Thursday, November 5, 2009

The State of Ford Car Quality

I've been a Ford guy all my life. I've come to appreciate that, in spite of their complexity, the newest cars are the very best ever made. It's ironic that the best cars from Detroit come at a time when the economy is in the dumper, but that's life.

We had many flatheads when I was growing up, Fords ('35, '36x3, '40, '50), Mercury, ('40), and Lincoln ('36, '37, '39, '41x several, '42x 2, '46) and Ford trucks (36, 44, 47). When I hear the phrase, "Flatheads Forever" it makes me laugh. Flatheads are the reason that overheads were invented. A guy comes up and slaps the fender on the '40 Ford, "Now that's real metal; they don't make them like they used to" which of course is true, because they don't have to. Metallurgy has improved over the years so that the don't have to make stampings out of that old, soft, thick stuff. And those heavy castings that look so robust? They are thick because that's the only way they could make them strong yet inexpensive in those days. Drop one on the floor and it's history.

Ah, then the first overheads came along in the early 1950's. First, an inline six in 1952 (burned as much fuel as a V-eight). Then the Y-block in 1954. A wonderful improvement over the flathead, they went through cam bearings pretty fast then next the rocker assemblies. The bodies on the Fords of the '50's were fairly fragile, cheap steel that rusted very quickly. Front suspensions on Fords blew out pretty fast with heavy service. The lovely 6 volt electrical system finally went away in 1955.

Next, the 1960's started out with lots of cheapie designs inspired by Robert McNamara except for a few like the Lincoln, and this successful design was scabbed off of a project initially designed for T-bird. By some chance of fate, McNamara's penny-pinching by combining two engineering processes resulted in two pretty good cars. Once McNamara left, they could get to building decent cars and the mid to late 1960's are a kind of golden era, but there were lots of gas hogs and much cheap sheet metal. Small block V-eight engine development was something you can point to as a success story.

Next, much of the '70's was a lost decade of mostly poorly-fit and made cars in general, lots of kitschy styling in line with all the other bad taste of the era (hair, clothes). Oddly enough, some of the less expensive lines and models looked better than the loaded-up ones. No fault of the manufacturer, the onerous burden of emissions controls dragged down the performance of these cars. They spent most of the decade continuing to make gas-hogs when the writing was on the wall about fuel price and availability. Really poor sheet metal.

The '80's was a decade to mostly forget, with a few exceptions. Lots of shoddy, drive until they break down and throw away models. Lots of bogus engineering used in an attempt to bridge the old with the new, all at the expense of the consumer. Redesigned T-Bird of 1983 one kind-off exception. Emission considerations begin the use of computers. You won't see many of these for sale in Hemming's Motor News in 15 or 20 years. It was during this time that they finally started making the car bodies in ways so that they didn't melt away after a few winters.

Things were looking up in the '90's, when Ford started to take quality control seriously. It only took 20 years to wake up to the inroads that Japanese cars are making into market share. Computerized engine controls become pretty much "perfected" (if there is such a thing as perfection), and turn out to be of significant benefit in increased fuel mileage.

So, by the early 21st Century, you can finally get a pretty well-made, nicely styled Ford product that will last a long time with very little maintenance. Bringing this back down to earth is the realization that some of the increases in quality come as a response to keep lawyers at bay -- make them better in the first place, and you won't be in court as often. Forget about working on it much yourself, but that's been the case for a while. The good thing is, that they are made well enough that they don't need much attention outside of routine maintenance for quite a while. But when they do, hold on to your wallet.

Now I'm not being critical of just Ford, because many of these comments apply to the other US manufacturers. One other thing, I think that some of the best GM and Chrysler products ever offered are being sold new right now. They have to build a product that people will buy. No longer will people buy any old thing they make.

We do have an excuse for buying all of those old cars when they were new -- we didn't know any better.

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