Inside the factory: Chrysler 1936

Snapshots from 1936 of Chrysler’s engineering emphasis at the factory level
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Welded-up cowl section leaves a multiple-operation Hydromatic welding machine.

Welded-up cowl section leaves a multiple-operation Hydromatic welding machine.

In 1936, the automobile touched more American lives than telephones or electricity. Throughout the country, there were 17.2 million phones and 21.1 million homes wired for electric service, but there were 26 million automobiles.

Chrysler was beginning its 11th year of business that year. Walter P. Chrysler had left General Motors as a successful and wealthy executive. Then, he was hired by bankers to “fix” Maxwell as he had done at Willys-Overland.

Mr. Chrysler started building a car named after him in the old Maxwell plant, relying on his “3 Musketeers” — Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer — for a superior automobile. The Chrysler Model 70 crashed the market for a $1,500 car and gave Ford and GM an able competitor.

By the 1930s, Chrysler had added Plymouth, Dodge and De Soto to his stable, along with Dodge Truck, Chrysler Marine, air compressors and even air conditioning units. A large percentage of the 26 million cars on the road in 1936 were Chrysler products that were known for their engineering excellence. Chrysler’s centralized engineering department worked out of a modern office building that included drafting rooms, offices, and research and testing laboratories. The Chrysler Engineering Division also had a resident chief engineer and engineering staff at each of its manufacturing plants.

Circular roller conveyor carries De Soto radiator parts to sub-assembly builders.

Circular roller conveyor carries De Soto radiator parts to sub-assembly builders.

A few of the proud achievements of Chrysler engineers were aluminum pistons, all-steel car bodies, Airflow designs, hydraulic four-wheel brakes, the Floating Power engine mounting system and advances in car weight distribution. The remote engineering staffs figured out solutions to engineer and design problems that were encountered in product manufacturing.

The Engineering Building included hot and cold rooms, an electrical testing laboratory, a carburetor development area, chemistry and physics laboratories, a rubber laboratory and a radiator laboratory. The old Maxwell engineering building included an air conditioning research laboratory and the Chrysler Institute of Engineering for teaching future engineers enrolled in a two-year course of study. Students there went to school half a day and worked in a Chrysler department for half a day.

Chrysler stressed precision workmanship in all of its products from a $510 Plymouth coupe to a $1500 Chrysler Imperial Airflow. One out of every 100 parts on a Chrysler assembly line were pulled off and tested. The goal was to build a mass-produced automobile that was as perfect as possible.

This equipment could flip a frame with brakes, axles and exhaust system in place.

This equipment could flip a frame with brakes, axles and exhaust system in place.

In the company’s East Jefferson Avenue and Kercheval plants, a teletype installation controlled the entire production process and allowed management to map out the complete production system and track each step in the process. Six sending stations were set up throughout each factory and a seventh station in the billing department tracked the finances involved. This machine was also connected to Canadian customs to clear shipments in advance and save trucking time.

Chrysler followed 10 rules to ensure that its production departments had layouts that made its shops good places for people to work. They covered feeding raw materials to the assembly line, easily moving parts, allowing clean-up while a plant continued to operate, proper work spaces, easy supervision and proper lighting. Overhead conveyors were employed to move parts above the auto workers.

A painter sprays the inside fenders of a unit-bodied Airflow model.

A painter sprays the inside fenders of a unit-bodied Airflow model.

The manufacture of automobiles was a complicated process that involved ordering parts from 1400 outside suppliers, a process that had to be carefully planned and controlled. Outside-sourced parts were routinely tested in Chrysler’s metallurgical laboratories and were also checked by receiving inspectors upon each delivery.

With its four lines of passenger cars offering 61 body types, there were many parts flowing into the factories and that did not include Dodge truck, Chrysler marine engines and industrial parts. The value of a single supplier order could range from a few cents to millions of dollars. Interior trim fabrics were also tested for quality and durability.

Many different production methods were used in Chrysler factories. Sheet metal parts were forged in huge stamping machines. Forge shops used dies, heat treatment and hammers to manufacture parts. For example, a 12,000-lb. steam hammer was required to forge crankshafts. Quenching oil for other operations had to be brought in through pipes laid in trenches that ran to furnaces and tanks.

Body drop lowered car body from a mezzanine to first floor assembly line.

Body drop lowered car body from a mezzanine to first floor assembly line.

Chrysler plants also housed foundry operations that poured molten iron into large ladles and then into molds. Rows of huge, funnel-shaped overhead ducts purified the air inside the foundries. Overhead hoods allowed fumes and dust to be carried away from foundry worker stations.

Fusing metal to metal with electricity allowed Chrysler’s workers to add strength and beauty to cars while making them at a lower cost. The company studied industrial processes and developed hydromatic welding systems that used oil pressure to control the upper electrodes of giant spot-welding machines that could make multiple welds in a single operation. Welders also used Martin guns to do auxiliary operations while the major parts were being welded in the large machines.

Tough steels were made tougher in Chrysler’s Heat Treating Department. After being heated in Hagan rotary electric furnaces, parts such as transmission gears were dipped into hot cyanide and quenched in the air. Continuous furnaces and well-planned material handling played a large part in bringing out the best qualities in Chrysler parts. After such operations, the parts were cleaned in a Tum-Blast machine.

Note how parts were stored above the cars in final assembly area.

Note how parts were stored above the cars in final assembly area.

Engine connecting rods were processed in pairs before assembly and diamond-bored afterwards in a broaching operation. The rods and caps were precision checked by an electric gauge. A Heald grinder finished one face at a time while the rod was held on a locating plug. The crank end of each rod was clamped in a pneumatic equalizing jig so they could be reamed. Final sizing of wristpin holes was done in a double-spindle diamond-boring machine.

The amount of parts flowing through a factory was unbelievable. Chrysler’s plant in Newcastle, Ind., which made steering gears and tube axles for Dodges and Plymouths, turned out about 90 million pounds of work in 1935! Over five million aluminum pistons were made by Amplex Mfg. Co. (a Chrysler division) between late 1933 and 1936. That translated into 1800 pistons per day!

Engine and transmission assemblies had to be put together and checked at the factories. Speeding Machines were used to check gears for quiet running. At the end of one assembly line, the gears were fitted into the gear boxes by dozens of experienced auto workers. On the engine line, a Hall hydraulic machine utilized eccentric spindles to simultaneously grind six valve seats. Pistons were turned in a Baird six-spindle chucking machine. A double-end Ex-Cell-O precision boring machine bored the wristpin holes.

Eighteen miles of conveyors and the world’s longest 1936 assembly line were installed in Plymouth’s Detroit factory. A monorail conveyor carried bare metal fenders into a vapor degreasing machine where they were prepped for paint. The paint was mixed at a central plant and distributed by pipes to hydro-filtered spray booths located throughout the factory. In a rust-proofing process, an overhead tank supplied a protective solution to the Bonderite spray booths below it.

Drag chain conveyors carried the recently painted car bodies through drying ovens in which the temperature was controlled within two degrees. The painted parts then moved towards a synchronized process that sorted out nearly 5 million possible combinations of colors, trim options and body styles. There were 72 possible engine combinations.

At the Jefferson Avenue plant — where Chrysler and De Soto passenger cars were built in Airstream and Airflow styles — finished bodies were lowered from a mezzanine to the chassis assembly line on the first floor. In another operation, a circular roller conveyor system carried parts to the workers who built up sub-assemblies from De Soto grilles, radiators and shrouding.

Due to the work of thousands, Chrysler Airstreams rolled off a line looking like this.

Due to the work of thousands, Chrysler Airstreams rolled off a line looking like this.

After mounting of the proper size and style tires, painted wheels in any of 10 colors were discharged from the bottom of a chute and delivered to the proper car on the assembly line. Chrysler’s Traffic Department used Track Sheets to make sure that the correct parts got to the assembly line at just the right time. Using code, the Track Sheets gave the specifications of every car built each day, with the first car of the day being No. 1 and the last being around No. 600. Copies of the Track Sheet went to every department involved in building a specific car.

Keep in mind that the factory did not have enough space inside for the storage of the 750,000 parts handled each hour or for the 600 car bodies built up in a typical day. The Traffic Department had to route a constant flow of materials that were used almost immediately. To ensure proper synchronization, bodies had to be ordered five days in advance, while orders for fenders and hoods could be processed in 24 hours.

Plant services were important, too. Forklift-like “trucks” moved parts around a plant on skids or in giant-sized tote boxes. Conveyors, elevators and transfer tables made it possible to move larger parts such as car bodies. Tools and supplies had to be ordered for auto workers to do their jobs. Chrysler tracked the usage, inventory and labor costs related to tools, as well as the annual rate of inventory turnover. Plant maintenance was also a critical consideration. The Plant Engineer’s job was to provide an uninterrupted supply of light, heat and other vital services. Crating and shipping were other important functions that automobile factories dealt with.

As you can see, there was nothing simple about a Chrysler product in 1936, other than the simple joy of driving it once it was done. That was the customer’s “job.” 

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