Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Ford in the Bay Area

The Ford Motor Company's presence in the San Francisco Bay Area mirrored the company's national pattern of first establishing a branch agency and then a branch assembly plant. Ford's first San Francisco branch, located at Van Ness Avenue and Fell Street, opened in 1911. It received cars assembled in Detroit that had been knocked down for shipment by rail. Mechanics at the San Francisco branch put wheels back on the cars and readied them for sale at the branch or for delivery to dealers elsewhere in the area. In 1912, branch manager J.B. Lund hired Clarence Bulwinkel, a San Francisco native and recent graduate of Lowell High School, to work in the tool and stock department with the promise to move into an office job when an opening occurred. Shortly thereafter, Bulwinkel accepted a job as bookkeeper in the branch office. At about that time, the Ford Motor Company was making plans to build an assembly plant in San Francisco. Officials selected a site at Harrison and 21st Street, built a new five-story building, and hired local workers with no prior experience on automobile assembly lines. The new assembly plant was typical of Ford branch plants of the 1910s: they were multi-storied and located along railroad tracks in the heart of the city, where they could serve as both assembly plants and sales branches. All manufactured car parts and components arrived from Detroit by rail. The new San Francisco branch assembly plant ran its first Ford car off the line in late 1913.

The company next decided to install an assembly line at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Frank Vivian, who later would become important in the World War II activities at the Richmond plant, was placed in charge of the special exhibit in which Ford cars were assembled in public view and made available to car dealers waiting at the end of the line. Shortly after the exhibition ended, the San Francisco branch plant ceased selling cars directly and began serving only as an assembly plant and as a wholesale outlet for dealerships elsewhere. Bulwinkel worked his way up the Ford organization in San Francisco to the position of assistant manager before being transferred to Portland, Oregon, in 1926 to manage the branch plant there. He was transferred back to take over the San Francisco plant as manager in 1930, about the time construction of the new Richmond plant began. The San Francisco plant was producing about 200 cars per day in 1930, but by then it had grown relatively inefficient. As a multi-story building, it relied on elevators to move components and partially assembled vehicles from floor to floor. The freight elevators had been designed for the Model T, but by 1930 Ford was producing the Model A. Therefore, very little of the equipment from the San Francisco plant was moved to Richmond.