In May 1985, Sid Weimer, a veteran hourly worker at Ford Motor Co.'s Lorain assembly plant near Cleveland, thought it was happening again: Management was trying to con the hourly guys.

They told him workers were going to be involved in helping plan the design and production of the all-new Thunderbirds and Mercury Cougars destined to be built at Lorain and sold as 1989 models."I thought it was a hoax," says Weimer, an electrical specialist in the trim department. "I don't know if I should tell you the truth or not, but we went through some other programs with employee involvement, and all it meant was a little more overtime and nobody listened."

In the past, Weimer says, engineers came down from Detroit to watch the cars being built.

"But they would never talk to us," he says. The men in neckties and suitcoats never asked the workers on the assembly line what could be done better.

But after three years in the current program, Weimer is convinced Ford officials are genuinely interested in getting hourly workers' thoughts on ways to improve the Thunderbirds and Cougars.

"They are listening to us, they are actually listening to us," he says.

For example, Weimer says, workers recommended putting a cover over the wiring harness on the floor of the cars. That would prevent a longtime Thunderbird and Cougar problem of wires getting pinched, in addition to allowing the carpeting to be put down smoothly, without wrinkles.

Ford approved it.

What Ford officials hope is that the new employee involvement, new design methods and the investment of $230 million for expansion and sophisticated automated equipment will make winners of the new Thunderbirds and Cougars.

In an auto industry that is increasingly competitive, winners are needed to strengthen Ford and provide job security to the families of the roughly 3,000 Lorain workers who make the Thunderbird and Cougar, as well as employees of the dozens of firms nationwide that sell components to the plant.

In the past, said operations manager James R. Hackney, engineers designed the vehicles, and then it was up to the plants to figure out how to manufacture them. "Then, you go through all the mistakes and errors and miscues," he says.

With the Thunderbird and Cougar, Ford used its new process in which the people that manufacture the vehicles are involved in the design from the beginning.

The goal is to design the car so it not only will be enjoyable for the customer, but also will be easy to assemble, thus improving efficiency and quality, Hackney says.

"Not very many years ago, the idea of actually asking an hourly employee to take part in that process would have caused many people in our company to have a heart attack," says John Aikins, manager at Lorain Assembly.