Gems on the Assembly Line…

…and it was not one of the cars.


At the dawn of its existence, painting an automobile was done in the same manner as one would apply a coat of paint to a horse-drawn carriage: by means of a brush and, in some cases, paint-rollers. Since cars were in those days built more or less in the same manner as their animal-powered predecessors, this was only to be expected.

The introduction of the moving assembly line by Ford in 1913 and the consequent rising demand for cars revealed the limitations of this method of application(1), but it would not be until 1924 that the first car to be spray-painted rolled off an assembly line, not at Ford, but at competitor GM with the Oakland model, a precursor to the later Pontiac.


Spraying was done by hand, initially with little or no regard for the prevention of potential health hazards to those who applied the paint. As a consequence of this manual process, the painting of every car that passed along the conveyor belt also produced overspray which landed on the transport racks and skids. The painted car, complete with racks and skids, would then pass through the oven to bake and harden the paintwork. Over time, the accumulation of layer after layer of overspray on the equipment would add up and create an ever-thickening coat of paint(2) that impeded the process. This had to be removed from time to time and, initially, it was simply thrown away.

It was not until sometime in the 1940s that workers at Ford Motor Company discovered the inner beauty of what were basically industrial geodes and took pieces of it home as colourful souvenirs and toys for their families. It followed naturally that at some point somebody saw the potential of the material in jewellery use, giving birth to the phenomenon named ‘Fordite’(3). In a similar manner to gemstones, Fordite could be cut and polished and its colourful beauty, sometimes with a Paul Smith-like striped pattern, made it an excellent material for earrings, brooches, cufflinks and the like.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

American cars became available in an increasingly wide variety of bright shades and metallics as the austerity of the second world war faded in the rear-view mirror. As a result, Fordite of the post-war era is highly prized today. This process continued throughout the sixties and seventies; the latter decade also marked by some memorable hues. However, when the eighties arrived, Fordite’s days were numbered. This was not because of a sudden shortage of colour (although it was certainly a decade that turned down the volume in that regard, with the growing popularity of silver and white and the return of black) but rather a change in the way the paint was applied to the cars.

An electrostatic process became the norm when painting vehicles. This ‘magnetized’ the body of the car to be painted so that the sprayed paint would be attracted to it. This, of course, meant that there was now little or no overspray, hence no more build-up of Fordite. Robots gradually replacing manual labour further decreased the amount of misdirected paint. As a result, there is now a finite supply of Fordite(4) and good specimens are expected to become ever more valuable as time marches on. As it stands now, prices are still reasonable in most cases, but they are moving only one way – up.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Quoting jewellery designer Eve Streicker: “There are few other materials that so beautifully tell the story of their past; Fordite not only displays the changing colors used on cars in each layer of hardened, subtly sparkled paint, but also the history of the American automotive industry, which has transformed or disappeared in the car factories in Detroit.”

Apart from the attractive colour patterns, Fordite is fascinating because, depending on the era in which it was ‘harvested’, the colours it possesses will reflect the social environment in which it was created. It therefore appeals both to those simply attracted to gemstones and jewellery as well as those with an interest in cars and their history.

Get it while it lasts. Image:

Fordite is lighter than most naturally formed gemstones, which is an advantage when it concerns larger items of jewellery like drop earrings. All it takes to keep it beautiful is to do the same as you would with your car every once in a while: wash and clean it with soap and water, then polish and protect it with a bit of wax.

(1) The introduction of enamel lacquer paint was another factor in the switch from brush to spraygun.

(2) It took approximately 1,000 layers of overspray paint to create a one-inch-thick piece of paint slag.

(3) Other car manufacturers of course also produced the material on their painting lines, but since it was first discovered at Ford Motor Company the name stuck. It is also known as ‘Detroit agate’.

(4) Only the Chevrolet Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, still supplies it. Is this a result of the Corvette’s composite body being incompatible with an electrostatic process?

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

14 thoughts on “Gems on the Assembly Line…”

  1. One of the areas in which the biggest progress has been made in terms of effiency in automotive production is the painting facility.
    Overspray (Fordite) and dead volume have been reduced to an absolute minimum.
    Even in the mid-Nineties cars had to be painted in batches and batches were sorted progressing from light colours to darker colours because a certain amount of the old colour was trapped in the equipment and mixed with the new (darker) colour. Therefore the first cars of the yellow batch were a bit lighter in hue because there was some white mixed in, the first orange cars had some additional yellow and so on. Having some black in the colour of the first white cars wouldn’t have been a good idea and after black was reached the equipment was halted and thoroughly cleaned before the next circle started.
    Nowadays the residual volume is virtually non-existant and every car on the production line can painted in any available colour.
    For cost cutting reasons any overspray has been reduced to the absolute possible minimum and there are large areas in a car that don’t get any spray paint at all. Think BMW Z4 E85 with its engine compartment in unpainted primer.

  2. Good afternoon from Tokyo. I only recently found out about Fordite, so thank you, Bruno, for shining your light on the subject.

    Like Dave said the efficiency gains in the paint process have been substantial and probably for the better. Having said that I like Fordite. The price we pay for progress, I guess.

  3. Another (wonderful) school day – I had no idea.

    It makes my skin crawl when I see old films of workers not using safety equipment. Often, companies provided it, but workers thought it was more ‘macho’ not to use it.

    Here’s a film showing various British Fords from the early ‘60s being made (Consul Classics, Anglias, etc) and I’m pleased to say that the paint shop staff are wearing face masks, at least.

    1. In this video you see the handheld spray guns used for paint application, as was standard practice at that time.
      A small revolution was triggered by none other than (would you believe) Glas. The notoriously cash strapped company (because Hans Glas insisted on paying for every investment in cash, without any bank loans ever taken, something he was considerably proud of) had to invent a new painting process for the 700 Isar which had to be finished to a higher level than the Goggomobil. They invented (and made them themselves) rotating spray heads instead of spray guns and these heads moved automatically over the car.
      This is common practice now but was very innovative then, regrettably I can’t find any picture of the process.

  4. Thank you Bruno for today’s article. I definitely have to hide it from my wife.

  5. Thanks Bruno, at first I had to check today wasn´t April 1st! I had no idea about “Fordite”.
    It´s amazing how many interesting facts and tales I learn here. It´s a lot better than school.

    As Dave says factory paint facilities have made huge advances and some manufacturers keep them away from prying eyes.

    1. Hi b234r. I thought exactly the same when I first read this piece, that Bruno was pulling our legs, but it’s all true. Another great school day at DTW.

  6. In the late 1980s I used to take small groups of Americans & Canadians to England for transportation-related 1 and 2 week tours. One of our regular stops was the Morgan factory. I have vivid memories of seeing Morgan cars going in & out of the paint booth, rolling on temporary wheels complete with old worn tires, the wheels either disc or wire. Those temporary wheels and the tire sidewalls were covered in Fordite deposits, the outer ends of the wire wheel spokes so thickly covered, as to blend together!

    1. Until 1986 – when such types of paint were banned in the EU – Morgans were painted with a brush with nitro cellulose paint. When they had to change to contemporary two pack paints these could no longer be applied by brush and they had to introduce a spray paint process which you vividly describe.

      I remember a Morgan Plus Eight in our neighbourship around 1970 which showed signs of the hand painting process. The car had a pale yellow central body and black wings and in some places you could see brush marks and even strands of the brush trapped in the paint.

    2. Dave, I always enjoyed seeing the reactions from my tour groups when we went thru Morgan, and as we progressed from one small assembly room to another, how the group’s comments would reflect on how archaic the assembly system was for the late 1980s, and how much hand work was involved.

      I will never forget one older burly worker, who with an apprentice to turn the sheet metal roller wheels, would insert a blank bonnet [hood] half into the roller. The apprentice would turn the crank to put a gentle curve in the metal, then back it out again. The older guy would take the panel and hold it in the crook of his arm and check the curvature as he pressed the panel to his shoulder. He would repeat this action until he was satisfied it was the correct shape. No wooden buck to check the curve, no measuring device at all. He had done this so many times over the years, all he needed to do was hold it in the right manner to know if it was finished.

      I was lucky to get to know Charles Morgan [the founder’s grandson] and we used to correspond back & forth across the pond. Sometimes when I was in England and had a few extra hours, we would go for a quick lunch. We had some very interesting discussions, especially when the government was trying to talk the company into expanding, from making 500 cars a year, to 10 times that amount. My comments basically said “Don’t do it!”

    3. For many years time seemed to have come to a stand still at Pickersleigh Road but finally not even they could oppost to progress.
      Until the late Ninetes the production sequence was that the cars had to be pushed uphill against the slope the buildings were following. Somebody had the bright idea to simply turn the production steps by 180 degrees so the cars in progress could be rolled downhill by their own gravity so they only needed two people to move a car instead of the former four.
      When Morgan had to introduce tubular metal subframes for the new telescopic shock absorbers at the rear and for the steering column support up front (to absorb the forces from the airbag) they finally created jigs for drilling the mounting holes of these metal structures. When these parts were still made from wood the holes were drilled by guesstimation and eye measurement with the result that the distance between A and B post and resulting door length varied from one car to the next by up to an inch, necessitating doors tailor made for each car.
      Until not too long ago the wooden frames were protected by a tar based stuff applied by brush which gave a Morgan a specific smell more than it did to protect the wood. When this stuff was banned bodies were pressure impregnated with modern wood protectives which not only saves a lot of time but also finally provides adequate protection for the wood.
      One great change at roughly the same time was that the wings for the cars were no longer made from six individually hand beaten parts with aluminium being an expensive extra but were sourced out to a company specialised in hydroforming large aluminium parts for the aircraft industry. Wings are now bought in parts with aluminium as standard, made from once piece plus light pod and they are one size for all Morgans and cut down to the required width for narrow or wide track cars at the Morgan factory.

      As much as I appreciate old craftsmen’s art and as much as I am for keeping those arts alive and to pass them on to the next generation I seriously doubt that such resistance to progress has to be an essential part of the art.

  7. There was a well known episode of a documentary series from the 80s, where businessman John Harvey-Jones troubleshot Morgan. He was appalled at the lost opportunities that Morgan’s waiting lists of several years represented, as well as their production techniques. One of his quotes was “Their pride seems to be in manufacturing from the furthest-back state they can, and buying the most basic material. I am surprised they don’t start with the tree itself.” He forecast the company’s imminent demise if it didn’t change itself radically. The story goes that Morgan happily ignored this advice and prospered, yet looking at the management turmoil this century, I guess the story isn’t as simple as that. In Harvey-Jones’s case, just because you’re proved wrong doesn’t mean you weren’t right. Decades on, Morgan now seems to have found a suitable compromise of artisan skills and technology and apparently waiting lists are now down to a few months.

    1. I don’t think that a high degree of production depth is a bad thing in itself. As long as somebody is willing to pay the price for bolts with a winged ‘M’ on their head it’s okay to make your own bolts.
      But doing things the weirdest possible way just for the sake of it and not taking advantage of at least some rudimentary elements of modern production methods doesn’t provide any benefit, neither for Morgan nor for their customers, it just costs lots of time and money.
      That it took them until 2005 or 2010 to finally introduce jigs for drilling holes, for bodywork assembly and other tasks to get some kind of repeatability is absurd.

  8. One way of looking at 20th Century Morgan is that it was the British Motor Industry in microcosm. Don’t invest and, if the punters are still lining up, don’t change. And if you seem to have a ten year long queue offering guaranteed income, what’s the problem? But it doesn’t explain why you shouldn’t do your best to maximise profit out of those 10 guaranteed years. Unless it’s the worry that with extra efficiency comes reduced waiting lists until you become 21st Century Morgan who only have their income guaranteed for six months or so. Yet who would put themselves on a 10 year waiting list today for a vehicle whose use might be seriously restricted by the time you get it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: