This does not fit in the definition of car movies as I defined in an earlier post, but it does provide insights into the automotive industry from a perspective that is truly unique.
Robert McNamara is probably best known for the seven years he spent as Secretary of Defense during the 1960’s. This film is an interview based documentary. It was directed by Errol Morris, using a filming technique where the interviewee (McNamara) is is able to interact directly with the interviewer (the director) while the camera is kept in a position of looking directly at McNamara. It gives the audience the sense that they are in the conversation with him.
While much of this film focuses on McNamara’s role of Secretary of Defense it also covers other areas of his professional life including when he worked as an executive of the Ford Motor Company. He started at Ford just after WWII ended and would continue with them until John F. Kennedy recruited him in 1960. Five weeks prior to that, McNamara had been named president of Ford, the first time in the company’s history that a non-Ford descendant had every been put in charge of the company.
At the end of WWI when McNamara joined Ford Motor Corporation only 10 of all the executives in place had graduated from college. Robert had a brilliant mind and dug into areas that many car companies had ignored or overlooked. For him it was natural to ask questions and acquire data that lead to more questions. His questions were amazingly simple, but held huge implications.
Ford didn’t have a market research organization so McNamara set one up. The manager of the group asked him what he wanted to study and Robert said he wanted to know all about the VW Beetle. The American car companies thought it was a dumb car and VW only sold about 20,000 units a year. McNamara saw that there was something special about the car and wanted to understand who was buying it in order to derive what the future was for compact cars. It took six months to do the research but the surprising result was that it was being purchased by professors, doctors, lawyers, and other professional people that obviously could afford more of a car, but chose the Bug.
To McNamara it was a clear sign that there was a market that Ford was missing. This was at a time when “conspicuous consumption” was the rule. The market research that McNamara kicked off showed that there was a change going on and a new market segment was opening up. As a result Ford came out with the Falcon which was a huge success. Later, after McNamera left Ford, Lee Iacoca would take the Falcon platform and turn it into another hit called the Mustang.
Robert asked “What about accidents?” at a time when people were far more interested in chrome and fins. At the time there were about 40,000 deaths per year from automobile accidents and anywhere from a million to 1.2 million injuries. McNamara wanted to understand what caused them. It was a deceptively simple question that no one in the industry had ever invested the time to research. The answer he received was that it was simply human error and mechanical failure.
There were plenty of executives that would have read the results, shrugged their shoulders, and assumed that it was a fact of nature and moved on to design bigger fins and order up more chrome. Not McNamara. He latched on to the implication of mechanical failure being a contributing factor and dug deeper.
There was virtually no data to learn from. McNamara insisted that there was something more to be learned and pushed his staff to find out what could be discovered. After much investigation it was determined that Cornell Aeronautical Labs was the only place that had any data at all. Cornell’s conclusion was that it was a matter of packaging. Again, a simple, yet profound observation.
The example they gave Robert was that when you buy a product as fragile as eggs you are not continually bringing them home cracked because the packaging prevents such accidents and the same could be applied to automobiles. If you packaged people properly in cars you could also reduce the breakage. Brilliant and simple. So simple it was astounding that such an obvious characteristic had not been understood and acted upon a long time ago.
Not having appropriate lab facilities to test in, they took human skulls and tried different ways of packaging them, testing the protection by dropping them down the stairwells in the dormitories at Cornell. Sure enough, it was clear that packaging that made a difference.
Up to that time it was common in an accident for the driver to be impaled on the steering wheel. In those days the steering linkage of a car was like a solid metal spear shaft connecting directly to the steering box. The steering wheel was often flat and would simply delay the impact of the shaft itself with the driver’s body. What the passenger had to look forward to was a hard metal dash waiting to crush bone and flesh. The windshields would shred the body on its way out.
As a result of McNamara’s work the 1956 Ford was introduced the dished steering wheel so that it would resist allowing the driver’s chest from being impaled, along with padded instrument panels and seat belts. It was estimated that if they could get 100% usage of seat belts they could save over 20,000 lives a year. Of course almost no one wanted to use them. Human behavior at work. Resist change.
July 1960 Henry Ford tells Bob he wants him to become president of Ford. He held that position for five weeks. By that time JFK had talked him into becoming Secretary of Defense.
This is a fascinating film that should not be missed for a lot of reasons and I can almost guarantee you will be glad you watched. Even the parts that are not about cars.
Robert McNamara still drives a Ford today.