Don't get any ideas about going into the paint area wearing Avon Wild Country Roll-on. Same goes for Rexona Stick Cool or the local favorite, Axe Marine Desodorante. Apparently Speed Stick is OK, though, because Graciela lets me in, but not without casting a suspicious eye toward my armpits. If she hadn't kissed me earlier in the day, I would probably be insulted. If you've ever been told that a re-paint will never be as good as factory paint, here's why: Each car on Ford's Hermosillo, Mexico, assembly line gets fully submerged in a hot, swirling bath of cleaner. No idea what's in that cleaner, but we're in Mexico, so odds are you don't want to mix cocktails with it.
After cleaning, the whole car gets dried off, then submerged again in a phosphate dip. Again, don't really know what that it is, but it smells bad and it makes the paint stick.Then it's dipped again, this time in a huge, swirling vat of e-coat primer. The e in e-coat means it's electrostatically charged, so it uses the power of the electron to suck its way into every tiny little crease and crevice in the body. Next, there's a giant oven to cure the primer at 360 F, then a water-based rinse.
And then the robots come. They spray on another coat of primer. Then there's another oven. Then more robots spray on one of 13 colors, followed by one more oven, clearcoat, and another oven. The ventilation system in this area is impressive. If it weren't for the sign, you'd never know deodorant was banned. You can hardly smell the paint, either. If you haven't noticed yet, we decided to start Project SVT Focus a little earlier than most. Instead of starting with a new car, we're starting with a trip to the factory. Building the car ourselves, we think, would be a great way to get to know the car. But it turns out that isn't allowed.
Undeterred, we figure our presence at the factory will at least allow us a few special tweaks, like leaving out some sound deadening, adding a few extra spot welds, tightening up the tolerances on the engine, or maybe slipping in a turbo when nobody is looking. The engine, it turns out, isn't built at the same factory as the car, so we won't get a chance to mess with it. The cars are built in Hermosillo, a few hundred miles south of Tucson, Ariz. The engines are built in Chihuahua, about a 13-hour drive to the southeast over a mountain pass swarming with armed banditos. Our engine was done being assembled even before we stepped off the plane and onto the mad-cow sponge.
We asked that our car be spared the heavy tar sound-damping mats that get melted to the floor on the way through the e-coat curing oven. Our quest for power and lightness would mean we'd eventually chip them out anyway. We are told the SVT Focus didn't get any tar. Of course, there is tar on our floors, just like any other Focus, but the paint shop still gives our car the VIP treatment. It was pulled off the line after the color coat, hand sanded, sent back through the color line, sanded again, clear coated, sanded, and clear coated again. In case you were wondering, the answer is no, they won't do that for your car. Not to worry, though, the standard paint job still involves four dips, three sprays, eight robots, and a healthy amount of human inspection and roving sanders to touch up any deodorant-induced blemishes.
By the time we first see it, our car is emerging naked, but very nicely painted, from the one-hour buffer line between the paint shop and the final assembly floor. The extra loop of conveyor belt is there to give the factory time to alert suppliers to the exact order the cars will be coming down the line. The bodystyles and engines are planned further ahead, giving the truckloads of drivetrains time to speed past the banditos, and giving the stamping shop time to pound out all the right shapes, but the actual trim levels, option packages, and such aren't determined until the cars hit the paint shop. Given the short notice, suppliers have set up mini-factories all around the Focus plant, slapping together interiors, suspension subassemblies, and even pounding out many of the smaller sheet metal stampings.
The SVT Focus is built, just like every other three- or five-door Focus sold in the United States, on a common assembly line in a relatively modern, 1.6-million square foot factory built on what may be Earth's closest point to the sun. The temperature outside the plant during our July visit is a constant 126 degrees, day and night, so all 1.6 million square feet are air conditioned. The SVT Focus has 497 unique parts compared to a standard ZX3. That seems like a lot when you're talking with the people who marched all those parts past the bean counters. Here on the factory floor, you can see the Focus is built on the same line as the Escort ZX2, which has about 3,500 unique parts, which is to say, all of them. With bodystyles, colors, option packages and all, there are 285 different ways to build a car in this factory, so another engine, some bigger brakes, and a beefier exhaust don't really seem like that big a deal.
Of course, nothing seems like a big deal in Mexico. The atmosphere, for an assembly plant, is very laid back, and the accommodating management here has allowed Ford engineers to do things usually impossible in the world of mass production, like waltz in with crates full of aftermarket parts to build short runs like the ZX2 S/R. Somehow the walls of plant manager Jose Islas' office are still littered with initial quality awards.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the final assembly process is how staggeringly boring it is. The process takes only five hours, which seems quick for something like building a car, but the actual assembly operations are so well-thought out, and so efficient, that the car spends a good deal of that time just hanging there, waiting for someone to bolt something to it. The entire drivetrain, for example, takes about two minutes to install. The engine, transmission, axles, front suspension and brakes are all bolted to the front subframe on a separate line, and join the car in an operation so simple that pulling the engine out seems like a reasonable theft deterrent measure. The exhaust goes on in one, well-practiced swing. The rear suspension is six bolts.
The whole process is so streamlined and so efficient, it leaves only one real question: What if you have to use the bathroom? Naturally, they've thought of that too. A roving angel of relief, trained in the practices of every workstation, stands ready to provide backup when the need arises. They call this angel the facilitator since, well, he lets you use the facilities.
And that is it. A little stamping, a few spot welds, a VIP paint job and a swift, efficient assembly process, and we have a very new SVT Focus. International trade agreements and such mean we can't drive the car home, so it's shipped to a nearby Ford dealer where its pristine condition is immediately violated by some half-wit ape-boy with a power screwdriver who thinks it will look better with a bulbous license plate frame, or perhaps just a few sloppy holes in the bumper.
Thanks. Now that we've got it, we need to make it better.