|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 15: Previews
Normally, the Studio Exec, the Supervisor and the lead stylist heaped praises upon the modelers who did the impossible. Jerry ODonald and I got that praise in mega-doses from Jerry Pietila, Russ Franz, Chuck Clayton, Chuck Beudreu, Phil Campbell, Jessie Bongcompagno, Felix DeRose, our UAW steward Jim Gilliam and his assistant Ron Sauger. Chuck Hosper gave us mild applause. Garry couldnt thank us enough, although he was a vital part of our success. He was, after all, the designer. He even pitched in with some of the modeling.
Bob Nixon didnt thank Gary, Jerry or me. He never so much as acknowledged our presence.
In retrospect, I dont think that Nixon slighted us intentionally. He must have had much bigger things on his mind to forget how to say thank you. The model that confronted him took him aback. He had nothing in his pool of ready-made explanations to account for it. The stars said that it couldnt be done. Jerry and I were not stars and yet we did it. Given our lowly status, our starting point and the deadline for the show, there was no precedent in Nixons experience draw from. Like primitive man at a loss to explain the wonders of nature, the man in the suit and tie with the title of Studio Executive resorted to magic.
Magic had nothing to do with it.
Jerry ODonald and I could not have finished the panic job the way we did if a Leader had been involved to guide us with all of the old formulas. We had to improvise and compete against the prevailing methods of accomplishing the goal instead of against each other.
We knew when to do things together and when to get out of each others way. Sometimes Jerry took the lead. Sometime I did. We eliminated the big, unnecessary step of roughing in the clay with teeth marks and added a few little steps that helped us track what we were doing as we did it. I used the hell out of Garys 3-D cut technique and the balancing act Id learned on the job with Stan. The timely measuring that Jerry did and usually got knocked for doing at the wrong time, paid off big.
There were big lessons to be learned by everyone in that exercise. I made sure that I learned them. Jerry ODonald learned them. Gary learned them. I dont know about everyone else.
Jerry Pietila, for one, put far too much emphasis on internal competition. Thats what he attributed the success of the project to. I tried to tell him what had really happened. He wouldnt hear it. He told me that I was just spouting a lot of rhetoric. The way he saw it, Jerry ODonald and I did so well because we buckled down to the task, we stayed on the job, worked overtime and busted our behinds to outdo each other. The last thing he wanted to see was less competition. He wanted to see more of it. He did everything possible whenever possible to encourage more of it.
Jerry Pietila was too good a modeler and he was acknowledged as such too early in his career to see why competition and hard work werent enough to have done what Jerry ODonald and I had done. If we had competed against each other we would have been opponents instead of allies. Our best hope of getting credit for trying to salvage a predetermined failure would have been to stab each other in the back.
Chuck Beudreu seemed to have the same blind spot. He and Pietila loved tough competition for the same reason world-class high hurdlers do. It spurred them on to their best efforts and with their best efforts they expected to win. I now believed that I could compete with Pietila and Beudreu if the people judging us looked at who broke the tape at the finish line instead of who cleared the first high hurdle with the best form.
Nixon must have already given Dick Teague a good excuse to postpone the show when he couldnt free up his stars to do the job or one of his Leaders to lead it. We were short on manpower, short on information and short on time. It was a job for at least three top-notch modelers a job that Nixons leaders and stars said was impossible. There was no way he could go back to Teague and tell him that he had been wrong and no good way to explain how he could have made such a mistake. The only thing to do was to make improvements on the design until the one that Jerry and I had modeled for Gary was erased. Thats what happened. The other side of the car that Dick Teague designed had done had already been picked to win.
A clay modeler cant disregard politics in the workplace any more than a camper can disregard a rattlesnake on the loose in his tent. Bob Nixon couldnt afford to have a designer and a couple of B-modelers on his team who could do what he and his top modelers were supposed to do. He couldnt afford a sea change in the way the company designed cars that didnt come from upper management and he couldnt appropriate what wed done because he didnt know what wed done. He had succeeded in his job from the companys point of view by understanding the rules of the game and by applying them. To see and do anything other than he did was to jeopardize his good standing with his superiors.
American Motors was small enough for me to see why politics made Jerry Pietilas competition theory unworkable. His position was secure. He had two older brothers who were Master Modelers at Ford and no one to compete with him when he came to AM six years earlier. Russ came from Ford with no one to compete with him, either. In 1973 there wasnt room in the company for more modeling Leaders than it already had and the people on the next highest level were already in place. The rest of it was a numbers game with so much money allocated for so many slots.
I wouldnt see that structural flaw in the architecture of recognition and rewards for another fifteen years.
Its a good thing that I couldnt see what was going on at the time with my efforts to distinguish myself. If I had known how counterproductive it was for me I might not have tried so hard to do it. On the other hand, if I had played the game the way I was supposed to play it my true skills could have risen no higher than the level of the stars at American Motors that Nixon and Hosper encouraged me to emulate.
In my ignorance, I tried to apply the lessons that Id learned on Garrys Hornet to other assignments. I stopped using steels with teeth. I started insisting on getting some elements in place to a fraction of a millimeter early in the design process before plunging ahead. I started working to balance points across the centerline. Instead of doing a job that looked great in the rough with unseen consequences for the next stage of development, I went as straight as I could go to the second stage.
My process took longer in the theme search stage of design and the models looked worse than the textured clay with knife lines drawn in arbitrarily to simulate the finished appearance. It also gave the stylists a preview of what they were really going to get if they stayed on the same track. My knife lines represented real cuts and break lines. The surfaces represented real glass and sheet metal. That early knowledge produced a better-looking model in the end and brought the end much closers.
Several of the modelers eventually caught on to some of what I was doing and why it worked. For a short time some of them tried to do the same things, which led to serious conflicts.
Russ Franz tried to buy into the process. He had to back down when Bob Nixon complained to Chuck Hosper, who in turn, ordered his leaders to cut it out. Nixon was terrified that if the surfaces looked finished Dick Teague would conclude that the design was finished before he had a chance to shape it to his vision. There was some truth in that. Because the stylists, and everyone else, could see early on where their designs were headed they were taking liberties with the proportions, which had the effect of undermining Teagues authority. Even the earliest models were better than anything that Teague could have ever envisioned.
Nixon demanded teeth marks. We gave him teeth marks. I fought it all the way and had bigger problems with Hosper and Nixon than I knew about at the time because of it. The people I had my fights with were the Leaders who were taking heat from Hosper and Nixon. Russ finally told me what was going on behind closed doors and we made a compromise. I modeled my way and went back over the clean surfaces with steels that had teeth. That was fine with Russ, who knew that one reason for my resistance was that I simply couldnt model as well the other way. Going head to head with the stars Id always come off looking like a nebula.
Jerry Pietila didnt understand the process it at all. If you worked for him he stopped it as soon as he saw it coming. If you didnt do it his way you were doing it wrong, end of story. He couldnt get past the idea that I was putting the cart before the horse. Whenever I tried to discuss it with him thats the expression he used.
Youre wasting time, he would say. The design is going to change a hundred times before we get to the refinement stage. You gotta learn how to do it fast and dirty so the stylists can try out more designs. When they get one they like, then we start cleaning up the surfaces.
Talking to Jerry about modeling efficiency was like talking to a high priest of some jungle tribe about the right way to cure the people of his village of infected wounds. This is how the priest would do it:
First you find a cross-eyed child. You have him chew a certain kind of grain a prescribed number of times and spit it out into a serpent-shaped gourd. You hang the gourd on the limb of a certain kind of tree overhanging a particular river for a prescribed number of days. Then you take the magically transformed concoction of grain and saliva out of the gourd and apply it to the wound in an elaborate ceremony. It always works unless the patients infection has spread too far in the meantime.
I dont have to tell you that some of those steps are unnecessary. Nevertheless, you can see the difficulty of someone outside of the priesthood trying to change the system that gave the priest his high status. If the village doesnt have a cross-eyed child you can imagine the holey man figuring out a clever way to make a child cross-eyed for as long as it took for him to chew the grain. You can imagine him working quickly and telling the kid to chew faster. You can imagine the family of the wounded villager saying prayers and doing everything they can to make their loved-one comfortable while they waited for the cure. You can picture them making frantic preparations of the healing ceremony.
Some of the most gifted modelers Ive ever known dont fully understand why their convoluted methods worked. They knew the technical aspects of the job but they didnt understand how the process they were comfortable with of developing car designs fit into the process of putting a finished product on the road.
They werent alone. Upper management didnt know as much about the design process as the modelers, stylists and engineers did. They had to take it on faith that they put the best people in charge. Therefore they had to go by what those people told them. No one could have told them how long it took to make a car from scratch. There were too many stages with too many unpredictable variables at each stage to come within two years of a reliable prediction. The average lead-time was five years.
One example of the sort of thing that made the process so messy across the board is the games that styling, engineering and manufacturing played to hide their ignorance of what was going on in their departments.
I was modeling a Hornet taillight for a full dress show. Stan Johnson wanted bars between the light cans that were three-eights of an inch wide. Our draftsman told us that they had to be a quarter-inch wide. The engineer gave an undecipherable explanation of why the bars had to be that wide. We were up against a tight deadline for the level of quality required and Russ Franz gave me a free hand to do it my way. Working on one-man projects was never a problem. Id just finished a tough outside mirror prove-out job in record time and Russ figured that the taillight was a perfect match for my way of doing things.
When you model in a hurry you are very likely to make mistakes. I made a big one. The surfaces of the cans were gorgeous. The foil job was ideal. The plastic lens, made off of the part Id modeled earlier, fit perfectly. Modelers walking by commented on how gorgeous it was. Still, I knew that something was wrong. The thing looked too good. With the quarter-inch bars, that wasnt supposed happen. The bars sure looked thinner than a quarter inch. To make sure that it was just an illusion, I measured them. No illusion. They were three-eights of an inch wide.
Id screwed up. I didnt have time to fix it and I had only myself to blame. Not even the rush was a good excuse for that kind of error. One could expect a surface flaw or a slight misalignment of the lens. This was a blunder that shouldnt have happened under any circumstances.
The review committee consisting of Bob Nixon, the draftsman, the stylist, the engineer and a shooter from the manufacturing plant walked in as I was replacing the lens. Nixon told me to stay if I wanted to.
I wanted to dematerialize. Walking away wasnt the same. I had to know what the consequences of my mistake were going to be and I had to be man enough to stand up to them. I thought that I was facing something more than a test of competence. I thought that it was a test of character.
The ensuing dialogue cured me of those misguided thoughts.
Things started out on the up-and-up with Nixon telling the plant guy what he was looking at and why it looked the way it did. The plant guy couldnt believe that it was just a model. The stylist asked me to lift the thin ribbon of black tap that simulated a gap between the lens and the sheet metal and show him the headless pins that held the lens in place. Then the plant guy asked Nixon if he could see the cans. He wanted to see if there was enough land on the offset surface inside of the border to attach a real lens to real sheet metal. Nixon told him that it was okay. He asked me to remove the lens.
Now I knew why Nixon had asked me to stay. He didnt honestly intend to give me the choice of staying or not staying. That was just his way of being tactful. He knew that the lens was going to have to come out and that the person who put it in was the one most capable of removing it without damaging the surrounding clay. Thats why I was there.
I extracted the pins with sweaty palms, a pair of needle-nose pliers and a thin piece of steel that I had made for the purpose as soon as the plastic lens came back from the Fiberglass Shop. Oh boy, I thought. The moment of truth has arrived. This is where the shit hits the fan.
The first thing that the plant guy noticed was not the land on the offset; it was the width of the bars. He could see that they werent as wide as he expected them to be and said so. Bob Nixon immediately gave him the esthetic and practical reasons for his decisions to go with the thinner bars. The engineer immediately backed him up. He talked about die draws, lens thickness, bulb size and other engineering requirements that I understood. He used that information to prove that the bars had to be exactly as they were on the model. All of our people nodded as though my dumb mistake had been their brilliant plan all along. When the show was over, everyone walked away happy.
No one involved in that little extemporaneous skit ever said one word to me about it. To me it was an astounding exhibition of bullshit that I would never forget. For everyone else it was business as usual. No wonder I was so often out of step with what was going on. I didnt give the bullshit factor enough weight. Each time I saw that Hornet taillight on the road in the years that followed I shook my head and smiled.
Toward the end of 1974 I started getting antsy about my pay grade. Why was I still a B-modeler. After two or three years in the business you are no longer a trainee. Thats what a B-modeler is, a trainee. By now I was approaching five years of actual on the job modeling experience with no promotion in sight. I had learned more of the basics in ten months of school than most modelers learn in two years on the job. Id done interior, exterior and prove-out work to completion without supervision. Id worked for three different car companies, giving me background in different modeling techniques. Moreover I was an innovator .
In 1974 American Motors was faced with a make-or-break challenge. The federal government had mandated new standards in front end and rear end design to reduce the cost of auto repairs in low impact collisions. We were well into our cycle play with a ton of money already spent on tooling. The only way out was to modify the existing chrome bumpers. Getting clay to stick to chrome so that we could model the corner extensions was easy. Getting the clay to feather into the unmodified part of the bumper was impossible.
No matter what we did to the corners the break in the surface between the clay and the chrome was so abrupt that it made anything we did look worse than it was. Redoing the entire bumper in the clay had more drawbacks than benefits so we were stuck with trying to make the clay-to chrome blends more seamless. The prevailing methods involved spraying the clay and the chrome with thick coats of paint primer and sanding it down. It was time consuming, it fixed the design prematurely and it didnt work especially well.
Here again was an impossible chore that didnt strike me that way at all. It meant only that it couldnt be done the way the experts were trying to do it. When it was my turn to apply the clay modification to the chrome bumper I just stared at the clay and the bumper for a long time before I did anything. There had to be a common medium that would feather the clay seamlessly into the chrome. The Quick-stick spray adhesive that we used on foil to simulate chrome seemed like a likely candidate. I tried it. It worked.
Although it took a few trials to find the best way to apply the adhesive, to work in the clay and to make the blend, I could see right away that the principle was sound. We could now make a realistic evaluation of what the stylists proposed, sculpt all of the necessary changes quickly and be done with it.
This is the sort of thing I went to Chuck Hosper with to argue my qualifications for a promotion. Hosper and I had the same birthday. We got along well. I always thought that he did is best to be fare. None of this meant a damn thing when it came to the arithmetic of raises and promotions. Hosper had a problem there that he was powerless to solve.
As you can imagine, I wasnt concerned with Hospers management problems. I couldnt see the big picture and it wouldnt have mattered to me if I could have. I deserved a promotion. I was overdue for one. There was nothing in my performance, my attendance or my work habits to justify not getting one and more than enough in my contributions to the team to argue in my favor.
All I could see were Hospers illogical rebuttals to the case I presented him with and a disturbing quality in his demeanor that told me he was oblivious to how irrational he sounded. He didnt say no; he just gave a bunch of spurious reasons for why I hadnt already been promoted. I would see this phenomenon again at Ford with supervisors who were forced to act unfairly by a system they couldnt change. They changed what they could to match what they had to do. The only things they could change were their perceptions and explanations. Hosper explained that a B-modeler at my pay level was equal to an A-modeler at Ford.
To put this dispute into perspective you have to know that I was taking a correspondence course in TV and radio repair. This wasnt as far a field from clay modeling as you might think. Clay was only our primary fabrication medium. Sometimes the job called for wood, plastic or metal. On some of the projects we worked on I could envision a better way to go from concept to prototype by incorporating other skills into the modelers repertoire that would allow us to make good working models.
Id seen this possibility at Ford in 67 with George Shartiers fabulous radio control car and some of the other things he did at home and at work. I had creative projects of my own that I did at home, which gave me better ways of doing things at work.
One thing I came up with was a board game, an adult version of a game that Id invented as ten-year-old. I tried it out on different circles of friends but the pictures of old west characters on the cards and the old west theme itself made everyone think of it as a kids game with rules that were too hard for a kid. I scrapped the board game and concentrated on the cards, which eventually morphed into a 40-card deck with conventional playing card suits. I typed up the rules and handed them to various people who agreed to help me out. Chuck Clayton and his family, with whom I socialized, was a big help in clarifying the instructions. Gary Guchard helped me to refine the design. In the end, I learned a tremendous amount that would pay big dividends for Ford.
Another thing I was working on was an animated computer game with realistic Greek hoplites. My cousin Oliver was an electronic genus. I thought that if I worked out the animated combat sequences with a detailed list of all the ramifications that flowed from a given swing or thrust of a hoplites sword, Oliver could do the electronics. I laid out what I had in mind. He told me that it couldnt be done because the state of the art in that kind of computer animation wouldnt allow it.
I put the computer game on the back burner and went to a board game using hoplites with swords and spears on a chessboard. The rules for moving the pieces were similar to chess with an element of chance in the actual combat. Again, I had problems with the rules, so I tried to work out a mechanical way of making the animated game with opaque figures on transparent cards that physically slapped together to show what was happening. The device worked but it was too cumbersome to be practical so I had to scrap it.
These failures didnt discourage me in the least. On the contrary, every time I tried to accomplish one thing I ended up learning so much in the attempt that I was better off than I would have been if I had succeeded. By the time I signed up for the correspondence course in TV and radio repair I had amassed so much practical knowledge in product development that nothing any engineer could say to me was beyond my grasp. If I heard a term I didnt know, I asked what it meant. If I didnt understand why certain parameters were necessary I found that I could separate a good answer from a bad one simply by whether or not I could understand it.
The equipment and instructions I got in the first installment of the correspondence course told me that I had made good decision. For instance, I thought I knew a lot about soldering. It tuned out that I knew next to nothing. Through the course I learned what was happening on a microscopic level with different kinds of solders, fluxes, metals and applications of heat to make for the cleanest and strongest joints.
With that knowledge I could obviously make better modeling tools with fewer hassles. But that was not the big thing. The tools Id left at Chrysler were splendid because Id spent so much time making them. The crude ones I made at AM were more than adequate. They didnt look good but they worked great. The big thing was that my newly acquired knowledge gave me the ability to see and do all kinds of things that I couldnt see or do before. Thats how I was able to come up with the Quick-stick solution to blending clay with chrome by thinking of the Quick-stick as soldering flux.
Paradoxically, this new source of knowledge and inspiration led to conflicts of time, which in turn, led to accusations that I was getting special treatment because of my color. According to AM policy I could be exempted from overtime if I was going to school. Some of the modelers didnt think that a correspondence course should count.
Somehow the lowest paid modelers got the idea that I was making more money than they were and some of the higher paid modelers were upset that my pay was too close to theirs. I wasnt smart enough then to show everyone my paycheck. The idea that I would demand a raise irked some modelers who thought that they deserved one ahead of me because they had been with the company longer.
This was part of Hospers problem with giving me a raise or a promotion. AMs modelers, draftsmen and stylists were in the UAW. If I got a raise, the union steward was certain to demand raises for others. It was my tough luck that some of the people ahead of me in seniority who were putting up the biggest fuss couldnt understand that a victory for me would be a victory for them, too. All it took was one.
I got if from three of them. They complained to Hosper, Jim Gilliam, and me that I shouldnt be considered for a raise ahead of them because I wasnt working as much overtime as they were. Never mind the fact that they worked all the overtime they could get and complained when they didnt get it. Never mind the fact that my not working overtime gave them the opportunity to work more of it. They felt that they were victims of reverse discrimination. They told me that management was giving me special consideration because of my color. They didnt blame me. They blamed affirmative action. Now where had I heard that before?
Chuck Clayton, Phil Campbell, Garry Guchard, Stan Johnson and a few others who could see the broader implications of my plight were on my side. I couldnt tell about everyone else. Most of the modelers and stylists kept their opinions to themselves.
Anyone could tell that my situation was causing a stir at the highest levels. Jim Gilliam, the union steward loved it. He was trying to get raises for everybody. My campaign gave him the arguments he could use in his campaign. He sided with me as well as the modelers who were angry with the mere idea that AM would consider giving me a promotion without having offered one to them.
Jim saw the structural weakness in AMs artificial limits on raises and promotions that the company could and did use successfully as long as its design professionals were all white. Jim wanted to attack it on all fronts. To box in his management opponents, he had no problem in arguing racial discrimination in my case and reverse discrimination in the other cases. As long as I kept the pressure on so could he. He urged me to file a racial discrimination lawsuit against American Motors.
I was reluctant to follow Jims suggestion. The only overtly race-based action the company had taken in respect to me was hiring me in the first place in 73 after Ford turned down my application. If I sued it would look like I was biting the hand that fed me. How could anyone outside of the studio know that it was the other way around?
My hand was feeding the company much more than the company was feeding me. Thats how businesses make money. They give you a dime in wages; you give them a quarter in labor. They give you a level of income you wouldnt have had without them; you give them a level of earnings they wouldnt have had without you. Everybody wins. When you start tying up this straightforward symbiotic relationship with artificial issues of race, it becomes more complicated than it has to be.
Hiring somebody less qualified than I was in 1973 would have cost American Motors money. Yet, the company had been willing to do that when Ford laid me off in 68. I went to Chrysler because I couldnt go to AM. I couldnt go to AM because AM wasnt hiring African-Americans. I might have chosen Chrysler over AM anyhow. The point is American Motors didnt give me that option until the governments affirmative action decree forced it to do so.
A big part of the mythology surrounding affirmative action in the early 70s was that it took good jobs away from qualified white men and gave them to less qualified blacks. Women were not in the equation for the kind of work I did at American Motors for the same reason that black men were not in the equation before I got there.
The prevailing assumption held that we were not capable of doing the job as well as white men were. That position did not take into account the socio-economic pipeline to those jobs for white males beginning in their mothers wombs. It did not take into account the family connections, the neighborhoods we grew up in, the primary schools we attended and the social contacts that gave white men an automatic preference.
When a white man applied for a professional position at Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and American Motors with better credentials than his black counterparts it didnt necessarily mean the black guy was inferior. It usually meant that he simply didnt have the opportunities along the way to collect the best credentials. Therefore there was no sure way to know who was best qualified in every instance. Affirmative action was something that the auto companies were already doing with white men like Felix DeRose who didnt have the professional credentials that I had.
The neighborhood that I grew up in and the modeling school that I attended because of the Civil Rights Act put me in a different situation at AMs employment office than most black people were in. Standard, white, middle class, Midwestern English was my first language. My education was specific to my trade and I had practical experience. The fact that Chuck Clayton and Jerry ODonald knew me from Ford and vouched for my ability gave American Motors no alternative but to hire me. The argument that I lacked the qualifications for a promotion just didnt hold water. The argument that the disgruntled white modelers lacked the qualifications for promotion didnt hold water, either. But it was their race-based argument that gave AM a way out.
Chuck Hosper told me that I couldnt get a raise because I didnt work all of the overtime. He told the white modelers that I didnt have to work as much overtime as they did because I was going to school. This seemed to take the race issue off the table so I dropped the correspondence course and starting working all of the overtime. Still, no promotion.
As a last resort I went to the EEOC and filed a race discrimination complaint. Neither Jim nor I could persuade the angry white modelers that it was good for all of us. For them the enemy was affirmative action. They saw the EEOC as an agency of government created to give black people an advantage over them. The fact that I could file a racial discrimination claim and they couldnt was their proof.
I never followed through on my EEOC complaint. By this time, American Motors was beginning to swim in red ink. The company could now argue that it couldnt give anyone a raise or a promotion because it couldnt afford to.
Meanwhile a class action race discrimination lawsuit was going on at Ford that covered the period I worked there. It started in 73 after I had put in my application. Nobody at American Motors knew about it. My wife and kids had moved back in with me by then and my wife hadnt heard a thing about it, either. If it was ever a news item it wasnt a big one and it didnt last long enough to become general knowledge. All of this, my struggle for promotion at American Motors and the lawsuit that few people knew about at Ford, was a preview of much bigger things to come, things that affected the entire economy of the United States.
When I got a call out of the blue from Ford Personnel that summer to make out another application for employment, I thought that it was for the reasons the Personnel man gave me. He did not mention the lawsuit. He said that Fords modeling workforce was getting old. Ford expected a large number of retirements in the next few years and need young modelers with my talent and experience to replace them.
Wow! I thought. Somebody at Ford must really think Im special.