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Henry Ford The Man Who Taught America To Drive

Vytautas Kielaitis |

Henry Ford
Founder of Ford Motor Co.
Founded: 1903

"I will build a motor car for the great will be so low in price that no man will be unable to own one."-Henry Ford

Henry Ford was nearly 40 when he founded Ford Motor Co. in 1903. At the time, "horseless carriages" were expensive toys available only to a wealthy few. Yet in just four decades, Ford's innovative vision of mass production would not only produce the first reliable, affordable "automobile for the masses," but would also spark a modern industrial revolution.

Ford's fascination with gasoline-powered automobiles began in Detroit, where he worked as chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Co. The automobile offered the promise of a bright new future.a future Ford wanted to part of. So in 1891, Ford began devoting his spare time to building what he called the "Quadricycle"-a crude contraption that consisted of two bicycles placed side by side, powered by a gasoline engine. After working on the Quadricycle for nearly a decade, Ford took Detroit lumber tycoon William H. Murphy for a ride in his hand-built automobile. By the time the ride was over, they were in business.

The Detroit Automobile Company opened in 1899 with Ford as superintendent in charge of production. But the venture only lasted a year. Ford could build a car, but he couldn't build them fast enough to keep the company afloat. Undaunted, Ford hatched a new plan-to build a racer. Ford saw racing as a way to spread the word about his cars and his name. Through the notoriety generated by his racing success, Ford attracted the attention of the backers he needed to start Ford Motor Co. in June 1903.

Ford set up shop in a converted wagon factory, hired workers, then designed and produced the Model A, the first of which he sold to a Chicago dentist in July 1903. By 1904, more than 500 Model A's had been sold.

While most other automakers were building luxury-laden automobiles for the wealthy, Ford had a different vision. His dream was to create an automobile that everyone could afford. The Model T made this dream a reality. Simpler, more reliable and cheaper to build than the Model A, the Model T-nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie"-went on sale in 1908 and was so successful within just a few months that Ford had to announce that the company couldn't accept any more orders-the factory was already swamped. Ford had succeeded in making an automobile for the masses, but only to create a new to build up production to satisfy demand. His solution? The moving assembly line.

Ford reasoned that if each worker remained in one assigned place and performed one specific task, they could build automobiles more quickly and efficiently. To test his theory, in August 1913, he dragged a chassis by rope and windlass across the floor of his Highland Park plant-and modern mass production was born. At peak efficiency, the old system had spit out a finished Model T in 12 and a half working hours. The new system cut that time by more than half. Ford refined and perfected the system, and within a year it took just 93 minutes to make a car.

Because of the more efficient production, Ford was able to cut hundreds of dollars off the price of his car. Cutting the price enabled Ford to achieve his two aims in life-to bring the pleasures of the automobile to as many people as possible, and to provide a large number of high-paying jobs.

But there was one problem Ford hadn't foreseen. Doing the same task hour after hour, day after day quickly burned out his work force. The turnover rate became such a problem that the company had to hire close to 1,000 workers for every 100 jobs it hoped to fill. To solve the problem, Ford decided to pay his employees $5 per day-nearly twice the going rate. Workers flocked to Ford's gates.

His labor problems solved, Ford turned his attention to another matter-the issue of who really controlled Ford Motor Co. Believing they were parasites who continually interfered with his plans, Ford bought out all his stockholders in 1919. Free to lead the company as he chose, Ford explored a number of different ventures. In addition to building tractors and single-passenger planes, Ford also operated an early mail route and the first regularly scheduled passenger flights. Undoubtedly the grandest of Ford's ventures was The Rouge-a factory that was in itself one giant machine. Built on the Rouge River, the 1,096-acre plant was the largest industry complex of its time.

Henry Ford Continued

Throughout the 1920s, workers at The Rouge pumped out hundreds of thousands of Model T's, but the marketplace was changing and Ford began to fall behind the times. Ford had met its first serious competitor-Chevrolet. While Ford had dedicated the past 20 years to producing only one model, Chevrolet had developed a counterstrategy of releasing a new, improved model every year. The counterstrategy worked, and Chevrolet soon surpassed Ford in sales. Chevrolet's success proved that people wanted style, not just utility.

In this new era, Ford's "Tin Lizzie" was hopelessly outdated. A change was needed, but it wouldn't come without cost. In May 1927, Ford laid off thousands of workers while he figured out a way to get back into the marketplace. At the age of 64 he was starting over. With the release of a brand new Model A, Ford came roaring back to life. When the stock market crashed in October 1929, Ford Motor Co. was better off than most of its competitors. Thanks to the success of the new Model A, the company rode out the first two years of the Depression relatively untouched. Henry Ford even raised his workers' wages while dropping the price of his automobile. But he could only hold out for so long.

In 1931, the Depression caught up with Ford. After three years on the market, Model A sales fell dramatically. Chevrolet, with its new six-cylinder engine, and a new model from Plymouth cut into Ford's market share. Once again Ford was forced to shut down production and send workers home. What brought the workers back was yet another of Henry Ford's inspirations-the Ford V-8. This innovative eight-cylinder engine put Ford back on top.

But those who went back to work for Ford found that working conditions had changed. The young, humanistic idealist had become a hardened industrialist who believed the average worker wouldn't do a day's work unless he or she was trapped and couldn't get out of it. To ensure his workers put in a full day's work, Ford created the Service Department, a foreman and a group of supervisors, many of whom were ex-cons and boxers, who ruled the plant through fear and coercion.

When World War II erupted, the government asked Ford to build the B-24 Liberator Bomber. Ford had suffered a stroke in 1941, and due to his rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health, supervision of the project fell largely to Ford's only son, Edsel. Optimistic Ford spokespeople predicted that B-24s would roll out of the factory at the rate of one per hour. But by the end of 1942, only 56 planes had been built. Plagued by medical problems of his own, the project and the pressure proved to be too much for Edsel. In May 1943, 50-year-old Edsel Ford died. So at the age of 80, in spite of his clearly diminished capacities, Henry Ford once again took up the reigns of Ford Motor Co.

The news alarmed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the nation's third-largest defense contractor, Ford was a major part of the war effort. Aware of Ford's increasing mental incompetence, Roosevelt toyed with the idea of bringing in outside managers, or even nationalizing the plant. Instead, in August 1943, the Navy sent Ford's 26-year-old grandson home in hopes that Henry Ford II could bring order to the chaos that Ford had become. For months Clara Ford tried to convince Henry to step down and let their grandson take over. But Ford held out. Finally, Edsel's widow, Eleanor, threatened to sell her considerable holdings in the company if her son wasn't immediately named president. Henry Ford relented, and in September 1945 the crown was passed to Henry Ford II.

After stepping down as president, Ford went into seclusion, appearing only occasionally at company events. The raging fire that him driven him for more than eight decades had died out. On an April evening in 1947, Ford laid his head on his wife's shoulder and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 84. Tens of thousands of people lined up to view Henry Ford's body as it lay in state. Some factories closed, while others shut down for a moment of silence. In all, it's estimated that several million workers were involved in some kind of demonstration of sympathy for the man who had irrevocably changed their lives and taught America to drive.


Ford Motor Co. was the last major automaker to unionize. Initially, Henry Ford kept his workers from organizing by paying nearly twice the going rate, cutting the workday from 10 hours to eight hours and introducing the five-day workweek. But Ford couldn't keep the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) out forever. When generosity failed, he turned to intimidation.

Ford formed the Service Department to ensure workers did their jobs and to keep the union out of his factory. Under the direction of Henry Bennett, a notorious figure with underworld connections, this group of ruthless thugs brutally repressed any attempt by UAW to organize Ford workers. In 1937, the Service Department mercilessly beat a group of union organizers attempting to pass out leaflets at the Ford factory. The beating left the union leaders battered, but undaunted. It took another four years of pushing before something broke.

On April 1, 1941, Andy Dewar, a worker in the Rouge River plant's rolling mill, changed labor history at Ford. After an argument with a foreman over working conditions, Dewar began yelling "Strike! Strike!" The call echoed through the plant, and the entire rolling line walked out.

Ford was preparing to do whatever it took to keep the UAW out of his factory until his wife, Clara, demanded he settle with the union. Clara rarely interfered in Ford's business dealings, but she was genuinely afraid that the situation would explode into real violence. She threatened to leave Henry if he didn't end the strike. In May 1941, Ford Motor Co. became a union shop. The agreement led to a new era of labor relations in the automobile industry, as workers turned away from their dependence on Ford's paternalism and fear of Bennett's Service Department, and toward the union shop steward and the skills of UAW negotiators.

The Getaway Car Of Choice

When Ford Motor Co.'s new V-8 hit the streets in 1932, it was an immediate hit with an American public who craved greater luxury and more power. With a top speed of more than 80 miles per hour, it was the fastest thing on four wheels. Not surprisingly, the speedy roadster quickly became a favorite of Depression-era bank robbers and gangsters.

John Dillinger was so impressed with the V-8's power that he sent Henry Ford a letter which read, "Hello, old pal. You have a wonderful car. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be 'Drive a Ford and watch the other cars fall behind you.' I can make any other car take a Ford's dust."

Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame also felt compelled to compliment Ford on his achievement. "Even if my business hasn't been strictly legal," he wrote, "it don't hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8." Barrow remained loyal to Ford for the rest of his life. When he and Bonnie were shot to death in 1934, they were riding in a Ford V-8. In 1973, the bullet-riddled car sold at auction for $175,000-more than Hitler's Mercedes Benz.

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