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The ULTIMATE Experience - WIXOM!
Seeing 2002 Thunderbirds being built!
by Dr. Rich Schatz
We did it - the Impressive Thunderbird Connection -
Important Tour for the Club - Indescribably Tremendous
Creation - the new 'Birdie! The coup de grace for ANY
car enthusiast is to witness the birth of that vehicle or
model. For many others, and speaking for myself,
I wanted desperately to see the new Thunderbird being
built! When I was interrogated by the Wixom principals
to determine whether they would grant the tour or not, I
told them that, my having never seen any technical
assembly of any kind, I would be satisfied to see them
build a wheelbarrow! With Convention Chairman Mark
Sitko at the "arrangement helm", buses were contracted for
transportation to Wixom, and all was set to 'go'. By order of Wixom personnel, we needed to have the
first bus there by 8 AM sharp, with the succeeding three
arriving in one hour intervals. With each person that conversed with me, at some point he or she said to me, "how did your group get this tour?" As we pulled up in bus1, and found the main entrance, I was greeted by someone who worked there whom I actually knew - ITC member Rich Frigonese's son! Unknowingly on his heels was the man I sought, who worked out the details and rules of the tour with me - Wixom's Dave Davis. A longtime engineer with the plant, Dave retired from that capacity but stayed on as Tour Coordinator. What? Tours? Yes, they still did tours for celebrities and other personages, but NO groups. That was discontinued some six years prior. Dave took our eager group into a ready room for a mandatory safety review, and to meet the boss - Ron Ellis.

The Wixom hosts were also so kind as to have prepared morning refreshments and tasties in this area - coffee, tea, OJ, doughnuts, and buns. Trust me - the goodies were well punished by most that exciting and very early morning! After the necessaries and pit stops, all who wore no glasses were issued safety types, and we stepped through the working plant door into Thunderbird-plant posterity. We were about to witness what most have never and may never have!
Through that door we found ourselves in the plant's assembly area, facing some delightful Lincoln LS's in production.This entry point, nearly at the line end, found some workers checking the fit of doors, trunks, and starting
engines on finished products. We continued somewhat backward through that creation area to where the autos were just beginning, and found ourselves at last looking at a midpoint arena of - THUNDERBIRDS! Yes, those dad-gummed cute little two seat nifties just sitting there in present technology emulation of the classic Early Birds.

They even sported the colors of long ago which are not-so-long ago for us mid-twentieth century lovers. We saw the 1962 yellow, the ever present shade of reminiscent red, today's rendition of Thunderbird blue, and Henry's favorite - black!

With some sections just beginning morning "peace time" (break), we early bird-ers missed out on watching some interior and trim moves, but then things began to hum. An engine came over to a body gliding down from the ceiling, being motivated along as a worker in a pit somehow affixed a transmission to the unit. Hoods and trunks appeared, and an attending person was mounting in place a set of seats, again with that pit-person fastening it from underneath. It is interesting to note that the front and rear clips of the car are fabricated by two different outside contractors, painted at the respective locations, and delivered to Wixom ready to be fastened in place. Due to today's computer color matching techniques, the paint on each section EXACTLY matches that of the other, as well as that of any car of that hue!

Dave Davis divided us in to groups of ten with a group leader for each. He explained to us originally that there should only be one person in every group with a camera, and that no one would take any pictures until instructed to do so. Dave further explained to us that we may not randomly or wantonly take pictures of employees without their permission. Today's labor unions allow the filing of grievances for many reasons, and he didn't want to get into that arena of possibility. We got to an area where Thunderbirds were set up to receive interiors, and Dave gave the go-ahead for some pics.
The workers in that section were on break, and not there. As editor, Dave allowed me a camera in any event, and Jim Rugg, president of the Wisconsin chapter, was the designated photographer for the group. He set up and fired at will. We walked a bit further, and the green light was given again in the transmission area. Quite soon, employees returned, began working, and we moved in to the engine bays. Dave looked at our well-behaved group, and said, "Oh, just go on and take your pictures! Just don't get employees without permission." One of our group immediately fired his motor-driven 35mm single lens reflex like a Thompson sub-machine gun! He got anything and everything in sight! I walked over to some workers on a fork lift and asked to take their pictures. True hams, they posed for me! Viewing this creative assembly line was indeed a highlight for all of us. To see the miracle
of an automobile being born from heaps of metal, plastic, material and wire, with harnesses melding in, tubing routed, engines fitted, interiors "falling" together. Geez, it took Sandy and me, with our friend Harold, two days to get the dash out of our '64 convertible! The miracle of mass production, originally put forth by Eli Whitney (with his firearms, not cotton gin), was truly in action. The hundreds of thousands of hours needed in building and designing the equipment necessary to do this! The knowledge to produce the technology! AWESOME! Dave informed me that the Thunderbird assembly line, at this point, still ramping up toward top production speed, was doing about 8 cars per hour. I mused to him that this seemed a lot of vehicles to be finished to drive out the door. He exclaimed that the first day of production, June 4th, there were THREE cars finished. He was looking to get to about 15 per hour! WOW! I said, That's really a lot!" Dave retorted, "The Taurus line does 45 CARS PER HOUR!" I was speechless. How could anyone imagine that to be possible? This works out to 1 Taurus every minute and 20 seconds! He did bring some reality back on further explanation. Dave said, "Look - to build a whole Thunderbird, we have to consider much more than you saw here today. The 'bird starts in the frame shop, then moves out to the next operation. We have painting considerations, some additional wiring and weather-stripping, THEN the car appears on the assembly line. From THAT point we can expect to see up to 15 Thunderbirds per hour. The actual whole operation for ONE car is over 38 hours." This still blew my mind, but somehow Mr. Dave Davis made it so casual and offhanded. We of ITC were treated to a most wondrous event, one not given freely, or with groups, not at all. Many folks were along who belonged to other clubs, and they were grateful for this opportunity. SO were we.

Our most humble thanks for this opportunity to Ford Motor Company, the Wixom Assembly Plant, Wixom Director Ron Ellis, and Tour Coordinator Dave Davis. We had a most memorable and grand time in Wixom, crowning a fantastic convention in the Ford Fatherland - Dearborn!

Script editor, Rich Schatz shakes hands with longtime Ford engineer,
now Tour Coordinator, Dave Davis, after the first ITC group went through Wixom.
© 2000 by Script and ITC
photos courtesy of Thunderbird Script