Ford Glass makes windshields for millions

The announcement came 49 years ago, at a luncheon held at the Hermitage Hotel on July 14, 1955.Ford Motor Co. would locate in Nashville the world's largest glass manufacturing plant, a behemoth expected to create as many as 2,500 manufacturing jobs.

Windshields and windows by the millions would follow.

The plant built for $30 million initially — now known as Visteon — still churns them out. These days, they're not only for Fords. Drivers peer out from them seated in their Nissans, Mazdas and other exotic automotive makes unimagined by Americans in the mid-1950s.

The Ford plant's first glass furnace was fired up Nov. 26, 1956. A ribbon of plate glass began to roll off the production line the next month. ''The fiery breath of awakening life,'' as now-retired Tennessean writer and novelist Charles L. Fontenay called it.

Ford's ''good neighbor policy'' called for hiring all but 65 of its workers from the Nashville area.

Those first 65 managers included a few locals, among them a former police sergeant, an ex-prison warden and twin brothers named Lackey who were graduates of Hillsboro High and Vanderbilt's School of Engineering.

Nashvillian Howard Kent, who retired five years ago, was one of those hired in the plant's first year. For more than three decades, he was a cutter, slicing up sheets of freshly made glass from the plant's furnaces that stretch nearly half a city block.

''They've automated everything,'' Kent told a reporter in 1999. ''They had to. You either automate or die. It's for the best.''

Some workers whose jobs in earlier years brought them in proximity to the taffy-like orange ribbon of 2,240-degree glass had to wear heavy protective suits.

Turning the often-dangerous heavy labor over to machines has brought a reduction in work force at the Ford Glass Plant from a 1979 high approaching 3,000 to about half that today.

The work force was once not much different in population from some of the state's small towns.

Houses sprang up not far from the plant to accommodate many of the new Ford workers. Street names today in the Charlotte Park area, near Old Hickory Boulevard and Interstate 40 west, still echo the Ford influence. Among them are Continental and Thunderbird Drives, along with Edsel, Fairlane, Comet, Marauder, Capri, Ranchero and Henry Ford.

The plant used so much sand for grinding the glass — more than 300 tons daily — that the company in 1956 bought land in Puryear, Tenn., as a site to process it.

After grinding and polishing, the process called for reheating the glass sheets and shaping them into auto windshields or windows. By the end of its first year, then at 80% capacity, the plant was processing 350 to 400 tons of plate and sheet glass daily.

Workers got a new top dollar for the local Nashville market — average hourly wages of $2.02 to $2.07.

''My job at Ford is the best I ever had or ever hoped for,'' Robert Ryan told a reporter in 1957. A former Wilson County farm boy, he was operator of the ''batch house,'' origin point of the half-mile-long production line.

Union efforts helped push those wages steadily upward. The United Automobile Workers union was named bargaining agent for hourly wage employees on May 8, 1957. The vote was 379-1.

The union promised to raise wages to those in other areas of the nation and add bonuses of 5%-7.5% for evening and night shift work.

Ford management that same year was painting a rosy picture for Nashville. R.C. Hoffman, the plant's industrial relations manager, told a civic club that the factory would bring 7,400 new residents and 2,800 new households.

Hoffman cited government statistics forecasting 1,276 more schoolchildren, the need for 100 new retail stores and 4,370 new job openings — including suppliers for the factory and its work force.

City leaders acted the next year, in 1958, to annex the plant site.

By April 27, 1959, the plant had produced window glass for its 50 millionth car. In 1982, Ford spent $88 million on a major equipment upgrade. Its tinted glass is now a part of high-rise buildings and homes.

Over its close to five decades, the 2-million-square-foot plant on Centennial Boulevard has had troubles along with the triumphs.

Some were minor — several racks of raw glass sheets took a tumble and broke in June of 1957. Others were major — union disputes and auto industry slumps that occasionally shut it down, in addition to pollution concerns.

But through it all, the plant that separated from the automaker in 2000 as Visteon Corp. remains one of Nashville's major long-term employers

600450 Ford Glass makes windshields for millions
Date: 3 June 2004

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