Ford motored into Cincinnati long ago
Carmaker first set up shop in area in 1909

Sunday, May 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

model t
1914 Model T Ford
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Ford Motor Co. convenes its annual shareholders meeting in Cincinnati for the first time Thursday, but the second-largest automaker is no stranger to the Queen City.

Cincinnati has played a significant role in the history of the company founded in 1903 by Henry Ford and a group of Detroit businessmen.

  • In 1909, Cincinnati became one of the first cities in the United States where Ford set up branch offices to sell and service its new Model Ts.

  • In 1915, Ford opened a plant in Walnut Hills to assemble cars for the growing U.S. market. It was one of the company's first plants outside Detroit.

  • In 1950, Ford opened its first plant to produce automatic transmissions on Red Bank Road in Fairfax.

  • In 1980, Ford's new 1.8 million-square-foot Batavia plant, which replaced the Fairfax operation, was one of the first U.S. plants to assemble front-wheel drive transmissions for Ford's push into the small-car market.

  • In the mid-1980s, Ford's Sharonville plant was among the earliest of the company's plants to put into practice the then-novel auto industry concept of labor and management working as a team.

Ohio has long been considered Ford's second home. Ford employs almost 19,000 and operates 11 manufacturing plants in Ohio, more than any other state except Michigan.

In Cincinnati, Ford's operations include the Sharonville and Batavia transmission plants, which employ almost 3,500. It also maintains regional sales offices for the Ford Division, Lincoln-Mercury, Ford customer service and Ford Credit.

Ford first opened a sales office in Cincinnati in late 1909, according to Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company, the three-volume history of Henry Ford and his auto empire written by Allan Nevins and Frank Hill.

The four-story sales office at 911 Race St., a building that still stands between West Ninth and Court streets, "is one of the handsomest and most complete structures of its kind west of New York," according to a 1911 article in Ford Times, a company publication. Fueled by the growing popularity of the Model T, the company had 24 of those branch offices by 1910.

The branches, which operated as combination sales and service facilities, "could closely supervise dealers in its territory to keep standards of service high. In addition, the system furnished absolute control of prices of cars, parts and accessories," according to the Nevins and Hill book.

The first floor of the Race Street showroom, complete with a black-and-white marble floor, oak cabinets and brass railings, could display five complete cars "and a cut-out chassis, besides a mounted motor to show the prospective purchaser every working part as assembled in the construction of a Ford Model T car," the Ford Times article said.

The second-floor stock room carried about $20,000 worth of inventory, according to Ford Times. The third floor could hold up to 50 cars ready for sale, and the fourth floor was a repair shop where mechanics could "completely build a Ford Model T car within 24 hours," the article said.

By 1915, the growing demand for Model Ts prompted Ford to begin setting up a string of assembly plants throughout the country, including one in a new six-story building at 660 Lincoln Ave. in Walnut Hills.

The 202,000 square-foot building, which later became a Sears, Roebuck warehouse, also still stands alongside Interstate 71. A.J. Kresman, a Cincinnati Realtor working with investors trying to redevelop the vacant structure as a combination office-warehouse site, said the building has concrete floors up to 24 inches thick, which allowed Ford to park assembled cars on the roof.

The Nevins book said Ford was the first Detroit automaker with enough sales to support assembly operations outside of Detroit.

"By shipping parts in a knocked-down state, (Ford) was able to load the components of 26 Model Ts into an ordinary freight car, instead of the three or four complete cars that could otherwise be sent," according to Nevins.

That also allowed Ford to get a lower freight rate from the railroads. According to Ford Motor archives, the Lincoln Avenue plant employed an average of 334 between 1919 and 1940, when it was sold. During that period, it assembled 616,153 cars and generated total sales of $168.6 million, according to the archives.

Ford also operated a parts plant on Fifth Street in Hamilton from about 1921 until 1950, recalls Al Morris, 83, who went to work at the plant in 1940 in one of its tool cribs.

"Old Henry (Ford) was strong on hydro(electric) power," Mr. Morris recalled.

The Hamilton and Rossville Hydraulic Co., which was acquired by Ford, traced its roots to 1846. The plant diverted water from the Great Miami River into a channel that ran three generators, each generating up to 1,000 horsepower, for the parts plant.

The Hamilton plant was originally to produce Ford tractors, but never built one, Mr. Morris recalled. Instead, the plant, which employed a couple of thousand people, assembled truck running boards, battery brackets and wheels.

8,000 wheels a day

At its peak, Mr. Morris, who retired in 1977 after more than 36 years with Ford, said the plant could produce 8,000 wheels a day.

Drawn in part by Cincinnati's machine-tool heritage and available labor, Ford in the summer of 1950 opened its first plant producing automatic transmissions in a 645,000-square-foot building on Red Bank Road in Fairfax.

Ford's tradition of paying its workers well was a big draw, said John W. Fletcher Sr., of Anderson Township, who was one of the first employees hired at the $4 million plant, which employed 3,000 at its peak in the mid-1950s.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," said Mr. Fletcher, 76, who retired in 1982 after also working at Ford's Sharonville and Batavia plants.

A pipe fitter by trade, Mr. Fletcher said he started at $1.59 an hour, a then-hefty raise from the $1.10 an hour he had been making at at Cincinnati Milling Machine, now Cincinnati Milacron Inc. "My wife and I had two kids, and I just couldn't make a living at the Mill," he said.

The Fairfax plant, which was expanded during the Korean conflict to produce aircraft engine parts, also was important in the life of Thomas McCaffrey of Fort Thomas.

Fresh out of Xavier University in 1949, Mr. McCaffrey said the local job market was depressed when he heard that Ford was hiring for the plant.

"I went down to see them and said I was a college graduate, and I'd take any job you offer me," he recalled. He went to work as a shipping clerk at $1.37 1/2 an hour.

Mr. McCaffrey, who later became general manager of the Fairfax and Sharonville plants, said the growing popularity of automatic transmissions, particularly among women drivers, prompted Ford to plan expanding production in the mid-1950s.

Because the Fairfax plant's 55-acre site couldn't be expanded, the company bought a private airport at Sharon and Mosteller roads in Sharonville owned by Cincinnati industrialist Powel Crosley Jr. The 1.7 million-square-foot Sharonville plant opened in 1958.

By midyear, the Sharonville plant employed about 1,000 and was producing 200 automatic transmissions a day for Ford's 1959 model cars, according to newspaper reports. Company officials predicted that employment would rise to 4,000 by the end of that year, increasing production to 3,000 transmissions a day.

By 1962, the Sharonville and Fairfax plants employed almost 5,600, making Ford one of the area's three largest employers -- behind General Electric Co. and Procter & Gamble Co.

But little more than a decade later, increasing global competition in the auto industry coupled with the move to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars began taking its toll on both plants.

By 1979, the Fairfax plant was closed to make way for the three-times-larger Batavia operation that produced Ford's new front-wheel drive transmissions. Today, Batavia produces transaxles, primarily for the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystic models.

Better cooperation

"In the old days, things were very adversarial between management and labor," said Mr. McCaffrey, who was the last plant manager at Fairfax and was Sharonville plant manager until retiring in 1990.

The increasing global automotive competition, particularly from Japan, caused both labor and management to realize "if we don't work together, we won't work at all," he said.

By the early 1980s, Ford also planned to phase out production of the C-5, a rear-wheel-drive transmission for its large cars, at Sharonville and close the plant by 1985.

But with the blessing of company and United Auto Workers union officials in Detroit, officials of UAW Local 863, which represented hourly employees at both the Sharonville and Batavia plants, began exploring ways of developing more teamwork at the Sharonville plant.

Those efforts "took a lot of courage by the local union leadership," Mr. McCaffrey said, but resulted in Sharonville's C-5 production being rated "best in class" by the time production ended. It also convinced Ford executives to move production of the C-6 transmission for Ford trucks from Livonia, Mich., to Sharonville, keeping the plant open.

The C-6 transmission was scheduled for production for only two more years at Sharonville, but production continued for a decade thanks to the labor-management teamwork and the continued strong demand for Ford's F-series pickup trucks.

"Sharonville did an outstanding job of recognizing it had to change," said James R. Schafer, plant manager until retiring in 1995.

Since then, the Sharonville plant, which employs 2,100, has won production of the four-speed electronic transmission that replaced the C-6, another rear-wheel-drive transmission in 1995 for Ford's new trucks, and last year, it added a third production line to produce gears and other assemblies for a new small-car transmission.

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