"Cobra engine builders are assembly line stars
Romeo-made powerplants feature their signatures"
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
ROMEO — Quick — name a famous auto assembly line worker.
If you said Ron Anderson or Gary Smith, chances are good you own an SVT Cobra — Ford Motor Co.’s high-performance Mustang.
Sequestered in a small building at Ford’s engine complex in Romeo, Anderson and Smith work on the exclusive “niche line” — where every SVT Cobra engine since 1996 has been assembled by hand.
Anderson, Smith and a handful of co-workers have gained a measure of fame — at least in the eyes of Cobra enthusiasts — because each car’s engine bears a small metal plate with their signatures.
Nearly 1,300 workers toil in obscurity on Romeo’s primary production line, churning out 2,500 V-8 engines a day. But Anderson, Smith and seven other workers — selected based on seniority — are the only assemblers who routinely receive fan mail.
“It’s just amazing,” said Smith, 53, a Ford employee for 30 years who has spent the last four years on Romeo’s niche line.
This summer, their fame among Ford enthusiasts is expected to reach new heights when the $140,000 Ford GT begins arriving in showrooms. Earlier this month, workers launched production of the 550-hp 5.4-liter V-8 that propels the two-seat GT to a top speed of 205 mph. Ford plans to build just over 1,000 GTs a year.
The complexity of high-performance engines led Ford to establish the niche line in Romeo. Each unit is meticulously hand-built to ensure quality and precision.
The high combustion pressure generated by the massive Ford GT engine subjects pistons to searing heat. To manage the extreme temperatures, oil is squirted on pistons through tiny openings — which are labor-intensive to install.
“If you tried to put this in the main line, you’d get a lot of resistance,” said Curt Hill, powertrain engineering supervisor at the plant.
Workers on Romeo’s main production line have about 14 seconds to complete an assembly task.
And they repeat those tasks over and over as engines snake through the assembly line.
On the niche line, workers have nearly six minutes to complete a task — and they move along with the engine to the next station. Working in pairs, they’re responsible for building the entire engine.
Quality control remains a constant priority. To motivate the small crew of assemblers, Ford decided workers would sign each engine the way an artist finishes a masterpiece — but only if quality was up to par.
“That’s the ultimate sign of pride in workmanship,” said Mike Eller, customer relations manager responsible for the niche line’s operations.
Each worker’s signature has been duplicated on a stamp, which is used to emboss their John Han****s on a metal plate that also bears the logos of Ford and the United Auto Workers union.
“If we don’t feel that it’s right, we’ll put a stop-build on it because my name’s going on it,” said Anderson, a 55-year-old Leonard resident, who’s also spent 30 years working at Romeo — the last three on the niche line.
For Ford, the approach has been effective. Based on data tracked over the last 18 months, the SVT Mustang Cobra, which is on a production hiatus until the 2006 model year, had no warranty engine replacements linked to assembly.
Ford is banking on the GT’s engine to meet the same standard. When Cobra owners and enthusiasts visit the niche line, workers get the rock-star treatment.
“They just go wild when they see who the person is that signed their engine,” said Smith, who lives in nearby Croswell.
Cobra owner Steve Felde of Tucson, Ariz., toured the site in 2000.
“Buyers who had a ’96 or newer Cobra and who could remember the team names, searched out and got the autographs of those workers,” Felde said.
Fan mail trickles in regularly on the niche line, which more closely resembles a racetrack paddock than an engine plant.
“Nothing comes close to the build quality your guys put out,” says an e-mail tacked to a bulletin board.
The signature plates, which evolved from hand-signed stickers on earlier Cobras, also add an element of exclusivity to the cars. And that has not escaped the attention of collectors.
A rare spare plate obtained during a car club’s visit to Romeo recently sold for $108 on eBay, Eller said.
Most importantly, said United Auto Workers representative Bob Herrick, the niche line has elevated the stature of assembly line workers.
“They’re not just laborers,” Herrick said. “They’re a skilled work force.”
You can reach Eric Mayne at 313-222-2443 or [email protected].