|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 6: Competition
Busywork has always been the key to laying me low. I couldn't stand it as far back as kindergarten and absolutely would not put up with it. The very concept of busywork was difficult for me to grasp. When I finally got it, it offended me to my five-year-old core. Any time other kids wanted to build something I was happy to follow their lead. But when the kindergarten teacher Miss. Marie first told me that I had to share with a "busyworker" a block, a cone, a hoop or any of the other marvelous community building materials that I needed to make something that I had envisioned, I got downright nasty.
To her credit, Miss. Marie listened to my reasons for being so obstinate, watched what I was doing and let me have my way even if the other kid huffed, stomped his or her feet or even cried. She could always sooth their feelings with a cookie or a hug. That didn't work with me. I never took somethin to use in my projects just because I liked the shape of it or the color. I took what I needed to make a house, a rocket ship, a bridge, a castle, choo-choo train, a car, etc. If Miss. Marie had forced me to move things around just for the sake of moving them around it would have been worse that if she had paddled my behind.
That wouldn't have worked either. I had to make things. Miss. Marie knew it. Maybe Harry Finley knew it, too.
Harry never said enough to me or around me for me to gauge his capacity for discerning my weak spot and taking cruel advantage of it. In the final analysis Harry didn't have to discern anything about me other than the fact that I was a black rookie modeler who entered his studio with a head start over his other rookies.
I was like a novice chess player who had cut out and pained his own board, who had carved his own pawns, bishops, knights, rooks, kings and queens, who knew the names of the pieces, the rules of the game and a few winning strategies. I had three more towering levels to climb after many years of practice before I could become a master. The longer Harry kept me confined to sanding and lacquering my "chess pieces" or "carving" new ones the more my lead over the other novices diminished. After a few months, it would appear on paper that all of us had a comparable amount of time on the job but they would be able to do valuable things for the company that I couldn't.
The practical lessons that could be learned only by being on a job from start to finish began with the unique properties of the Ford clay.
Ford used harder clay with a duller finish than the Chrysler clay I was used to and the Ford clay was more susceptible to cracking. Both types of clay started as a cold, hard brick. As it heated up it softened to a consistency of thick mud that was useful for packing a lot of clay onto a wooden or Styrofoam buck in a hurry. Taken in this state it could be used, reheated and used again and again. If the clay got too hot it melted down to a useless puddle where its chemical components separated and hardened into foul-smelling clumps of sulfur, wax and who-knows-what that could not be recombined. Learning the proper consistency of the clay to use in a particular application could be done only by repetition.
The non-reflective nature of the Ford clay also made it necessary to perform checks on the quality of the surface that weren't necessary with Chrysler clay. You had to use a variety of diagnostic techniques to insure that you did not create the illusion of a smooth, continuous surface and the reality of one that looked like it had been in a wreck when it was supposed to be ready for a full dress show.
You had to know that a clay model was a proposal for a real product that was going to be inspected by mid level or high level executives from an aesthetic, mechanical, financial or competitive point of view. You had to know that a "show" in progress for low or middle level executives meant that the proposal had to be bogus to pass inspection. And you had to know that a full dress show was a display of that bogus proposal to Ford executives from mahogany row or the glass house.
A show was like an essay test that was being graded by different teachers focused on different aspects of the composition. To get an A you had to know whether the teacher grading the test was more concerned with the content, style, penmanship or spelling and grammar. There was never enough time in the early stages of development to meet everyone's expectations of a good model, so a good modeler was one who knew who to please and how to manage his time and resources to do it.
From the sidelines I could get a rough idea of what was going on prior to a show. A guy in a suit and tie would approach a guy in a green smock. The two men would carry on a conversation in a language approximating English that I could not always hear clearly or fully decipher when I did hear it clearly. One man would point his finger at something on the model. The other man would either nod or shake his head and point somewhere else. At some point either the modeler or the man in the suit would pick up a scale or a pair of dividers (a tool much like a compass, only with two metal points) and take a measurement on the clay. Sometimes the modeler would place an angel block against the rail bounding the model on a deadly flat steel platform called a surface plate. He would scribe a vertical line on the clay with a mouse, then push a sliding table on the angel block to a given height marked on the angle block with a scale, lock the table in place and scribe a horizontal line.
At some point either the modeler or the man in the suit would pick up a scale or a pair of dividers (a tool much like a compass, only with two metal points) and take a measurement on the clay. Sometimes the modeler would place an angel block against the rail bounding the model on a deadly flat steel platform called a surface plate. He would scribe a vertical line on the clay with a mouse, then push a sliding table on the angel block to a given height marked on the angle block with a scale, lock the table in place and scribe a horizontal line.
I learned in Schiloff's school that the reason for this procedure was to identify a point in space within an imaginary three-dimensional grid that corresponded to a point on a brown line drawing. That told me that the "suit" was either a draftsman or an engineer. If he engaged the modeler in an in-depth discussion about what he was looking for and why it was important in the manufacture of the vehicle or the part the modeler was simulating in clay, he was probably an engineer. If he showed no interest in the appearance of the model or no sensitivity to how his input would affect the design, he was unquestionably an engineer.
Normally, the man in the suit was accompanied by a stylist. Stylists also wore suits. I knew who they were on sight because they worked closely with the modelers every day, sometimes drawing sketches of what they wanted to see but more often telling the modeler and letting him interpret his words in clay. In any case, the direct exchanges between the suits and the smocks were vital to understanding what a modeler was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it.
For instance: If a stylist asked for a "nice" shape to a geometric design element like a circle or a rectangle dictated by an engineer, an experience modeler could often look at the surrounding design elements and go directly to the best possible shape. That was because every feature of the model limited the number of aesthetically correct choices that could be made and certain styling conventions limited those choices further. If the '86 Taurus could have been produced in the '60s it would have bombed because the rounded shapes were "out of date." In the '60s everyone was looking for "nice" crisp lines. To make a nice shape out of a circle in a Ford interior design was to do no more or less than draw an ellipse.
In other words, when a stylist said that he wanted to see a nice shape he was speaking within a tacit context of a small, fixed number of options. If he didn't like the modeler's first choice he went with the next one. If none of the choices was acceptable to him he had to change something around it and work back and forth until everything came together. The best stylists let the best modelers do this kind of work for them for the best results. There was no way to become one of the best modelers without repeated exposures to these kinds of exchanges.
Had I been privy to what was going on between the stylists and modelers I would have had a better understanding of the competition that was going on between the stylist and engineers. I would have understood the career advantage that modelers had in allying themselves with stylists and the reasons some modelers would not share their techniques with anyone. The operative word is competition.
A Ford design studio wasn't like high school R.O.T.C. or the Army where all recruits competed against a standard that was accessible by everyone who stayed awake in class and practiced what he was taught. It wasn't like my factory jobs at GM or Chrysler where the ceiling for advancement was low and the union made sure that everyone was measured with the same yardstick.
The words "fit and finish" did not apply because the only issue was fit and the quality of the finish in the plants was a low priority. Ford's standards for quality were set with wide tolerances for variation in the alignment of matching parts. The idea was to match the perceived inability of customers to tell the difference and the perceived inability of factory workers to do more than what you could expect from a trained monkey. In the words of an engineer who I heard explaining to a stylist why he couldn't have the design he wanted for a certain part, "You have to make this so that the dumb son-of-a bitch on the line can install it."
Ford Design was more like Schiloff's school where some people didn't have to take a test to get in and others didn't have to know what it took to read a draftsman's brown line print or interpret a stylist's sketch in clay to move up. Some of the best people did move up but so did some of the worst. It was a game with hidden rules and hidden motives behind the hidden rules. Ford's game was more complex and the rewards for early recognition as a gifted modeler were likely to last until the modeler was ready to retire.
Engineers, stylists, and modelers who got early recognition knew that the key to success was "cheating."
Cheating is an art unto itself. To cheat is to take a deliberate action based on specialized knowledge that is calculated to deceive. Engineers cheated to make the possible look impossible to non-engineers, to make it appear that they had done work that they hadn't done or to keep them from having to do work they didn't want to do. Stylists cheated to make their impossible dreams look possible and infinitely preferable to what they knew the real world would allow. Modelers cheated to make the stylists and engineers believe that they could see and do things that they really couldn't. That's why they used clay with a dull finish to hide major surface flaws. Modelers did a considerable amount of work by touch.
The short answers to why design professionals cheat are self-promotion and overtime. In the collective mind of Ford management, activity equaled productivity. A guy who was always busy on the job appeared to be more valuable than one who wasn't and everyone worked massive amounts of overtime to change whatever they were doing during the regular workday. They worked some portion of the next day to correct the errors they made on overtime. But artificial overtime is another kind of cheating, one that was never called by that name in the Styling Center. Modelers called it "job security."
The kind of cheating that everyone called by that name varied from discipline to discipline. Within each professional discipline the methods were the same and they were consistently employed because the system of mandatory overtime coupled with the rewards of showing positive results at every stage of product development encouraged it. Everyone was graded on technical proficiency and dependability, which created a conflict because stylists and modelers were also graded on creativity. Honest design professionals were thus held in low esteem by top professionals in their discipline because they were viewed as lacking something in job knowledge, creativity or loyalty to their profession.
The first priority of Ford Motor Company was not to build the best motor vehicles on the road. It was to create the illusion in the mind of potential customers that it produced the best vehicles. The process of creating that illusion began years in advance with competing experts in design "cheating" to fool each other. Whatever seemed to work at any given moment for a vehicle planed three or four years down the road was the standard to beat. Only when the necessity of getting the plants ready for production rudely intervened on the cheating games did the engineers, stylist and modelers get together on trying to play it straight.
Engineers cheated by giving false information to stylists, which allowed the engineers greater margins of error when they knew what they were talking about and made them sound as though the they knew what they were talking about when they didn't.
Stylists cheated by ignoring any engineering parameter that got in the way of their imagination. When they bothered to make a rough sketch, they sometimes drew lines where no lines could appear in 3-D or proportions that didn't conform to the shape of the windshield, the size of the radio face, etc. When they included graphic elements in their sketches they didn't always put the darkest darks and lights where they belonged. When they did a full or partial rendering they could make a surface appear to be doing something with nuances of colored shading that it couldn't do in reality. Wherever they wanted a shadow or a highlight they just put one in with a colored pencil or a paintbrush.
Modelers cheated by doing whatever it took to make the stylists happy. The thing that made stylists the happiest was seeing their ideas in clay in the shortest amount of time with the best possible appearance at that moment. That way they could try out more ideas without having to draw them or pursue new ideas suggested by what the modeler had just done.
For years I was dazzled by the amazing things some modelers could do in a hurry with only a few simple tools until I'd been through enough campaigns to know that the real product was the farthest thing from their minds. There were scores of little tricks a modeler could use to whip out a gorgeous hunk of textured clay every time along with the illusion that the smooth finished clay would look even better. Mind you, he had to have a great eye and a talented pair of hands to do sketch models like these. But his greatest strength was the knowledge that no matter what he did in the early stages of development, somebody was going to change it.
More about that later
The bottom line for me as the only B-modeler in Harry's studio who rode the bench was that I had no chance of competing with the B-modelers who were playing the game. I only learned what cheating was when I went to work for American Motors six years later. Consequently, although I didn't know it when I was in Harry's studio, I was already six years behind the modelers I started with. When I returned to Ford in 1977 I was much farther behind because I was starting all over as a B-modeler when some of the modelers I'd first met in Schiloff's second class had been promoted to Sculptor.
The black modelers I knew from school who had been sent to work in other studios showed no surprise at the way I was being treated in Lincoln-Mercury Interior because they, too, had seen the ugly face of Ford's racism. The reason Sam Mayers had come to Ford as a modeler was because Ford had no black stylists and he saw modeling as a way into styling. Nehemiah had worked with Harry Finley so I didn't ask him why he wasn't surprised. I didn't know that he had been in Harry's studio only for a couple of hours because he was sent there on loan from Ford Interior. Apparently that was enough for him.
I met with Sam and Nehemiah at lunchtime in the Body Engineering cafeteria located in another building. If you came to the area from Greenfield Village by way of Village Road, you would have seen a big oval sign on top of a building on your right that said, "Styling Center" and a long rectangular pond bounded by a horseshoe drive. A red brick wall interrupted by the entrance to the visitor's parking lot was covered by an awning and the walkway leading to the Body Engineering building was paved in thin, black, overlapping tiles of shale.
If you wanted to know who the most important executives where and which building had the most prestige, all you had to do was look at the reserved parking spaces in front of them. The reserved parking place marked "Henry Ford II, was the closest one to the Styling Center lobby.
At twenty I was older than the Styling Center. Yet each step from my studio to the cafeteria took me back in history to Henry Ford Sr.'s Model T and forward to history that was yet to be written.
To get to the cafeteria I had to walk from the farthest studio on the northeast side of the Styling Center, down a short hall, and turn the corner to a hallway nearly as wide as a four-lane highway that ran the length of the building. Full sized clay model cars that could have been cars of the future often sat there on the terrazzo floor next to the walls. Huge bay doors on each side of the hallway were painted different colors to designate the Ford Exterior studio on the left and the Lincoln-Mercury Exterior and the Ford Interiors studio on the right. Beautiful, "futuristic" renderings hung on the walls between the doors. At the end of the hall was another hall that led to the glass doors in front of mahogany row on the left and to the lobby on the right.
Nowhere along that rout was there a whisper of any significant contribution to Ford by an African-American. From floor to ceiling, wall to wall and door to door the only people who did anything of lasting importance in this nursery of automotive design were white.
I didn't see any of the white guys I knew from school in the cafeteria. The first time I went there and paid for my lunch I saw Sam and Nehemiah at the table directly in front of me. They would have been easy to spot anywhere in the sea of people sitting down to lunch because they were the only black ones.
By September there were five black modelers eating lunch together in the Body Engineering cafeteria. Sometimes we were joined by Benny Barbara who asked how we doing and offered practical advice and words of encouragement although none of us worked for him.
One of the new guys was a small, polite young man about my age who didn't joke or laugh at jokes. In fact, he never initiated a conversation and it was hard to know what to talk to him about because he wasn't much for joining in on conversations, either. He carried a Bible condensed to the size of a pocket address book in his shirt pocket and read parts of it quietly to himself often. Before he ate lunch, he always said a prayer of thanks. The only time I ever heard him speak more than two sentences or show an emotion other than anxiety was when I asked him why his book was titled "Holy Bible," and he took issue with the question. There must have been more to his reaction than I knew about but I never learned what it was.
The other new guy was a boisterous, happy-go-lucky character named Calvin Morrison. He was Sam's age, seven years older than I was. He grew up with Sam but instantaneously reacted to all of us and compelled us to react to him as though we'd all grown up together. He came on so strong with his Marine Corps stories that I didn't know at first whether to like him or not. He reminded me of what pissed me off the most about Marines in general. He reminded me of what I had endured in Basic Training with a sadistic second lieutenant for a company commander and Rangers for drill instructors who were stuck training mostly Reservists instead of doing what they enjoyed killing the enemy.
Everything about Calvin seemed to have been cut from strong, course material. I liked that. When he joked that his eastside neighborhood was so tough that he "had to join the Marine Corps to get some slack" I decided that I did like him. He didn't really take himself that seriously.
I asked Calvin what the difference was between an Army rifle squad and a Marine rifle squad. For the first time he wasn't sure. Then I told him what a trainee in Basic told me: An Army rifle squad consists of a squad leader, two fire team leaders, two machine gunners a radio/telephone operator and four riflemen. A Marine rifle squad consists of a squad leader, a rifleman, three writers and six photographers. Calvin got a kick out of that one but he went a little too far in retaliation.
When we were walking back to the Styling Center Calvin started talking about an important job that he was handling masterfully in his studio. I complained, as usual, that everyone was getting to work except me. I said that if I couldnt get out of Harry's studio my only alternative was to get a job outside of Ford. Calvin's eyes lit up. He told me about a bakery job that he thought I'd be perfect for. He said that all I had to do was stand there while they threw dough at my face to make animal crackers.
Calvin's joke would have been funnier if his timing had been better.
I was beginning to worry that I would never get out of Harry's studio. And what if I did get out? Each time you move from studio to studio or company to company, you carry with you the reputation stamped on your word of mouth report card by your previous boss. But there was cause for hope. Harry Finley had a reputation, too.
Then, joy of joys! I was transferred to the Advanced Interior studio. Harry shook my hand and wished me good luck. How could this news be anything else? What were the odds that my next boss would be a nazi?