Factory Methods of the Vintage Era

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No. 16: General Motors at Hendon

Today the products of General Motors, the largest producer of motor vehicles in the world, are well established in this country, with Opels from Germany and Vauxhalls from Luton known to everyone. Back in 1929 it was much the same, except that in those vintage days the GM depot was a big ex-Government aeroplane factory at Hendon, off London’s Edgware Road, and the cars dealt with there numbered Cadillac, Buick, La Salle and Chevrolet, supplemented by Chevrolet trucks and the big GMC commercial vehicles.

In this huge building, very well lit and with a minimum of roof pillars, an all-British personnel attended to the affairs of the great £250,000,000 GM Corporation as they affected this tight little market. Admittedly, the Cadillac and La Salle luxury cars were entirely of American origin, and the next down the scale, in the form of the Buick, was erected at Hendon from components sent there from the Buick plant at Flint and some of the GM Canadian factories. But English materials were also used and the entire erection of the chassis took place at Hendon, after which almost completely British-made bodies were fitted, although in these the more intricate steel panels were imported from the Fisher body-presses across the Atlantic. The Buick components arrived in tight-packed cases, the unpacking and disposing of which was quite an industry in itself. The Buick represented the bulk of GM output here, in 1929, the chassis being equipped with high-grade coachbuilt bodywork, constructed on elaborate jigs, as the wooden framework was screwed and glued together, after which the panelling including those imported steel panels, was fitted, door panels being prepared for painting with grinding wheels powered by trolley-mounted electric motors and spot-welding of panels being done by foot-controlled guns while operatives held the parts in place. The completed bodies were finished in high-gloss Nobel cellulose. Upholstery was of the finest English leather and very well-designed bucket front seats were installed, evolved specially for these Buicks after more than 30 experimental seats had been rejected.

It was claimed that some 60% of the profit made on each Buick remained in this country. Assembly was done on a travelling conveyor line, a complete Chevrolet truck being made every seven minutes. Spray painting was used on the chassis, and afterwards it was greased by a man wielding a grease-gun. Chevrolet chassis were riveted together in a clearing in one of the big assembly bays, almost white-hot rivets being supplied from a little gas-fired oven to four operatives, one of whom threw the rivets to the feet of a second man, who picked them up in special tongs and inserted them into a hole in the chassis frame, whereupon a holder-up man, using a heavy iron baulk on the rivet head, held it in place while a man with a compressed-air hammer drove it home—hand-assembly, if you like!

At the beginning of 1929 the Chevrolet Six saloon was only just getting into production at Hendon, but over 300 six-cylinder Chevrolet trucks were being made per week; each one was said to benefit Britain to the extent of about 65% or its purchase price. From the assembly track the completed cars and trucks were driven onto a test track, on which power output was checked on roller dynamometers. Outside the factory there was a one-way test track on which all vehicles were run before dispatch, brakes as well as speed being involved, as there were four right-angle corners. Adjustments, including those to the imported-complete Cadillacs and La Salles, were made by driving a vehicle onto a raised platform some five feet above the ground, so that there was no need to return to the shops, or pull up newly-laid floorboards if brake or other adjustments were called for.

Production at this General Motors Corporation plant at Hendon was to take an uplift when the new £140 six-light, six-cylinder Chevrolet saloon, a powerful armament in GM’s battle against Ford, got into full-scale production. Before this happened, General Motors Ltd. in 1929 employed about 1,100 operatives, nearly all men, at this London factory, from which emerged between 13,000 and 15,000 cars and commercials a year. The workers had their own canteen, which served a lunch on a no-profit but no-loss basis, with a works’ orchestra in attendance; this canteen coped with 700 to 800 cooked meals every weekday. –W. B.