Monday, February 15, 2016

Car Talk & Time

In Dickens’s and Fotana’s, “Time and Postmodernism,” the authors discuss how Fordism, as a new form of “organizing and planning production” that time could be “universally organized and controlled” much like automobile manufacturing factories (390). Rather than relying on the individual production of units for vehicular model lines, automobile companies were able to push out a record amount of units in short periods of time, which satisfied both executive pocketbooks and levels of consumer happiness; however, controlling time as a means of boosting production affected more than just the availability of mass-produced vehicles within the United States.

The term Fordism derives from the success of Henry Ford, who Fred Thompson (“Fordism, Post-Fordism and the Flexible System of Production”) describes as “the creative force behind the growth to preeminence of the automobile industry, [which is] still the world’s largest manufacturing activity.” Ford’s innovations within the automobile manufacturing industry transformed craft production into mass production, which relied on a more universal system to build and fix vehicles, both for the factories and consumers. Thompson believes that the success of mass production can be attributed to standardization—“standardized components, standardized manufacturing processed… [a] nearly perfect interchangeability of parts”—and even defines Fordism as “standardiz[ing] a product and manufactur[ing] it by mass means at a price so low that the common man can afford to buy it.”

Before the mass production of automobiles, vehicles were viewed as luxuries permitted to economically privileged men. The transformation from the automobile as an inaccessible and private means of transportation into an affordable way to transport the whole family revolutionized the United States (which would take a million more posts to fully discuss, dissect, and explain), and also changed the way most Americans lived.

Dickens and Fontana write that the “spheres of exchange and consumption parallel acceleration of production time” (392). In relation to Fordism, this means that the more that consumers buy, sell, and trade automobiles, the faster new automobiles will be made. The parallel represents a direct link between human consumption and time, but also extends into these “spheres of exchange,” which I believe existed within the mass production factories and the transformation of American life through our perceptions of time. Production was not the only facet of acceleration—American lives were accelerating, too.

Dickens and Fontana mention the rise of electronic banking, widespread fashion trends, and the “consumption of services and experiences such as films, rock concerts, and eco-tours of exotic locales” (392) as a few examples of how American life was changing, but in relation to time, the transformation circles right back to the automobile.

Americans were not satisfied with the mass production of cookie-cutters cars. As Jameson suggests in the Dickens and Fontana article, there “no longer seem[ed] to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn[ed] from the schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational high-rise stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own daily life” (393). A perfect example of this is how Ford’s method of mass production was soon “rendered obsolete” by the new technology and management happening within the General Motors factories. The increased acceleration of production rates had left Ford with unskilled assemblers and a turnover rate of nearly 380 percent (Thompson). As the races between America’s big three—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—continued, so did their rates of acceleration.

Rather than mimic Ford’s model, General Motors opted for what Dickens and Fontana refer to as “flexible accumulation” (392). They increased their product range to five divisions (think Chevrolet, Cadillac, Pontiac, etc.) and each division was controlled by its own manager. Although each division was similar to the Fordism model, General Motors opted for assemblers with less “automatic and mechanical attitudes” (Thompson).

These transformations led to Dickens and Fontana’s assertion of “increased volatility and ephemerality throughout contemporary social life, including not only an emphasis on instantaneity and disposability of products, but also on values, behavior, and relationships to other people and places” (393). For anyone who is familiar with automobile engineering, there is an understanding that from these places of Fordism and flexible accumulation, Americans did not slow down. We became not only faster, but also stronger.

The connection between production and time follows American culture and automobile manufacturing into the age of the muscle car. Although the method of production had changed, cars were still being produced at alarmingly fast rates for a margin of the cost of an individually assembled car. The American people, whether a conscious statement or not, demanded that our cars reflect the supposedly superior culture of a loud and fast-paced American life. Automobile manufactures created faster, louder, and stronger cars and in return, Americans purchased them at rates that rivaled Ford’s initial production numbers.

On How Its Made: Dream Cars, the focus of each episode is on a particular “supercar,” detailing its design and production and providing a realistic outlook on what actually goes into the creation of a speed machine. For the sake of an example, one of the episodes focuses on the assembly of a Bugatti Veyron, which has been heralded as one of the fastest cars ever to be put into production. What’s interesting about this car, besides its 8.0L W16 1001 horsepower engine that can reach 60 miles per hour in approximately 2.5 seconds and keeps climbing until it reaches 268 miles per hour a few seconds later, is that the engine itself takes over a week to be completely manufactured. It can take the assemblers, who, unlike the Ford factory workers are considered masters of their craft, nearly two years to assemble a single unit.

Jameson claims that “our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural language are today dominated by categories of space rather than categories of time” (394), but I’m not sure I buy it. When Fordism was popular (and I would even argue that American automobile factories, both within the country and off-shore, still follow a model similar to this), time was of the essence. Time controlled schedules, production, consumption—these variables were not controlled by time. Now, companies are still mass-producing many automobiles (nearly 70 units an hour), and although the options are more varied, rates of exchange and consumption drive production, especially within the market of affordable transportation options. What accompanies the acceleration of these production rates? Poorer quality vehicles? Crash concerns? Constant recalls? In its agonizing two years of assembly, the 2015 Bugatti Veyron has a price tag of nearly 1.7 million dollars. It could be the massive engine, ten radiators, and various other additions that place the Veyron at the top of the list for its quality of production—or maybe it has something to do with the braking—how, with additional time dedicated to its quality of production, the Veyron defies what we think we know about automobile engineering. If the “spheres of exchange and consumption parallel acceleration of production time,” (and we know that they do), that explains why, to date, only 400 Veyrons have been sold. I can’t help but wonder what would happen to the amount of time allotted for Bugatti production if everyone in the United States could afford a two-million-dollar car. Would there be some Fordism within the VW plant? Or would the company maintain current speeds and produce made-to-order Veyrons for years to come?

*If you're interested, here are some neat videos outlining the assembly of the Bugatti Veyron and the Ford Mustang. Take a look at the differences between the time and methods of production.


  1. I'll admit, I had no idea how you were going to make connections between cars and this article, but you did! I like the connection you make that Americans are now favoring quality over quantity (if I'm understanding that right). Do you make any connections with this notion and postmodern novels? The novels' production rates, consumption, etc.

  2. Yeah, that's a great question, Katy. It's crazy to me how much marketing is related to time in any field, and of course, I naturally saw it the most in the automobile industry, but thinking about it in terms of publishing is definitely something to consider, too. I think we've seen really interesting things happening with publishing. I know there has ALWAYS been evolution in how we print things, but if you look at an author like Nicholas Sparks, it seems like it definitely is about quantity over quality. There are these authors who are constantly pushing out novels because the consumption levels are high. It all relates back to "spheres of exchange and consumption parallel acceleration of production time." Despite the quality of the work, the rate at which consumers are purchasing and reading his novels are high enough that it practically demands a constant flow of production. And then you look at someone like George R.R. Martin, who has basically been doing everything BUT writing his next novels (A Dance with Dragons came out in 2011, and it's been blank pages since); however, he has totally announced the next two, as if it's a way to keep the fan base on their toes, knowing that SOMETHING will be coming out.