Factory tours are an occupational hazard in the life of the motoring hack. No, it’s not all starched linen, cordon bleu, 5-star establishments and Bentleys. Why, just last week, it was starched linen, cordon bleu, 5-star establishments and Toyotas.
The deafening whirring noise you thought you heard last week was a collective rolling of eyeballs. Toyota South Africa decided to combine the launch of its new Quest with a trip to its manufacturing plant in Durban. The thing is, if you think cars are starting to look alike, you have no idea how similar automotive factory floors look. (We’ll exclude limited-run specialist lines like sports cars.)
Still. Factories are not created equal. Yes, they probably all have a line that zigzags with parade-ground logic, in resolute right-angles. Up a couple of floors, back down again, and so on. But at the Toyota factory in grimly industrial Prospecton south of Durban, it does all this on a surface that gleams with a lustre so surreally deep you could drown in it. I kept having to stop myself poking the floor with a toe to make sure we weren’t walking in a gigantic puddle. Now that’s what I call a clearcoat.
There’s a lot that’s familiar from factory floors gone by. Robots spitting gigantic sparks, whining forklifts, rattling air wrenches. And the inexorably moving – always moving – line. Which, by the way, looks like the line you’d find at other Toyota plants around the world. Just thought you’d like to know.
Of course there’s the music. The earworm to end all earworms. All to sound the alert that something has gone wonky on the production line.
You must remember that a vehicle trundles off the line here every 3 minutes. Like a supertanker, or perhaps a politician headed for the trough, this is not something easily diverted from its course. A course preset, from the time you signed the deal, into a monstrous internal GPS that almost miraculously brings together outside suppliers and in-house assemblies and fabrications.
Naturally, this is a complicated business. And so, the finished product has to be meticulously checked. Yet this is done with an almost casual air (3 minutes, remember) that belies the amount of expertise that lies behind the process. After all, who wants a dashboard with green fur when you ordered pink? This isn’t easy to manage when you are running a facility capable of churning out 220 000 vehicles a year, many of them destined for places as far away as Europe.
Here’s what really fascinated me: the end-of-line test track. It came into being when Toyota SA began exporting in earnest and needed to be sure that its cars complied with worldwide standards. So, every car is ferried across the road from final inspection.
It’s not a glamorous job. But it’s reserved for an elite corps; though they may not wear pilots’ wings, you can sense that they’re unusually focused.
Every car is driven over a variety of surfaces. These include a purpose-built strip of Belgian cobbles and two different types of transverse rope “corrugations” to expose rattles. They are jinked sharply, braked fiercely and accelerated vigorously. They are stopped on a steep slope to test the park brake. And finally a sampling of the total is run up to highway speeds on a high-speed strip. If I understood correctly, that’s 300 vehicles a shift, roughly 75 a man. A busy day, I’d say.
It’s not quite the same as the boys at Porsche used to do it, a misty-eyed colleague reminisced. Rev it to the red line from cold, then amble out to the autobahn where they’d run it through the gears, to the red line, finishing flat out in Top. “Better it breaks here,” the test driver is said to have observed, “than when the customer drives it.”
Methods may have changed, but one hopes that the thinking is still the same.