Car Culture: Volvo Philosophy

A weekly look at what sucks in the car world, plus some good bits


Working on a car assembly line is no picnic

The car industry is in dire trouble. Faced by the perfect storm, Brexit, falling sales, ropey reliability, dieselgate, and now the Devil’s Virus, Nissan has closed its Sunderland factory for an indefinite period. This comes as a blow to the workers who were told only days ago that Nissan had decided to stick with building cars in the UK and would invest £400 million in the plant over the next few years. That policy is in shreds.

Nissan’s decision means work will stop at its Sunderland factory, which employs 6,000 staff [many who voted for Brexit] and produces about 440,000 vehicles a year. The company said: “Further measures are currently under study as we assess supply chain disruption and the sudden drop in market demand caused by the Covid-19 emergency.”

The car industry employs thousands of people, from factories to showrooms, to suppliers and pour millions into advertising, especially television and cinema commercials. Admittedly, car makers have stopped telling us about their latest model and instead ply us with aspirational images, thumping music, and a brand name, but fewer commercials means fewer film crew.

Almost all the major movies made in the UK by British talent arose from people working in television commercials, Ridley Scott and his Hovis add in Shaftsbury, Dorset, probably the best known. (The one with the boy pushing his delivery bike up the steep crescent past chocolate box thatched houses called Gold Hill.) For a long time producer David Puttnam employed no other crew but those he knew from his advertising agency days.

And then there is us, the car owner. Far be it for me to ring alarm bells, but I can hear cyclists and environmentalists cheering on learning large parts of automobilia Britannia may never recover from the crisis.

According to press releases 20,000 UK car workers have been sent home temporarily across the UK industry, while Mercedes-Benz parent, Daimler, Volkswagen, Ford, Fiat and Peugeot have announced broader suspensions of European output. Jaguar Land Rover keeps its UK sites operating but has frozen output at its Slovak factory.

And it isn’t only in the UK that car makers are staring at severe contraction. Toyota stopped output at more of its plants in Europe and Asia, including factories in Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey. The great money-making monolith BMW reports profits this year will be significantly lower due to the interruptions at plants that accounted for half of the 2.6 million cars it built in 2019.

Let’s look at this more closely. What is a car plant doing making almost half-a-million cars a year? No matter many are destined for the European market, what happens in days of famine when demand falls away and you have harnessed your costs and bottom line to selling masses of vehicles? You lay off workers. That is always the first way to cut costs. Then you close down plants. It wasn’t always like that.

Pausing an assembly line can be disastrous, and that ever-moving line is an invention of Henry Ford. The conveyor belt made Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times look like a picnic. It brought cars to the masses but factory work was barren. Workers given a set time to add a part to a vehicle on the move at 3 mph remains became an emblem of the worst kind of capitalism, a kind of modern slavery.

Since those bleak days, car makers have gotten around the needs of human nature, such as tea and toilet breaks, by turning entire plants over to robots. The build quality of cars has vastly improved but not the reliability. The people who supply the parts don’t always supply the best, and often the best is not what the car maker ordered.

Since the Eighties the ‘just-in-time’ method of supplying parts to car makers has become the normal way of manufacturing, with the exception of a few cars hand-built places such as Morgan and Ariel. It wasn’t known as ‘just-in-time back in the day. It was known as ‘lean production’.

The Japanese invented lean production, European and American mass manufacturers followed suit. Does lean production bring worker satisfaction? Opinions are divided. For one thing, there is very little craftsmanship in being a cog in a wheel. Scots lay a lot of  weight on good craftsmanship; we praise it whenever we see it. We look for it in our cars.

The Japanese used lean production wisely. A worker could stop a production line to explain to managers – the shusha – that a part was faulty. The part maker supplying the plant could be called in to analyse the problem and make changes to his production methods or materials. In the UK, we fitted the part just the same. Let the dealer fix it.

When a Japanese supplier was thanked for delivering components in time and the correct number they were rewarded with a long-term contract, but at a much lower cost per component than previously supplied. That way Japanese cars tended not to rise in price. The parts supplier saw his company given security of tenure for years, a preferred relationship to high profits and frequent changes of supplier. Loyalty was the ethos so long as the car maker’s vehicles sold, which they did because they were cheaper than British and European cars and more reliable.

When the system was taken up in the UK the Brits did it differently from the Japanese. Soon as a component supplier fulfilled their brief well they asked for, and got, a higher price for their next batch of products but no long-term contract. British cars rose in price with each new model making them uncompetitive compared to an imported Japanese car. Parts delivered did not get better made. Company bosses preferred to retain the power to fire people and companies rather than encourage good work and a written, guaranteed partnership. Company loyalty was rock bottom.

For a long time Sweden’s Volvo company refused to join the American-Japanese way of working. They had no assembly line, no just-in-time, supplies. In their Udevalla factory they had a dozen cars lying on revolving plinths the factory floor, the 740 and 760 estate models, built by ten genuine craftsmen, each with a specific role, working together to put an entire car together, until it was ready to test drive.

In some ways it was the same as Henry Ford’s 1903 assembly hall before he hit on the idea of a moving line. Each group worked on their car and no other. They had to make four a week. If a problem arose, a faulty part, something not fitting, the team were able to set their own pace to get the problem solved. The men and women took a pride in creating a vehicle they had built, an intense team effort. To avoid repetition and errors arising from it, the team could rotate jobs. The system was a humane one.

At one time Scotland was Volvo’s biggest market after Sweden and Norway. We loved Volvo cars. They looked like a brick, seemed carved out of one, but handled our winters with ease. They started in freezing weather, first time. They trundled through deep snow and slush, other cars lying by the wayside. They were safety conscious, huge rubber bumpers to push aside annoying small cars, had seat belts, crumble zones, and reinforced windscreen glass.

Volvo was the first and the last car maker to sell their vehicles on safety aspects alone. They were great family cars. Then we took to SUVs, Volvo’s sales dipped and Ford bought the company, junking their build philosophy – team work – and instituted a conveyor belt system. Quality dropped. Ford sold the company back to the Swedish government.

The point about team work built cars is, you had to order one. You were happy to do that, or take one that was in the dealer showroom even if not the colour you wanted. Volvo did not have a few thousand in different colours rusting away on some green field site ready to deliver.

The engineers, the social scientists, the accountancy experts, the people with the power to alter manufacturing methods disliked Volvo’s methods intensely. Their attitude was, a modern car is a highly complex machine with at least 10,000 parts. It needs a highly complex manufacturing system to cope. They got their way and we got streets filled with the things, gradually constraining how we used them, our freedom to roam lost, which was the opposite reason for buying one.

Car makers have all they need to build a car that will last for decades, but they hate doing that. They want us to buy the latest model that under the skin might be the same as the last but in a different suit, so they churn them out. Today … not so much.

Maybe that’s a good thing.


Looking for an SUV

I’ve friends asking me to find them a car on a decent budget. It has to be a medium-sized SUV, 1.6, 1.8, or a 2 litre engine, 5 doors and automatic. I’d prefer it didn’t have more than 60,000 miles on the clock and no rust or accident damage. Chipped alloy wheels are fixable, cutting out rust and respraying panels is too expensive. I’d consider one of the small Volvo estates. If you’re selling, let me know by dropping a line attached to this article. If you can bring it to Edinburgh, I’m interested. I have the cash.

E-Scooters made street legal

Electric scooters will be allowed on public roads for the first time under a UK Department for Transport proposal which will consult on the rules required to allow the new technology to operate safely, so says Grant Shapps, the ever industrious Transport minister, approving £90 million spent on initial experiments. They are already all over Los Angeles where people escoote-share them, but there are few hills to climb, and streets are wide boulevards. The legalisation of e-scooters is just one proposal in a wider plan to enable a “transport revolution”, which also involves projects to trial medical deliveries to the Isle of Wight using autonomous drones, and a test of self-driving cars between Bristol and Bath. You have been warned.

Wear your seat belt!

I knew a retired English lecturer who refused to wear a seat belt. She considered it an infringement of her civil liberties. She died in a 30mph accident on an Edinburgh road. According to figures from the Police Forensic Collision Investigators (PFCI), via a Freedom of Information request, the percentage of road deaths where the victim was not wearing a seat belt has increased from 25 per cent in 2016, to 31 per cent in 2018. 261 people died in 2018. There’s a cheery statistic to finish on a week of coronavirus deaths and loss of Scotland’s independence referendum. On both counts, ‘Better Together’ is the last thing we need.

Happy motoring!

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4 Responses to Car Culture: Volvo Philosophy

  1. broonpot says:

    My BMW garage in Italy emailed me this week, but instead of the usual sales pitch included an anouncement about a new BMW logo. – This is the google translated version
    In the new BMW logo, the black ring has disappeared to evoke opening and leave room for transparency and clarity .
    Our brand through the new graphics wants to represent the importance of the relationship because BMW has always put its customers at the center of everything.
    Its flexible appearance allows us
    to prepare for the future and enhance our presence on multiple communication channels and touchpoints.”


  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Seriously masturbatory drivel, Broonpot! And very funny! Vorsprung durch Technik, and all that. 🙂

  3. neepheid says:

    The finest car I ever owned was a 1969 Volvo Amazon 123, bought for £200 in 89. Now that really was built like a tank! Very easy to work on as well. I don’t know what gauge steel they used for the panels, probably double that on contemporary Ford and BL cars, so corrosion wasn’t a problem. A bit thirsty as a result, though. And a very pretty car as well- to my biased eyes, anyway.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    It was built to last, as most Volvos were in their day.

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