Autolite: (7) The War Years
Prior to 1940, the Electric Autolite Plant of Fostoria experienced good growth in the automotive and jobber business. In the years after 1940, increasing sales were evident, as the spark plug became more accepted by the general public and automotive manufacturers due to a very aggressive advertising campaign.
Factory equipment accounts, such as Chrysler, Nash, Willys Overland, International Harvester, etc. formed the basis of the replacement market. Previous to World War II in Europe, export shipments to European distributors had been very good, but this business stopped as shipments to these countries became impossible. European commerce decrease was counteracted by increasing trade with the South American, African, and Asian countries, and others not engaged in the war exertions. The occupation of France and different European countries also affected the supplies of raw materials used. New methods and formulas had to be developed, using substitute ingredients which could be purchased in this country. However, India and Australia were sources of ceramic supplies, but problems developed in finding shipping space on the boats for these materials, with natural preference going to war supplies.
In 1942, the production of passenger automobiles for the general public was stopped. This was a major blow to the electric Autolite Spark Plug Plant. It was difficult to make spark plugs because of material shortages and the low priority rating granted by the goverment to the manufacturers of replacement parts for the automotive industry.
Many trips were taken to Washington, D.C. in an effort to convince goverment officials that automotive replacement business for service vehicles was as important as the ordinance market. In order to remain in operation, it was found necessary to secure more goverment business with high priority ratings, and since spark plug orders had been given other companies, Electric Autolite could not obtain contracts. The corporate officials pointed out that there were only three complete major spark plug companies in the Western Hemisphere, and if, for any reason, the United States would lose the production of any of the three, by sabotage or by unavoidable circumstances (fire, explosion, etc.) the country would be in serious trouble.
It was not until April 24, 1942, after the Quarter Master Corps began to place its own spark plug orders, that the first contract was received by the Fostoria plant, and with it the necessary priorities to obtain materials.
The first order was very small, and was shipped promptly. Trivial orders were continually received and, constantly during this time, the company officals were trying to explain the need for Fostoria to be kept as a viable plant.
During the above period, people were employed at the plant, manufacturing twenty millimeter tracer shells for machine guns. The company was a sub-contractor to the Fostoria Screw Products Company which was located on South Union Street now site of Ex-cell-O
The first large order for 2 1/2 million spark plugs was placed with the plant in October, 1942 and in May, 1943, another was received for 10 million. This was the beginning of the factory’s real particaipation in the war effort. Spark plugs were finally recognized as a vital part necessary for these troubled times.
Every branch of the military, Navy, Engineers, Singnal Corp, Air corp wanted its spark plugs packaged differently. One of the Chrysler contracts for tank replacement spark plugs specified that they be especially prepared in wire-bound boxes, 500 per box.
Spark plugs had to be packaged for protection when shipped all over the world. One method was to wrap each one in a special paper and cloth, and dip it into hot wax. This was termed “strip coating” , and protected the spark plugs from salt water corrosion during invasion of some south Pacific Islands. Some shipments had to be delivered by the Supply Ship standing off shore and dumping the boxes overboard, allowing them to float to the beach. Another type of packaging was to wrap the spark plugs in wax papper and placing then in tin cans, with a pack of silica jell to absorb the mosture. These latter were for the Navy to store on board ship.
As the war effort continued to mount, the quality and quantity of spark plugs manufactured improved considerably, due to research and development work on the product and equipment, and the Fostoria plant’s ability to meet the demanding shipping schedules
Autolite spark plugs were on every “front” of the war, in the Pacific and Italy with our forces, and “lend-lease” for our Allies, Russia, England, and China. They were used in every conceivable application of internal combustion engines. From time to time, the plant recived favorable reports about the spark plugs used in actual service, where they were undergoing terrific “punishment>”. A large number of former employees, who were in the service and based all over the world, wrote to the plant back home, telling about the good work the spark plugs were prerforming in the fields.
There were many production obstacles: large turnover and absenteeism of production personnel often required three workers for every job; gasoline rationing and shortage came, which resulted in the people sharing rides; floor space was limited, and every available spot was utilized; equipment could not be purchased, so that many production operations had to revert to hand methods, until the needed machinery could be made in the factory’s own machine shop; and persons with no previous experience were employed, working just to be patriotic. A current joke was that, if one could walk into the plant, one would be hired.
From the start of the plant to the time of the war, there were no labor stoppages, and the employees’ earning compared favorably with any other plant in the vicinity.
Since goverment contracts were received, the plant’s security system had to be intensified under the direction of the F.B.I. The number of guards was doubled, escort service in the plant put into practice, a record system kept of all vistors to the factory, fingerprinting of all employees took place, and each was furnished with a picture badge, which was to be worn at all times.
The company pushed goverment war bond drives, using literature, mass meetings, and personal contacts, The number of employees for bond deductions was practically 100 percent, and the amounnts subscribed were above average. The plant conducted extensive scrap drives for metal, paper, and any other vital material that could be used at this critlical time. A working safety committee was established, with extensive recordings of any accident, and registered nurses were on duty when the plant operated.
The chief duty of the engineering department in the plant was to work out the substitution problems of limited supplies of materials. A classic example was to weld a steel insert to the center electrode stud and weld upon it a nickel tip in order to conserve nickel. Conservation of copper took place by replacing the copper gasket with a steel gasket.
Most of the previous efforts were directed to the manufacture of automotive spark plugs. However, because of the large build-up of the Air Force, there was required of the company to increased building of aircaft spark plugs at the rate of 5,000 per day. This truly put a terrific strain on the engineering personnel. The whole product engineering staff had put in approximately three years of intensive effort to design and qualify these paticular spark plugs. Once again laboratory techniques had to be translated to mass production. New epuipment had to be built to do the job along with a tunnel kiln, capable of firing ceramic insulators to a temperature of 3,100 degrees Farenheit, which was near the peak obtainable from the use of natural gas. Machines had to be designed to make the parts and floor space was needed to complete the requirements for this work. Then came a natural gas shortage, and the problem was solved by vaporizing oil and burning it in the same burners.
During the start of manufacturing aircraft spark plugs, hand methods were used to produce the test lots of 2,000 of each type. Precious metals, such as platinum, gold, silver, etc.were used in the assembling of these special plugs. Working these precious materials required techniques not used here-to-fore.
A particular assembly operation required a “sleeve” of steel to be brazed to a steel shell part using a silver soder, and a large induction heating machine was developed to do this operation continuously. The methods now were under close observation of a government inspector assigned to live in the plant, because of the spark plugs’ critical use in air-planes on fighting missions.
In the early stages of manufacturing the aircraft plug, a statistical sample of each lot made was taken and thoroughly tested by the government inspector, before they were shipped.
Inasmuch as the plant did not have any manufacturing defects in the aircraft plugs, and the quality control department had reduced to writing all procedures and documented results, the factory won the right to ship by certification. This type of privilege was the first to be granted in the spark plug industry.
The original aircraft facility was located to the south of the kiln department, and the ceramic workings were caged in the ceramic department. Strict secrity was constantly maintained to avoid any sabotage. The employees of this area wore on their badges special color, indicating their special work assignment.
In 1943, at Fostoria’s Spark Plug plant a new wing was completed, which was in the proximity of the final assembly lines of the present. This afforded better working conditions, and the expansion to the goal of 5,000 aircraft units per day.
After the war years, the Fostoria plant proudly received an Army and Navy “E” Award for excellence, due to its role in producing a product that was such a great help in winning the war.
Insert Army & Navy Award letter “E” for Excellence
Employees who served in the Armed Forces