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General Motors: Oldsmobile, Buick, and Pontiac Body Assembly Line Images

Several days ago we featured a photo of a General Motors Final Assembly Line taken in 1961. Today’s feature images from the same source contain pictures taken in 1959 of a GM body assembly line in a plant located in Wilmington, Delaware that includes Oldsmobile, and Buick body shells being welded together and painted. The final photo contains a 1961 Pontiac body shell on the welding line.

The painting photos were taken in a production down-draft paint booth equipped with powerful fans below the floor grates that pull air incoming air into the enclosure through filters located in the ceiling. As this air flow passes downward it collects the majority of the paint overspray and fumes which leave the area through of the bottom of the booth. In the pre-OSHA days when the images were taken the painters were not wearing air masks.

Share with us what you find of interest in the photos courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.

  • Welding operations on the cowl section of a body shell – (Below) a rear quarter panel and side window opening clamped to a welding fixture are being moved onto a body floor assembly.

  • And finally (below) a 1961 Pontiac body shell being spot and arc welded together.

26 responses to “General Motors: Oldsmobile, Buick, and Pontiac Body Assembly Line Images

  1. I’m a bit surprised by the paint line pictures–I thought that by ’59 masks and respirators had come into play.

  2. In the Lead photo, a ’61 or ’62 Buick Le Sabre or Invicta 4-door hardtop with the C-pillar that tapers to a more narrow top portion.

    Item 1 of 4, a ’59 Olds Holiday SportSedan of undetermined model.

    Item 2 of 4, another ’59 or ’60 GM make in the “vista” roof 4-door hardtop model. I’m not seeing anything on the rear door jamb shape that suggests any particular make…all had some beginnings of a fin or a prominent crease at the top (’60 Pontiac or Olds) at that point on the side.

    Item 3 of 4 I suspect may be a ’61 or ’62 GM model where the gas tank was moved over the rear axle that allowed for the large recessed well in the trunk. If we’re seeing the rear quarter panel in the clutches of the welding fixture on the left, I’ll guess it may be Chevy

    Item 4 of 4 would be a ’62 Pontiac with its recessed cove across the rear and greater curvature to the fender end vs a ’61.

    • You’re right about 4 of 4. 1961’s had horizontal tail lights, which would have had holes to accommodate the wiring and light fixtures in the horizontal piece below the deck lid. This car has holes where the 1962’s lights were going to be installed. I have a question about assembly line painting. On car shows, like Overhauling, newly painted sheet metal is always wet sanded and buffed out to remove the “orange peel” effect. Was this sanding and buffing also done on the assembly line. I never hear of that?

      • These guys are painting with good old enamel paint, electrostatically, in a proper temperature controlled environment. The only time you might see orange peel with enamel is if it’s too cold (English cars typically had orange peel).
        Modern paint is, well, more finicky.The usual when you strip the paint off a car, is to paint the bare metal with high solid primer, a block sand, then paint. If the conditions are right you don’t have to fool with it to make it look right.

        • Question here from an English guy… in the USA people talk of ‘lacquer’ and ‘enamel’, but in England we talk of ‘cellulose’ and ‘2-pack’. Cellulose is basically all ‘1K’ solvent-based paint from before circa 1980, and 2-pack is the catslyst-hardened paint in use from then until water-based base coats came in. But what is the difference between enamel and lacquer, and which equates to cellulose? Finally, I have a 37 Terraplane with mostly original paint, and I can confirm what you say – the paint has a lustrous, deep shine, no orange peel, and could have been applied by BMW or Audi last year.

  3. As mentioned in the article, the paint booths must have some amazing overspray removal systems. The painters are in short sleeves, no caps, and the first one must certainly get paint on his watch.

    • This is good old enamel paint with 3 things going on, the paint is a little thicker than is the current normal, a proper downdraft spray booth, and the paint is electrostatically charged to be attracted to the car.
      The guy would get paint, or overspray, on his watch, but likely cleans it up at shifts end with thinner. There would not be any plastic in that watch to be bothered.

    • I can’t believe how painters didn’t wear protective mask, coveralls, etc. I am guessing they are shooting lacquer on the cars. Phew!

  4. Photo 1 of 1: At first I thought it was electrostatic painting and years of experience that were keeping the painter so clean. But looking at the trail of footmarks below the painter in 2 or 2 and the slight paint cloud from his spray gun, it doesn’t look like there was electrostatic painting going on. Just good old experience.

    The EPA wasn’t created until the end of 1970 and OSHA didn’t come along until early 1971, that’s probably why there is very little protection for the workers going on.

    • Despite there not being an OSHA , it wasn’t the Wild West back then.
      Unions and insurance companies had safety standards. I know the military did.

      Perhaps the photos were staged and the guy went without a mask on purpose.

      • You are correct sir. Had a neighbor who worked on ford body line using lead, they still used lead on the seams in the 60s. He had to be tested for lead in his blood regularly. So there were some standards in the mid 60s.

  5. Real men didn’t need safety items. These guys probably all made it through the war, and compared to combat, this was a piece of cake. Truth is, these guys all suffered respiratory ailments, and most probably smoked , as well. We look at these pictures, and think, “oooh, a ’61 Pontiac”, but in reality, car manufacturing, or any assembly line work, for that matter, is horribly repetitive, monotonous work and injuries were just part of the job. Can’t take it? Get out. My old man was a carpenter, and in all his building projects, never once used any kind of protection. “Just squint and turn your head”, he’d say, and yes, he was a WW2 vet.

    • Yes, it’s not by accident that life expectancy has rocketed since then. These guys, as you say, were just glad to have survived the war and didn’t really care how long they lived because every second was a bonus. Not having lived through a comparable slaughter (yet…), our thoughts tend to be directed more towards living as long as possible…

  6. At this time, GM was using acrylic lacquer, not enamel. Ford and I believe Chrysler used enamel or acrylic enamel.
    These poor workers were still exposed to fumes and had no protective clothing or masks. Those downdraft vents did only so much. At the time, minimal safety for the workers. As much as I dislike robots, some of the dangerous tasks are best done by them.
    Times have changed.

  7. No hearing protection, masks, gloves, an OSHA field day !! The boss watching with his hands in his pockets, well some things never change !!

  8. There had to be some overspray because if you go to a rock and mineral show you can buy some “Detroit Agate” which is dried overspray that has been chipped from the surrounding equipment. Detroit Agate is very colorful with its multi-layers of different colored paint and makes some very colorful jewelry. It is also called “Ford something, can’t remember the last word.

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