PUEBLA, MEXICO—I only need one car factory visit per year to remind myself that I am on the right side of the car business.
I.e., writing about them, not building them.
This was further reinforced last week when I actually helped build some cars in Volkswagen’s Puebla, Mexico, factory.
“Helped” might be too strong a word. But I did get to install a few components on some New Beetles. I’ve got the hard hat, the work gloves and the wristwatch cover (can’t scratch the cars) to prove it.
The occasion was to mark the end of an era — production of the New Beetle will stop sometime this week, as the capacity is being directed to building more Tiguan SUVs.
We reported last fall about the impending demise of this iconic car, appropriately during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration that follows our Halloween.
On this visit, we were given four tasks: attach the rear suspension to the body, fit the front fascia, install a wheel/tire assembly and stick the famous VW logo onto the front of the car.
In each case, we would watch the pros do it a couple of times. Then, when the next New Beetle came down the line (they are mixed in with Tiguans), we would jump into action.
This line is one of the least-automated of VW’s factories; about 52 per cent of the operations are manual, 48 per cent use robots to do the heavy lifting.
My first task was the wheel assembly. We had to grab five wheel studs from a bin — not so easy with the rubber gloves — and insert them in a fixture. The tire/wheel would then be presented by a robot arm, and you had to be careful not to get in its way.
Next, we’d swing the wheel in its holder into position, which required a fairly hefty shove, line up the holes in the wheel with the screw openings in the hub (trickier than it sounds), move the stud-carrying fixture into position and use an air gun to tighten all five studs simultaneously.
Probably more by good luck than good management, I managed to get all five studs in place and properly tightened within the two-minute-18-second time allowed for each operation on the line. Take more time than that and the line slows down, which is severely frowned upon.
They build some 800 cars per shift here, about 65 of them New Beetles. Each one takes about 16 hours in total, and time literally is money.
The most interesting thing I noticed was how tired I was after putting on just one wheel.
Sure, it was partly the adrenalin rush of doing something new and different, and knowing that if you screwed up, you were letting the team down.
And to think, these people do this all day.
The task that looked the simplest proved to be the toughest — gluing the VW badge onto the front of the car.
Since it is a round badge, there is no immediately obvious reference point to indicate you’ve got it on straight. There were supposed to be some sort of dimples to provide a locating reference point which would make the badge align itself; not that I could notice.
There were also some pieces of tape stuck to the badge which got in the way.
I thought I had it on correctly, but as the car moved on — two minutes, 18 seconds — it fell off again.
My next task was bolting the left rear axle assembly to the car. This involved using an air gun to tighten four screws in proper order: lower right, upper left, lower left, upper right.
Lights on the console for the air gun indicated if the proper torque had been achieved. I’m a bit too proud, perhaps, to report that on this task I was four-for-four.
Then again, unlike some of the other journos on this detail, I had actually used an air gun before, although not with a two-minute-18-second deadline staring me in the face.
The last task was the most complex — fitting the grille/fascia to the front end.
With a partner — one of the real assemblers — we had to grab the plastic part that goes across the front of the car to hide the crash-resistant bumper. These pieces are stacked in sequence by the colour of the cars coming down the line. Then we’d plug in the cables for the front fog lamps and turn signal lights, and snap the piece into place.
Then I had to grab seven screws from a bin and, with an electric screwdriver, drive them home.
Some of these screws had to be fitted at an angle, so that took a bit more time than it should have.
Me dropping one of the screws on the floor didn’t help …
I think an experienced assembler would have left the screw there and fetched another. But I bent down to scoop it up and fitted it.
This cost me a bit of time — remember, two minutes, 18 seconds — and the car was already being lifted up to the next station when I got that last pesky screw fitted.
BTW, you readers do not have to worry about buying one of “my” cars. I made a point of reading the label that goes on each car as it rolls down the line, and ensured it read “China” or “Hungary” or some faraway place.
I have always had great respect for anybody who does any job well. I came away from this experience with even more respect for autoworkers. Assembly line work is difficult. It runs at a near-feverish pace. Make a mistake and you let the team down.
These men and women do this every day. VW’s internal quality audits indicate that the Mexico workforce ranks right up there with any in the massive VW worldwide complex.
My hard hat’s off to them.
After our assembly experience, we had a chance to drive a few Beetles, old and new, around the factory grounds.
The first one I jumped into was a Kubelwagen, VW’s ancient Jeeplike creature that was a transportation mainstay for lower-level German officers in the Second World War.
It later was sold worldwide as a quasi-off-roader, despite it not being four-wheel drive. The rear-mounted engine did give it decent traction in rough conditions.
The car was sold in North America as “The Thing,” presumably because the marketing people couldn’t think of anything better.
This example was a bit tired. Because the weather was so nice, I tried to lower the roof, which was a tangle of canvas and steel pipes. Despite the assistance of Stephanie Palma, one of VW’s translators who was riding shotgun with me, we couldn’t figure it out.
Trying to refit it, we couldn’t get the right windshield clasp to close properly either. With the 30 km/h speed limit around the factory, we figured we and the roof would survive …
I have owned several VWs, but never any with the rear-mounted air-cooled engine, although I have driven lots of them. It took some coaxing to get the engine to fire up; once underway, I remembered the characteristic rasp of the flat four, the easy clutch take-up, the light and precise gearbox, the heavy-at-low-speed unassisted steering.
Next up was the second-last “old” Beetle ever built, back on July 31, 2003 (the last one is in VW’s museum in Wolfsburg). It has all of 82 km on it, and has the same precise clutch action, steering feel and exhaust note as the Kubelwagen.
Except it has proper doors and windows, and ran flawlessly.
And when you closed the door, it sounded like a bank vault.
I also took a New Beetle around for one last waltz. It was nice to get into an air-conditioned car in the Mexican heat, and pay my last respects to a car whose immediate ancestors defined a significant part of automotive history.
Somehow, I don’t expect a cadre of auto writers to have a similar party when the Tiguan is discontinued.