Working at F. E. Olds 1962-1972
I started playing clarinet when I was ten years old. I played through high school. Joined the U. S. M. C. and played in the band for three years. When I got out I had a job in a music store in Baton Rouge, La. repairing horns and playing dance jobs on the weekends. In 1961 I came to California and worked in a repair shop at a music store and when the business was sold I need a job so I applied at Olds not for one minuet thinking there would be a chance in a million I could work there. I had heard all my life that only the top craftsmen in the country could work at an instrument company. I waited for them to call me but they never did. I started calling them every day. Maybe they got tired of me calling so they hired me.
I could not believe I would be working at a horn factory. I had always work at small shops so this would be my first job with a large company. They started me working in the piston department making pistons. This was all new to me. They gave me a box of pistons to deburr. Everytime metal is cut it leaves a slight burr and this had to be remove. Strangely they were Mendez pistons. I knew the Mendez was a top of the line horn. I asked the foreman if he was sure he wanted me to work on them because it was my first day and he said why not and walked away.
Every operation you did was timed. If ten parts should be done per hour you should have eighty parts done by the end of the day. At the end of my first day I had done about one hour of work. I knew nothing about working fast. I had learned how to do work correctly but not fast and never had a job where speed was important. I was twenty five years old. They had a thirty-day trial period to see if you could do the work. I was probably the slowest worker they had ever seen. (Years later other workers use to kid me about my first month how little work I turned out.) One day the supervisor came and sat down by me and asked me if I think I could do the work and I said yes and he said lets try it for another thirty days. I did not realize it at the time but they were ready to let me go.
Finally I understood I have to work faster, and I did. Working fast is a state of mind and once you understand, it becomes a challenge. Well I learned how to work fast and keep quality. I became one of the fastest and best workers in the plant. I had to hold Back work because I was working too fast.
There were people who worked for management that were called Time Study People. They were called other names by us. They were the people that stood behind you with a clipboard and stopwatch watch and timed all your movements. From this they would determine how much time it should take to do a job and they set the Standard. If your Standard was to make fifty parts per hour and you made one hundred parts a hour you were paid an extra hour. We called this bonus pay. The problem was they kept raising the standard.
If you worked real fast and made a lot of Bonus they would come out and re-time your work and raise the Standard. Instead of fifty parts per hour it was now sixty parts an hour. You worked faster, re-time and now it was seventy parts per hour. You can see where this would lead. We were not stupid so we had to slow down and not work so fast. We could get away with about three and one-half hours bonus a day without being re-timed. They would time a job, set the standard and although nothing had changed, come back one week later time the job again and raise the Standard. That is what we did not think was fair.
Also when we were being timed we tried to put in as many extra motions as we could. We were always watching for Time Study people, making sure they did not come behind us when we were working; Some of us went so far at put mirrors on the bench in front, like a rear-view mirror so we could see behind us.
As the years went by I learned all the jobs in my department. There were about eight different jobs I did and I did them over and over and over. We would make 100 pistons at a time using the eight jobs then start over again. There were more than eight jobs to make a piston but workers worked on pistons in other departments. I spent most of my time in the piston department and I have no idea how many ten of thousands of pistons I made in ten years. My last year there I was also making French horn rotor valves.
The building was like a warehouse with a high ceiling and it was hot and noisy. A lot of heat from all the soldering torches and noises from the balling and buffing machines. The balling machine was used to ball out or expand the tubing inside the piston. It was made of wood with a motor inside that ran leather belts that rotated steel balls , each ball a little bigger, that stuck out and were used to push through the tubing. The wood acted like a sounding board an increased the sound many times. It was loud and you could hear it thru out the plant. Later on it was replaced with a heavy metal frame that cut the noise way down. They were so loud that other workers cheered when we turned it off. We wore earplugs.
We started at 7:00 in the morning and worked until 3:45 in the afternoon. When the weather got hot we would come one hour earlier so we could get out by 2:45 It sometimes was over 100 degrees in the plant. There was really no way to air condition the building. There was a thermometer in the hallway and people would come over and look at it to see how hot it was. One guy in my department would, when nobody was looking, go to the thermometer and hold a lighter under it and push it up to about 110 degrees so when other people came to look at it they would think it was hotter than it really was. That was just for fun.
The one place that you did not want to work was the acid room or the oven room. In the oven room they melted the lead and baked the bent crooks to get the pitch out. The ovens were the walk in type and you would have to push a cart with parts on it into the room and go back in to get it out. It could get a real 120 degrees in there. The acid room had all the fumes that could make you sick. They put the new people in those two places and many would quit in just a few days. Now days those conditions would not be allowed.
Hear are some stories in no specific order.
We once had a girl fight in the mounting department. Two girls just got into it and were throwing punches. They both got fired. If you got in a fight on company property you were gone.
The time clock was in the middle of the plant in an open hallway were everyone could see it and if you came in late and were seen punching in all the workers would start whistling. I mean every body would whistle and hit on something and make a lot of noise and embarrass the person coming in late. You did not want to be late. If I was going to be late I would just wait and come in at end of morning break and blend in with people coming back from the morning break and I am sure other people did the same thing.
When the work got slow once I was put in the shipping department for a couple months. On day I was working and the general manager was walking around like he was looking for something. He asks me if I had seen a tuba that was a special order that was suppose to be back in our department. I did not see a tuba and asked him where was it suppose to be. He said it was in an open box, not in the case, with shredded newspaper over it and was at the end of a row of tables. I said that is were we put the trash to be thrown out. He looked shocked. The janitor came over and said all he thought he put out was a big box of shredded newspaper. The trash people had come already. The Tuba was on the way to the dump! Three people jumped into a truck and header for the dump. Never did find it. Either some one got a new tuba or it is in a land fill some wear.
About 1970 when I was in the shipping department we started getting back trumpets that had problems with the valves. This was after Norlin took over and were making cuts in the number of operations used in making valves. They were not honed long enough. This is the final fitting of the piston in the valve casing. The valves were too tight. They worked fine when dry but when valve oil was added the thickness of the oil made them drag. These were horns that were shipped to music stores and sold and the customer returned them to the store and the store returned them to us. A lot of horns. Big problem. They had to be taken apart, re-honed , put back in the case and shipped out. Also we had horns in the warehouse packed in boxes and twelve boxes were in each master box stacked to the ceiling ready to be sent out. We had to open all these boxes and send those horn to be honed out and repacked. It took months. Cost Olds a lot of money but more important got many of our long tine dealers at music stores saying they would never buy Olds horns again. Just think, every trumpet they sold or rented came back with valve problems. I think this was a deathblow to Olds . Shortly after that they went out of business.
Olds would shut down for two weeks in the summer and everyone took vacation. If you wanted to work those two weeks you could doing plant maintenance, like panting, cleaning, moving things around, etc. It depended on how many people they needed. It seemed strange working in a quite plant during that time.
When I started there was the I. B. E. W. union and later the U. M. W. There was the usual union thing going on but we never had a strike. Came close a few times.
There were workers and there was management I was a worker and was told what to do. I never was involved with any management decisions or was informed about any problems fist hand. . I had a foreman who was my boss and there was a supervisor over him. When I asked why we were doing things a certain way all I was told was that is the way they wanted it done .It was like two classes of people.
The whole time I worked at Olds I worked at night in a music store repairing horns. I use to always see the problem of the water keys becoming loose on Olds horns that were sold to the stores customer. The key came unsoldered from the tube running through it and the key would wobble. I repaired at least two every night. . One day I went to our supervisor and told about this problem. I suggested that the key should be silver soldered or made a different way. He told me there was nothing he could do about it because that is the management wanted to make the part. It was like workers opinions were not given much consideration for their opinions.
I wondered how it came to be that in the word Renolds , which was a company that Olds purchased the last three letters spell out Olds.
My supervisor told me that one of the problems they had was getting the pro models to look different from the student models. They were difference, so they had to be made to look different. With the pro models they changed such things as valve caps, water keys, finger hooks and rings, braces, finger buttons and any other thing they could think of to make them stand out and look different. That is where the three star brace came from.
One day they gave us a new design piston to make that had no 1,2 or 3. One piston would fit all three valves. It was interchangeable and was not stamped with a number. This would be the Pinto trumpet .Not only were the valves interchangeable but also the braces would unscrew and the bell and leadpipe would come off without unsoldering. In order to make the valves that way they had to change the position of the holes in the piston. This made a problem for us. The top and middle holes through the piston were too close together but they had to be that way to make the valves interchangeable. When balling out (expanding the tubing on the balling machine) there was a big hump in the bottom of the top crook. It looked awful but there was no way to get around it. You had to push so hard the piston would bend of the crook would split. We had to throw away up to half of the pistons we made for this horn. The one that was bent had to be junked however we could save some of the tubing splits by soldering them. We hated to make these pistons. They were the hardest to make. Also when we repaired them it was always on no bonus time .Any repair time was straight time .It was a big problem that they could never get around. So here is what they did.
I picked up an Olds brochure at the music store about the Pinto and was surprised to see they had highlighted the large bump in the top crock. Why would they do that I wondered when they tried everything they could to get rid of it. They gave it a name. They called it turbotron . The brochure said the horn played so well because the turbotron compressed the airflow then forced it out at increase speed and there fore improved the sound. It was a brilliant concept to take a problem and turn it into a plus. The Pintos did not do very well and we did not make many of them.
The Olds Company purchased Reynolds and we were making the same horn and calling it two different names .We would have two boxes of valves and make one Olds and one Reynolds. For a while some had the idea that we would make all the small horns, both Olds and Conn, and Conn would make all the big horns Conn and Olds. We only made a few and then were told they had canceled that idea.
If you walk into a music store and see a dozen trumpets on the wall you might think that is a lot. At the Olds factory there was horns and parts of horns everywear . At times we had a large work force and we made horns, lots of them. We wondered about what were they doing with all these horns. Who was going to buy them. At times we were working ten hours a day and eight on Saturday plus a night shift. Some people came in on Sunday. In the making process some parts were rejected because they were not made right or were damaged. We just threw them away. There were barrels and boxes of horn parts, some almost finished that were sold back to the metal suppliers as scrap.
We had no break room or vending machines in the plant. There was a catering truck that came out back four times a day. You got what you wanted and went back to your bench .We had two ten minute breaks and forty-five minutes for lunch. The last day of work before every Christmas the truck let us have everything free. Everybody went to the truck that day.
At the top of my pay scale I had base pay of about Three dollars and fifty cents an hour. (We are talking 1960s dollars). If you made about three and a half hours bonus and a few hours overtime I could average about six or seven dollars a hour. Which was pretty good for factory work in the Sixties.
My first year there I was not use to doing so much handwork. My hand would be sore sore I could hardly hold the steering wheel to drive home. My hand was numb and swollen. I would have to soak them at night. They were stiff the next morning and I had to run warm water over them to loosen them up. After I got the technique s down and used skill instead of force and learned a few tricks I did not have a problem any more after the first year.
If we reported too much work we would get re-timed so we held work back, that is we did the work but did not put it in our report. Sometimes you would have three or four hours done that you held back from the previous day. That meant you had to work even slower the next day and not do too much new work. Sometimes you would have eight hours on the books before noon. Some jobs were timed looser than others were and when you were ahead you hoped to get some hard slow jobs to slow you down.
In the late sixties they wanted more output. All they would have to do was to turn us loose without fear that we would be retimed and everyone there could more than doubled their output and reach the goals. They did not want to do that. The only thing I could figure was that they did not want factory workers making that much money. We would be making, with bonus, fifteen dollars an hour and in the sixties that would not fly. They began hiring new untrained workers and that is when the quality started going down.
All the horns use to be hand engraved. We had about six to eight engravers. One day they brought in a machine that you put the bell over a mandrel press a button and an automatic engraver did the engraving. Shortly after that they let the engravers go and just kept two for special work.
I started at Olds in 1962 and it became a steady job for me. I was one of those people that showed up to work every day and worked all the overtime I could get. In 1972 I was still working there. I took a leave for two weeks to get married and shortly after that I had a three weeks vacation. When I came back after my vacation I sat down and started to work and just could not do it. I was burnt out. I just could not make pistons anymore. I got up and found my supervisor and told him that. I had made my last piston. I cleaned out my workstation and said good buy and left.
For the previous six months I had been expanding my repair work to many stores and had a good business going. I would make more money on the weekend doing repairs than I did all week working at Olds. Also people were being laid off and we all knew what was going on there with the new owners and could see the handwriting on the wall. I had a place to go. Now I could devote all my time to repairing horns.
I opened up my own repair business and was very sucessful for the next twenty-four years.I closed it about three years ago and went to work for Sam Ash Music in Cerritos, Ca. repairing instruments in the store.
The story I got (I was no longer working there) as to why olds closed down was management decisions made a mess of everything and they tried to sell it and nobody wanted to buy. I heard that Yamaha and Holton were interested but did not want to pay the price. On day they got a call from back east and were told shut it down and auction off everything, and that is what they did. That was about a year after I left. It was a sad day.
If there was one thing I took from Olds it was learning how to work fast and hard and do it right. That experience has helped me in my personal life and my repair work.I will never forget that part of my life working there. How could I.
All images and text, ©1999 Alan Rouse and Chuck Madere. All rights reserved.