Page 2 of Wheels

Eventually the executive vice-president would go home - with a filled briefcase to be dealt with by tomorrow morning.

Now, pushing his breakfast tray away and shuffling papers, he stood up.

Around him, in this personal study, were book-lined walls. Occasionally - though not this morning - he glanced at them with a trace of longing: there was a time, years ago, when he had read a good deal, and widely, and could have been a scholar if chance had directed his life differently. But nowadays he had no time for books. Even the daily newspaper would have to wait until he could snatch a moment to skim through it. He picked up the paper, still folded as the housekeeper had brought it, and stuffed it into his bag. Only later would he learn of Emerson Vale's latest attack and privately curse him, as many others in the auto industry would do before the day was out.

At the airport, those of the executive president's staff who would accompany him were already in the waiting lounge of the Ford Air Transportation hangar. Without wasting time, he said, "Let's go."

The Jetstar engines started as the party of eight climbed aboard and they were taxiing before the last people in had fastened seatbelts. Only those who traveled by private air fleets knew how much time they saved compared with scheduled airlines.

Yet, despite the speed, briefcases were out and opened on laps before the aircraft reached the takeoff runway.

The executive vice-president began the discussion. "Northeast Region results this month are unsatisfactory. You know the figures as well as I do. I want to know why. Then I want to be told what's being done."

As he finished speaking, they were airborne.

The sun was halfway over the horizon: a dull red, brightening, amid scudding gray clouds.

Beneath the climbing Jetstar, in the early light, the vast sprawling city and environs were becoming visible: downtown Detroit, a square mile oasis like a miniature Manhattan; immediately beyond, leagues of drab streets, buildings, factories, housing, freeways - mostly dirt encrusted: an Augean work town without plenty cash for cleanliness. To the west, cleaner, greener Dearborn, abutting the giant factory complex of the Rouge; in contrast, in the eastern extremity, the Grosse Pointes, tree-studded, manicured, havens of the rich; industrial, smoky Wyandotte to the south; Belle Isle, hulking in the Detroit River like a laden gray-green barge. On the Canadian side, across the river, grimy Windsor, matching in ugliness the worst of its U.S. senior partner.

Around and through them all, revealed by daylight, traffic swirled. In tens of thousands, like armies of ants (or lemmings, depending on a watcher's point of view) shift workers, clerks, executives, and others headed for a new day's production in countless factories, large and small.


The nation's output of automobiles for the day - controlled and masterminded in Detroit - had already begun, the tempo of production revealed in a monster Goodyear signboard at the car-jammed confluence of Edsel Ford and Walter Chrysler Freeways. In figures five feet high, and reading like a giant odometer, the current year's car production was recorded minute by minute, with remarkable accuracy, through a nationwide reporting system. The total grew as completed cars came off assembly lines across the country.

Twenty-nine plants in the Eastern time zone were operating now, their data feeding in. Soon, the figures would whirl faster as thirteen assembly plants in the Midwest swung into operation, followed by six more in California. Local motorists checked the Goodyear sign the way a physician read blood pressure or a stockbroker the Dow Jones. Riders in car pools made bets each day on the morning or the evening tallies.

The car production sources closest to the sign were those of Chrysler - the Dodge and Plymouth plants in Hamtramck, a mile or so away, where more than a hundred cars an hour began flowing off assembly lines at 6 A.M.

There was a time when the incumbent chairman of the board of Chrysler might have dropped in to watch a production start-up and personally check out a finished product. Nowadays, though, he did that rarely, and this morning was still at home, browsing through The Wall Street Journal and sipping coffee which his wife had brought before leaving, herself, for an early Art Guild meeting downtown.

In those earlier days the Chrysler chief executive (he was president then, newly appointed) had been an eager-beaver around the plants, partly because the declining, dispirited corporation needed one, and partly because he was determined to shed the "bookkeeper" tag which clung to any man who rose by the financial route instead of through sales or engineering. Chrysler, under his direction, had gone both up and down. One long six-year cycle had generated investor confidence; the next rang financial alarm bells; then, once more, with sweat, drastic economies and effort, the alarm had lessened, so there were those who said that the company functioned best under leanness or adversity. Either way, no one seriously believed any more that Chrysler's slim-pointed Pentastar would fail to stay in orbit - a reasonable achievement on its own, prompting the chairman of the board to hurry less nowadays, think more, and read what he wanted to.

At this moment he was reading Emerson Vale's latest outpouring, which The Wall Street Journal carried, though less flamboyantly than the Detroit Free Press. But Vale bored him. The Chrysler chairman found the auto critic's remarks repetitive and unoriginal, and after a moment turned to the real estate news which was decidedly more cogent. Not everyone knew it yet, but within the past few years Chrysler had been building a real estate empire which, as well as diversifying the company, might a few decades hence (or so the dream went), make the present "number three" as big or bigger than General Motors.

Meanwhile, as the chairman was comfortably aware, automobiles continued to flow from the Chrysler plants at Hamtramck and elsewhere.

Thus, the Big Three - as on any other morning - were striving to remain that way, while smaller American Motors, through its factory to the north in Wisconsin, was adding a lesser tributary of Ambassadors, Hornets, Javelins, Gremlins, and their kin.

Chapter 2

At a car assembly plant north of the Fisher Freeway, Matt Zaleski, assistant plant manager and a graying veteran of the auto industry, was glad that today was Wednesday.

Not that the day would be free from urgent problems and exercises in survival - no day ever was. Tonight, like any night, he would go homeward wearily, feeling older than his fifty-three years and convinced he had spent another day of his life inside a pressure cooker. Matt Zaleski sometimes wished he could summon back the energy be had had as a young man, either when he was new to auto production or as an Air Force bombardier in World War II. He also thought sometimes, looking back, that the years of war even though he was in Europe in the thick of things, with an impressive combat record - were less crisis-filled than his civil occupation now.

Already, in the few minutes he had been in his glass-paneled office on a mezzanine above the assembly plant floor, even while removing his coat, be had skimmed through a red-tabbed memo on the desk - a union grievance which he realized immediately could cause a plant-wide walkout if it wasn't dealt with properly and promptly. There was undoubtedly still more to worry about in an adjoining pile of papers - other headaches, including critical material shortages (there were always some, each day), or quality control demands, or machinery failures, or some new conundrum which no one had thought of before, any or all of which could halt the assembly line and stop production.

Zaleski threw his stocky figure into the chair at his gray metal desk, moving in short, jerky movements, as he always had. He heard the chair protest - a reminder of his growing overweight and the big belly he carried around nowadays. He thought ashamedly: he could never squeeze it now into the cramped nose dome of a B-17. He wished that worry would take off pounds; instead, it seemed to put them on, especially since Freda died and loneliness at night drove him to the refrigerator, nibbling, for lack of something else to do.

But at least today was Wednesday.

First things first. He hit the intercom switch for the general office; his secretary wasn't in yet. A timekeeper answered.

"I want Parkland and the union committeeman," the assistant plant manager commanded. "Get them in here fast."

Parkland was a foreman. And outside they would be well aware which union committeeman he meant because they would know about the red-tabbed memo on his desk. In a plant, bad news traveled like burning gasoline.

The pile of papers - still untouched, though he would have to get to them soon - reminded Zaleski he had been thinking gloomily of the many causes which could halt an assembly line.

Halting the line, stopping production for whatever reason, was like a sword in the side to Matt Zaleski. The function of his job, his personal raison d'etre, was to keep the line moving, with finished cars being driven off the end at the rate of one car a minute, no matter how the trick was done or if, at times, he felt like a juggler with fifteen balls in the air at once. Senior management wasn't interested in the juggling act, or excuses either. Result were what counted: quotas, daily production, manufacturing costs. But if the line stopped he heard about it soon enough. Each single minute of lost time meant that an entire car didn't get produced, and the loss would never be made up. Thus, even a two- or three-minute stoppage cost thousands of dollars because, while an assembly line stood still, wages and other costs went rollicking on.

But at least today was Wednesday.

The intercom clicked. "They're on their way, Mr. Zaleski."