Computers and Cars: Have it Your Way!

(first posted 12/14/2012)     I’m going to stick my neck out and argue that if there had been no computers in 1965, there would have been no Mustang. As Jim pointed out, a great part of Mustang’s excitement and success was its extreme customizability. You could order anything from a stylish economy car to a cut-rate T-Bird to a racing machine, just by choosing from its huge set of options. Why couldn’t you do that before? How was it possible for Ford’s factories to deal with all that?  Computers, that’s how.

“You can make yours a family Mustang, a sports Mustang, an all-out luxury Mustang, or your own personalized version with a little of each.” Used to be there were just Fords, maybe five or six bodies, a dozen colors inside and out, six or V8, stick or automatic, radio and heater, and that’s about it. Odds and ends like windshield washers went in at the dealer.

Imagine you’re a clerk in the scheduling dept. of Ford, with piles of orders in your in-basket, each with different combinations of over seventy options. How do you make up all the engine orders? If a big engine is ordered, other parts and options must be included or prohibited, maybe different A/C compressor brackets, but no A/C allowed on the big engine with the optional towing package. That affects transmissions, springs and tires.

Now think of the production line. Maybe a car has a vinyl roof, maybe not. Do you stop the line if it does or do the cars in batches somehow? How about with and without power steering, batch those too, now we have four kinds of batches! Which kind of lights? Which radio, and how many speakers? Henry said “any color so long as it’s black” because that’s the only color that would dry fast enough to keep the line moving. That’s a far cry from all this – how to keep that line moving?

In Jaunary 1966, a man went into a Ford dealer in Bradford, Pa., and ordered a 1966 Ford Mustang hardtop in Sahara Beige, nicely optioned as a junior T-Bird set up for winter weather: the base 289 V8, automatic, limited-slip rear end and the bigger battery, with power steering, air conditioning, radio, a black vinyl roof, tinted windows, the “interior decor” and “visibility” groups, nicer seat belts and whitewall tires. His salesman filled out this order sheet, which I found at, and sent it off to the factory.  Take a close look at the order sheet’s entries: they’re numbered, either per box or small group of boxes, from 1 to 80.

Believe it or not, people once communicated with computers by punching holes in pieces of cardboard. All the order sheets from all the dealers were “keypunched” by nice young ladies like these. (Men did not touch keyboards in those days, typing was “women’s work”. There were no boys in my school’s typing class, we had metal shop.) They entered the codes from order sheets onto 80-column punched cards, that Ford called “Vehicle Order Cards”, seen in the first photo. For example, the “ROOFS 23” order sheet entry means punch the pattern of holes for a “2” in column 23 for a black vinyl roof, or “3” for white, or leave it blank for no vinyl roof. The woman at the right is keypunching the cards, the one at left is typing the same codes into a verifier that checks the card for errors.

Here is an IBM 7094 mainframe computer in 1965. It had all the same components as the computer in your pocket, input, storage, processing and output, though it ran a thousand times slower than yours and cost several million dollars. They’d load a deck of, say, a day’s worth of Vehicle Order Cards in that card reader on the right and send their input to the computer, which kept its programs and data files, like previous VOCs, on those big tape drives. Programmers figured out how to get the computer to do all that production planning, figure out what to order from suppliers, what parts needed to be where at what times. Finally it printed out all these orders and build sheets on fanfold paper in the printer on the left. Clerks carried them to the material and production departments, and the assembly lines.

Here’s a build sheet for the Trim and Chassis line, from Marti Auto Works. Printed at high speed by the mainframe computer, it says which parts to pick for its car. Check out the front and rear springs, they come in colors like golden brown and yellow-orange. New undercarriage styling? No, springs with different rates and such looked the same, so they were color-coded with dabs of paint.

Here’s our Sahara Beige ’66 Mustang on its way to its happy owner, just as he designed it. No other car exactly like his! He doesn’t know it, but he and his car have entered the Silicon Age.

I scooped these cards and sheets and info up out of pretty skimpy Internet data about this. I’m sure some of you know a whole lot more about this, maybe even first-hand. Please tell us in the comments!