30 August 2016

Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he just made one people would drive

In Henry Ford’s 83 years, the world went from the horse and buggy to the microwave oven, Cold War and Polaroid instant camera. He was alive when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; and when Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were born. He would have read Huck Finn as an adult (well, he probably wouldn’t have, but that’s another story) and The Jungle Book to his son Edsel (ditto, natch); and could have watched Natalie Wood in a movie. And from the time he was a teenager, Ford was a part of all that change.

As an adolescent, Ford carved out a little machine shop on his family farm in Dearbornville –now Dearborn – Michigan, which would have been completely muscle-powered at the time. By 1878, at the age of 15, he’d built his own steam engine and soon apprenticed in Detroit’s machine shops, working his way up to Chief Engineer at the (Thomas) Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit at the age of 30. Long before then, however, he’d started making cars. More or less.

With his wife Clara feeding in gas, Ford’s first little “Kitchen Sink” engine ran in the family kitchen in late 1893; three years later, he had a larger version of the single powering a bicycle-wheeled Quadricycle. With its founder’s urging, he resigned from Edison in 1899 to start the Detroit Automobile Company (which would eventually become Cadillac); went into bankruptcy 18 months later; started building racecars and won a race with Barney Oldfield driving; and organised the Ford Motor Company in June 1903.

By July 1903, Ford Motor Company was also near bankruptcy, but this time they sold an 8hp Model A for $850, along with taking deposits on two others. Three cars a month was enough to stay afloat and they opened their Piquette Avenue factory in 1904. Two years later, the four-cylinder 15hp Model N was the best-selling car in America. The Model T debuted in 1908.

The drive that moved Henry Ford came at a cost. He did not care to be upstaged by employees and had what many called a dictatorial streak, especially as the 1920s and ‘30s went on, micromanaging every aspect of the company including, at times, his employee’s private lives. He gradually surrounded himself with shady cronies and yes-men, driving away some of the most talented people in Detroit. Some have said that his son Edsel, Ford company president from 1919 until his death in 1943, was bullied to death by his father. Henry was certainly harshly and frequently critical of Edsel in public.

Ford was also a strange mix of pacifist and fascist. He attempted to hand out peace flyers with every Model T and during World War One, launched (literally) a series of Peace Expeditions to neutral European countries to try to end the war. Much international ridicule ensued, along with multiple obstacles related to sailing around Europe during the Great War. Immediately after, he began a dark persecution of Jewish people and Nazi sympathizing, which included buying a Dearborn newspaper and running a widely-cited crackpot 91-part Jewish conspiracy series; publishing the articles as a four-volume book and distributing it to his dealers (along with his newspaper). According to the New York Times, Ford was among Adolf Hitler’s first foreign backers.

It won him one admirer: In 1938, Ford received the German Third Reich’s Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler, who kept Ford’s picture on his Munich office wall. There is no question that his stature – people were talking about a Henry Ford Presidential run in the Twenties – greatly contributed to the rise of American anti-semitism.

In the early years, Ford’s domineering industrial vision worked – he really was as smart as he thought and with a huge head start, he had the freedom to do things his way. But as competition mounted and the Model T became increasingly outdated, he was slow to adapt and quickly lost ground to General Motors. In fact, when he finally found the need to end Model T production in 1927 – the same year television was invented – production had to switch completely from their Highland Park factory to River Rouge. There were literally no facilities for making anything other than the Model T.

Despite the new Model A, accessible 1932 V-8, Ford’s enduring popularity and success, General Motors took a large share of Ford’s market share, and remained the top seller for many years to come. Ford returned to the company presidency briefly after Edsel’s death, before nominating his grandson Henry II to the position and finally retiring in 1945.

Henry Ford, for all his failings, was remembered and beloved for his successes. In 1946, over 50,000 people attended his 83rd birthday celebration at Ford Field, the year before his death. He was equally reviled as he fought unions mercilessly, but also instituted a generous eight-hour day and $5 daily wage. He broke the Selden Patent on automobiles and established the Ford Foundation, which still gives away over $600 million in grants every year. He was close friends and partners with Edison and spent $1.5 million on electric cars, only to throw it all away when a deal with Edison for Model T batteries fell apart.

Few people since the Founding Fathers have changed the country like Ford; and the very physical landscape of modern America is in large part his doing. As a man, he was as flawed and human as any of us; as a visionary, he was truly a force of nature.

Hagerty’s Essentials is an ongoing series that helps introduce enthusiasts to people, places and things that every well-rounded car lover should know. Rather than being in-depth, Essentials is a quick take giving you a conversational knowledge and ultimately, an idea of how the whole fits together.

9 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ronald Brooks El Cajon, CA 92019 August 31, 2016 at 15:59
    I love the old Fords, an drive a 1947 sedan still with a flathead (an it does not overheat) I like the looks people give an ask questions about it....
  • 2
    Denton GA August 31, 2016 at 16:09
    Thanks and I would strongly recommend the recently published Dominguez book, "The Last Days of Henry Ford", for a fascinating look at Ford, warts and all.
  • 3
    Rex Rice Port Townsend, WA August 31, 2016 at 16:57
    As a historian, my favorite Henry Ford quote is: "History is bunk."
  • 4
    pete mcconaughy ct August 31, 2016 at 17:52
    Dodge Brothers supplied engine, trans & rear end in early fords
  • 5
    Mike McCoy Colorado August 31, 2016 at 22:29
    What a great story about a great man with a lot of drive. I have learned things that I never had heard about Henry Ford. Thanks for the enlightenment. Mike
  • 6
    Tom Cotter North Carolina September 1, 2016 at 20:05
    Great piece, David. Summing up Henry Ford's life in a few paragraph is an almost impossible tsk, but you did a great job at it!
  • 7
    Joseph Freeman Boston September 1, 2016 at 10:53
    The author neglects to mention that Henry built his own racing car in 1901 and due to the failure of Alexander Winton's 40HP racer, he won an important race. That was a key element in his getting money to start the Ford Motor Company. The 999 and the Arrow came later.
  • 8
    Kevin Davin Oregon September 5, 2016 at 00:17
    Ah yes...Henry Ford. Classic case of someone being in the right place at the right time. I know dozens of guys smarter than Ford that would have come up with the affordable auto for the masses. He was a Nazi sympathizer and admired Hitler, for crying out loud! A bully to all that could stand to stomach the guy and a genuine schmuck for sure! Funny how a Hebrew word describes this guy to a "T"! Yeah, I said it. Many of Ford's cronies were also guys that had saved up enough coupons for a free knuckle lunch. Can't be that way today. Social media will take you down in a heartbeat.
  • 9
    Ted Main Naperville, IL September 15, 2016 at 11:04
    His micro-management was displayed in the persona of Harry Bennett, the Ford Bully and Head of the Ford Service Department. If Edsel had full control of the company, the first thing he would have done is fire Harry. A friend told of an incident on the assembly line where a guy was sneaking a smoke while using the toilet when a Service Department Rep came into the bathroom and kicked the stall door open and dragged the worker out to the assembly floor. Also, the Service Department had to monitor Henry due to his desire to wander and get in one of his many cars and go for a drive. Law suit servers where on Henrys tail day and night trying to serve papers on Henry for patent infringement. If you are ever in the Detroit area, travel down Champaign Avenue Or Pelham in Allen Park and note the "hoops" on the railroad tracks. These are the remnants of the Ford Electric Railroad built to bring metallurgical coal from Ironton Ohio to the Dearborn Rouge Plant to make "coke" for the Blast Furnaces. TGM

Join the Discussion