WWII Redux: Automakers Fight COVID-19

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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With America’s entry into World War II looming in 1940, Detroit transformed its auto assembly lines seemingly overnight, switching from civilian cars to building jeeps, trucks, ships, rifles, some 40 billion bullets and 299,293 airplanes. Now, with the nation threatened by a virus, rather than Nazis, Detroit is looking to repeat history, ramping up production of ventilators and other medical devices to save American lives during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Ordered” by President Trump to get cracking on ventilators – even though automakers had already volunteered and were racing to get it done  – Detroit is nonetheless rolling up its sleeves to do what it does best: Build things. GM has teamed up to up with Washington-based ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems to build its leading-edge “VOCSN” ventilator, converting GM’s electronics plant in Kokomo, Indiana, and onboarding nearly 1,000 volunteer employees. Ford has partnered with GE Healthcare to produce a streamlined, simplified version of GE’s ventilator, and with 3M to produce “Powered Air Purifying Respirators,” or PAPRs, to protect medical personnel and first responders from contact with the virus. GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are gearing up masks and face shields to address dire shortages.

Quaint, isn’t it? Skilled workers, engineers, logistics and supply-chain experts, manufacturing things right here in the U.S.A., when they’re desperately needed. If you’re waiting to hear Goldman Sachs’ contributions to stamp out the virus, don’t hold your germ-riddled breath. Credit default swaps, subprime mortgage bundles and other obscure financial machinations are of no help here. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, another Wall Street darling, is its usual murky cesspool of misinformation, dubious sources and divisive nonsense. Instead, it’s the supposed dinosaurs of Detroit, so often sneered at and downgraded by the financial wizards, that are stepping up.

Ford respirator drawingFord’s design for a Powered Air Purifying Respirator integrates the seat cooling fan from an F-150 pickup. (Photo: Ford)

Motor City know-how

“It’s in our DNA, when our country has a time of need, that we jump in to help” said Mike Levine, Ford spokesman, in a telephone interview. “We’re not the experts here, but we can certainly help the experts.”

Those PAPRs recall something out of the suddenly popular “Contagion” movie – or that original viral freakout, 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain” – a sort of half-astronaut suit with a protective hood and an electric blower that takes the place of lung power to push air through a filter. Ford identified and repurposed several off-the-shelf components to save critical time on developing new ones.

“We’re taking parts wherever we can get them,” Levine said, including such potential components as a seat cooling fan from the F-150 pickup, battery packs from power tools, and respirator hood material from paint booths.

A worker assembles a Ventec ventilator that delivers oxygen and meds to critical-care patients. (Photo: Ventec Life Systems)

Direct parallels with WWII

Let’s be clear: On the scale of human tragedy, the coronavirus at its deadliest will be a cakewalk compared with WWII, which ravaged nations and cost as many as 75 million lives in civilian and military casualties. But seeing American industry rise to the occasion is still welcome. Author A.J. Baime’s “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War,” tells the definitive story of how the Motor City helped ready a nation to fight a common enemy. Reached by phone, my former colleague Baime said there are clear parallels between then and now, including a President calling on Detroit for its unique expertise.

“The war became a contest of mass production; whoever could produce the most would win,” Baime said. Josef Stalin shared that view in 1943, toasting President Roosevelt by saying “the most important things in this war are machines,” and calling the United States “the country of machines.”

In another modern parallel, Baime says, “Ramping up quickly was going to be the key to winning or losing, so there was enormous pressure to make complicated things, quickly.

“A ventilator is a very complicated piece of machinery, but so is a 60,000-pound, four-engine bomber.”


At peak production at Henry Ford’s Willow Run, one B-24 Liberator bomber rolled off the line each hour (Photo: Getty Images)

Ventilators can’t wait

Ventilators aren’t as cinematic and soul-stirring as the B-24 Liberator bombers built at Willow Run, on 975 acres of farmland west of Detroit that Henry Ford owned. But they may be just as life-saving. And a bombshell question remains: Can Detroit help ramp up ventilators in time to make a difference, with the first ventilators from Ford and GM set to arrive in late April? During WWII, Detroit got cracking roughly a year before the Pearl Harbor attacks.

But the federal response to coronavirus has been tardy and scattershot, frittering away valuable lead time. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become a voice of leadership, reassurance and straight answers during the crisis. The governor of the state with the most daunting COVID-19 outbreak – nearly 84,000 cases as of Wednesday, with 1,941 deaths but 6,142 people treated and discharged from hospitals – said that New York alone may need 30,000 ventilators.

Cuomo invoked his own world-war analogy, urging President Trump last week to invoke the Defense Production Act, in part so that companies would be backstopped on costs for producing ventilators, even if they end up with a surplus of unsold equipment later. Trump eventually relented and invoked the Act.

“It’s, ‘You’re building battleships, here’s your contract, God bless you,” Cuomo said. “That’s what the Defense (Production) Act was all about.”

Baime said that during World War II, a similar good-faith operating deal was called “Cost Plus,” to ensure companies could complete projects on time and pay employees.

“If it cost, say, $10,000 to make a tank, then the government would pay $10,000 plus eight percent,” Baime said. “The idea is that business won’t function unless money is changing hands; that’s just a fact.”


Henry Ford (seen here in a 1941 photo) spearheaded the quick ramp-up of production at Willow Run, Michigan. (Photo: Getty Images)

Companies, workers step up

As for Trump’s accusations that GM was dragging its feet on the project, or holding out for more money, those claims have been thoroughly debunked, as evidenced by both timelines and GM’s all-hands-on-deck urgency to ramp up production. Jim Cain, GM spokesman, said GM managed to source 900 components for its ventilators in less than 72 hours. Global ventilator production was near capacity, Cain said, with Ventec only able to produce about 200 per month. Now, GM is aiming to produce 10,000 per week, with Ford pledging to deliver 50,000 ventilators in 100 days.

That’s mass production, Motown style. As a native Detroiter, I can’t imagine how hurtful it must have been for GM and Ford employees, white and blue collar alike, to hear Trump bash them. Here were companies eager to do whatever they could for their fellow Americans. Here were volunteer workers willing to put themselves in harm’s way – health screenings aside, social distancing may be difficult on a fast-moving shop floor – to potentially save other people’s lives.

I don’t care if it sounds corny: They were stepping up to serve their country. Their reward was a public kick in the teeth from the President, including a sexist, slanderous shot at GM CEO Mary Barra, though Trump has now backpedaled to say GM “is doing a fantastic job. I don’t think we have to worry about GM anymore.”

No, Mr. President, we don’t need to to worry about GM, or Ford, in a time of national crisis. What ever made you think otherwise?


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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