it boasted the fastest assembly lines in the auto industry. The new factory could assemble more than 100 vehicles per hour vs. 55 to 60 cars at other auto plants.
More than 90 percent of body welding operations were automated vs. 20 percent to 40 percent at traditional auto plants. The state-of-the-art Lordstown plant featured 75 automatic welding devices, including 26 five-axis Unimate robots that each performed about 20 spot welds.
Engineers also harnessed information technology to simplify assembly line operations for greater efficiency and accuracy. For instance, a computerized system was used to balance workloads along the assembly lines that built the innovative Vega sedan.
Simulation was used extensively to optimize assembly operations. Critical systems and major subassemblies were assembled thousands of times in a computer through the use of mathematical models. Dimensional tolerances, fixturing and assembly sequence were predicted for a large number of units before a single vehicle was actually built at the Lordstown plant.
Manufacturing engineers focused on two main objectives: make the task of the assembly line employee easier and simplify the approach to quality control. The Vega used 43 percent fewer body parts than the Chevy Impala. For instance, the Vega used only 1,231 individual pieces vs. 3,500 for the Impala.
While automation was hailed as a success at Lordstown, the plant quickly became a hotbed of labor unrest. Multiple work stoppages culminated in a bitter strike in the early 1970s. Today, however, Lordstown assemblers build the Chevy Cruze and it is one of GM’s most productive plants.
Congratulations to all the thousands of engineers who have helped Chevrolet design and build all those Bel Airs, Camaros, Corvettes, Impalas, Monte Carlos and other memorable vehicles over the last century.
Be sure to check out our slideshow: 100 Years of Chevrolet Assembly Lines (click www.assemblymag.com)