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People: Dave the Limey- Working at Smiths Instruments

This retrospective was written by Robert “Dave” Wardale for the Jaguar Journal. With his permission, I am reprinting it here. Dave is currently retired, lives in western Pennsylvania, and tinkers on his 1988 Jaguar XJ-SC.

You say you have mechanical aptitude” said the interviewer, “Well, I may have something for you. Not far from where you live is a large factory, and they are looking for people. Have you heard of them- they’re called Smiths Industries?”

The name “Smiths” could be seen in most British cars, printed on the face of the speedometer, and I was quite familiar with it. Now though, I was being sent to their factory for an interview. I had left my hometown of Liverpool just a few days ago, and had driven my Ford Popular all the way to London, in pursuit of an American girl I had met several months ago. We had hit it off pretty well, and she had persuaded me to move in with her and then we would get married- after all, it was 1968, and lots of people were moving in together.

On my journey South I had stayed off the Motorways because my old car could not keep up with the traffic. If I had taken that chance I would probably have been pulled over by one of those white Jaguar saloons- the ones with the flashing lights on the roof, driven by an annoyed policeman.

I walked through the main gate of the Smiths factory in Cricklewood, N. London, and found the personnel office. There I had an initial interview, and was then directed to the “Bi-metal Instrument Shop.” I well remember the first question- “Can you tell me what is meant by “Bi-metal?” My interrogator was the shop foreman, a cheery fellow with a rich Cockney accent.”You’re from The North, aren’t you ?” he said, making me feel as though I were in some foreign country now. “Well, you seem to know enough for me, so can you start work on Monday?”

With a new optimism, I went back to Personnel, and finished some paperwork, and then the office manager offered to show me around the factory so I could find my way .

We first went to the stamping shop. Very noisy. Big presses all around, manned by men in overalls, stamping out various sizes of cases that would eventually contain the instruments. Then on to the chemical shop where all the oily steel cases would be dipped and cleaned before painting. I was introduced to the shop manager, and it quickly became clear that he was totally blind. There had been an accident some years earlier, but the fellow loved his work so much that he refused to be put out to pasture, and so Smiths retained him at his full salary!

On to the paint shop, and then the print shop, where all of the gauge faces were done. Thirty or so women operating these curious looking machines that would pick up an impression from a painted template, and then transfer it to a blank, black, dial.

Finally, we reached the areas where the instruments were assembled. Speedos in one shop, tachs in another, and the bi-metal shop where I would be working. A large open space with a number of assembly lines, all staffed by women. The only men I saw were either rushing around carrying boxes of parts and replenishing the various stations, or standing around wearing white coats looking serious.

I was to be a white coated person- a Quality Control Inspector!

There was an enormous variety of car instruments made at Smiths. All different- and they all had to be correct. Every time a new run was being made, a prototype would go down the line, and the Inspector would make certain that all the parts were correct- and then sign off accordingly. For example- if a vehicle had a speedo and several gauges, and if a thousand oil pressure gauges were made using the wrong bezel, and then shipped to the car factory, and they did not match the others, then someone was really in trouble. There were index cards which showed the correct components for the assembly process, and they were referred to constantly. If a station was about to run out of a part, and the next box of components was incorrect, then that particular assembly line would go down. Not good. The men responsible for supplying all the parts were called “Chasers”, a really high stress occupation!

In this shop we made ammeters, battery condition indicators (curious way of saying “voltmeter”) fuel gauges, and electrical oil pressure and water temperature gauges. I was there for about a year, until a big change occurred. The shop manager retired, and was replaced by a much younger man whose main interest seemed to be doing the same thing every hour, and putting the results on charts attached to a clipboard. This approach removed much of the independence and incentive that we all had, and reduced us to a robot-like existence. I decided it was time to move on.

After a short time, an opening appeared in the Print Shop. This is where all the faces of the gauges were manufactured. This was to be my next adventure!

All of the machines in this shop were operated by women. Mostly young Irish lasses that had come to London to make their fortune. They usually wound up sharing bed-sitters (tiny apartments in one room) with one another, paying high rents to landlords, hoping for a man to come along and marry them and rescue them from their situations.

Most of them were good workers, and would stand for hours, printing dials endlessly as the hours slowly passed.

As in my previous position, accuracy was paramount. The dial was the face of Smiths, and had to look good. No mistakes were allowed.

One day I came across someone printing dials with the name “Jaeger” or possibly “British Jaeger.” I asked about that and was told that those instruments were to be used on the “Very Expensive Cars.” All of the working parts were the same, assembled in the same way, so I never fully understood that.

After a time in the Print Shop, I moved into the Drawing Office, and then another opportunity came along.

About a mile north of the Cricklewood Works is Smiths repair facility at Oxgate Lane. This is where all of the instruments returned to Smiths, for any reason, would go. At that location there was a division of the Quality Control entity where a few men would dismantle returned pieces, and try to find out why they had failed. This is where I would be spending the rest of my time with Smiths.

There were three of us. We would work independently, and go to where all the faulty items were collected, and pick, for example, ten speedos. Each returned unit would have a tag describing its problem, and that is where the detective work would begin. Why did it fail? Was it a manufacturing error, a weak part, or did the customer install it incorrectly. Is there a problem that keeps on appearing in a particular run?

If we found something that repeated itself, we were able to go to the appropriate assembly line and start digging deeper. On the other hand, the number of speedos I saw that were full of grease from someone enthusiastically using a grease gun on a speedo cable was amazing.

The facility also had a garage, where two mechanics would install just about any instrument on any car on the road, for those unwilling or unable to do it themselves. We also had our own volunteer fire department. After hours, every other week, we would gather and work very hard at resurrecting an ancient water pump with a petrol fueled engine, whilst answering questions from the Chief- “What is the difference between Flammable and Inflammable??” That stumped a few fellows, amazingly.

As I found my way around, and became friendly with some of the operators, I was able to make a few custom instruments. Parts could be combined resulting in some one-offs that were really good looking. I also remember an assembly that was destined for a Jaguar, although I don’t remember which model. It was black plastic, and held four gauges and a central clock, and was powered using a new-fangled printed circuit. I rescued a scrap plastic enclosure from a scrap bin, and cut out the face so I could mount conventional gauges in it, and shoe-horned it into my Morris Mini. Happy Days!

I enjoyed my time at Smiths Industries, and learned a lot. In 1971 the American Girl decided that she had seen enough of England, and missed some things like Air Conditioning, Window Screens, Betty Crocker, Crisco, and on and on, so She and I, and our daughter, came to the USA. I am now retired and have my own Jaguar sitting out in the garage, an 88 XJ-SC. Learning the foibles of the glorious V12 has been, um, interesting- but that’s another story!

Dave is the handsome bloke on the left end of the second row. The others are his fellow Smiths workers.


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