Sex, Drugs, and The Tesla Model 3

April 8, 2016

Tesla's new Model 3 has wildly outpaced even the company's own expectations. The pre-sale total as of the first weekend of April 2016 is approximately 200,000. That is roughly 50% of all electric vehicles in the US, and double that of California. Most of these vehicles will be built at the former NUMMI General Motors(GM) Toyota joint venture plant. In a story from This American Life, they found that workers in the heyday could buy "anything you want in the [GM] plant in Fremont. If you want sex, if you want drugs, if you want alcohol, it's there."

Birth of the Plant

Located on the 45000 block of Fremont Blvd in Norther California, the Tesla factory began as a General Motors factory in 1962. It produced 112 different body types - different coupes, sedans, trucks. Over 1000 Chevrolet, Buick, as well as the defunct Oldsmobile and Pontiac branded cars would be produced daily.

The most recognizable model is Vin Diesel's GTO from the movie "XXX" or from the original "Gone In 60 Seconds." Even the cult classic Chevy El Camino was produced here. However, through its two decades in Northern California, its workers had become known for absences, tardiness, and general lack of respect for their craft. That's not to say all the workers were to blame, but around the same time the public put GM on the stand for putting "Coke bottles in doors" and other worker sabotage of products.

Workers including Peter Ross, Rick Madrid, and Richard Aguilar later confess to drinking on the job, purchasing drugs at the plant, and even having sex on the premises. UAW Representative Bruce Lee admitted to the chaos and horrible assembly practices at the time.

Ultimately, the desire for manufacturing to be closer to parts suppliers and cheaper labor caused plants up and down the west coast (Van Nuys, South Gate) to shut down. The Fremont Assembly closed in 1982.

New Management, New Attitudes

Much like China's rise in the last few decades, Japan's rapid industrialization through the 70s and 80s showed that there were other ways to be successful. Toyota had been producing vehicles for nearly half a century and now it was interested in setting up shop in North America. Manufacturing at scale here in the US posed many challenges. Though they had begun production in Canada not long ago, Toyota knew they had much to learn about unions and workers.

Under government emission regulations, GM also had to build smaller cars. But figuring out how to do them profitably was something that Toyota had already spent decades doing. Some in the GM camp was also interested in learning how to build more reliable cars. The company's reliability ratings had slipped to the bottom through the century.

The New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) opened as a joint venture in 1984. American workers were sent in groups of 30 to Toyota City, Japan to learn the "Toyota Way." The union workers came back with a different perspective: quality over quantity. On Toyota's assembly line, people worked in teams that helped each other and the line would be stopped if there was a problem. So instead of pushing the quality control to the end of the process, workers learned a way to control mistakes as they happen.

Costs were higher than the midwest plants at this location. So when the recession hit, both GM and Toyota pulled out of this factory. In 2010, the last car (Red Corolla) rolled off the line. In a quarter century, NUMMI was responsible for 8 million cars and trucks out on the road today.

The Tesla Transformation

A month later, Tesla and Toyota announced a partnership at this facility for the "development of electric vehicles, parts, and engineering support." With 10 of the largest robots in the world, Tesla's deliveries grew from 2500 in 2012 to over 50,000 in 2015.

Though much of the plant remains empty space that Tesla will grow into, someday, this will be the glorious birthplace of your affordable Tesla Model 3's.

(Update: 4/7/2016 - 325,000 Model 3 preordered)

Much of this piece was inspired by a story I heard long ago from NPR's This American Life.

Pictures from Wiki commons.