Building Ford Station Wagons at Iron Mountain
14 artifacts in this set
Ford's Iron Mountain plant was perhaps the biggest single industrial operation in the largely-rural Upper Peninsula. The complex included a sawmill, a chemical plant, wood kilns, the auto body factory, and a commissary that sold food and clothing to Ford employees.
In pursuit of self-sufficient automobile manufacture, Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company purchased over 313,000 acres of timberland for logging in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A massive sawmill complex and powerful hydroelectric plant were constructed at Iron Mountain. Here, sawmill workers produced huge quantities of lumber for wooden automobile framework, floorboards, and wheels.
The Iron Mountain plant was just one of several Ford Motor Company facilities in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There were sawmills in Pequaming, L'Anse, and Alberta, with another planned – but never built – for Munising. Ford owned most of Big Bay and operated the little town’s inn as a summer retreat for company executives.
"Station" in the term "station wagon" refers to the railroad depot. Early station wagon buyers were often resort hotels and spas that used the roomy vehicles to shuttle their visitors to and from the train. Ford built the chassis and powertrains for its first wagons, but outside builders provided the bodies. Ford didn't offer complete factory-built station wagons until 1929.
For the 1929 model year, Ford became the first Big Three automaker to offer a factory-built station wagon. Previously, wagon bodies were made by outside builders. Ford used its own maple, birch and basswood, sourced from company-owned forests in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in the vehicles. The flexible Model A station wagon featured two rows of removable seating in back.
Ford switched to all-steel car bodies for 1937, and Iron Mountain converted to exclusive production of station wagon bodies. Finished wagon bodies were shipped, ten at a time, in railroad cars to Ford assembly plants around the U.S. In 1941 the automaker introduced an upscale Mercury version of its station wagon, like this one seen at a ski tournament.
Drawing of World War II Gliders Made at the Ford Iron Mountain Plant, Iron Mountain, Michigan, circa 1943
American automakers turned their staff and facilities to the production of military goods during World War II. Iron Mountain built Waco CG-4A gliders. The U.S. Army used the gliders, made of wood and fabric, to deliver troops and cargo to the battlefront. Each glider could carry up to 15 soldiers, or a reconnaissance car, or a howitzer gun.
Workers built Waco gliders using the same assembly line techniques they used to produce station wagon bodies. Ford's methods cut glider manufacturing time in half, and cut the cost per glider by 60 percent. Iron Mountain employees built more than 4,000 gliders over the course of the war.
Ford Motor Company's Upper Peninsula logging operations didn’t save the automaker any money – most of its sawmills operated at a deficit – but they ensured an uninterrupted flow of lumber to Ford production lines. The woodlands and sawmills were in keeping with Henry Ford's move toward vertical integration in the 1920s and 1930s.
At its peak in the mid-1920s, Ford's Iron Mountain facility employed some 7,600 people. After World War II, that number was down to around 300. But they were highly-skilled craftspeople. One station wagon body might consist of 150 or more pieces of wood with all manner of complex cuts, joints, and fittings.
Ford station wagon bodies featured maple frames with panels made from either gum, maple, or mahogany. Roofs consisted of soft panels with padded tops over white ash ribs. Though beautiful, wood frames and bodies required careful maintenance from their owners. Nuts and bolts needed periodic tightening, and the wood itself needed constant attention to prevent warping and rotting.
Starting with the 1949 model year, Ford eliminated wood framing from its station wagons in favor of steel. Wood was still used on the wagons, but in the form of specially-laminated paneling bolted onto the steel frames.
These new composite steel and wood bodies strengthened Ford's wagons and provided a quieter ride for passengers. The steel roofs also offered more protection in the event of a rollover accident.
Topps "World on Wheels" Series Collecting Card, circa 1953 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, circa 1954
Following other automakers, Ford converted to all-steel station wagon bodies for 1952. The only remaining wood consisted of maple or birch trim pieces. The larger "wood" panels were nothing more than mahogany-colored decals. The Iron Mountain plant was closed and station wagon body production shifted to a new plant in Wayne, Michigan, 20 miles west of Detroit.