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Henry Ford Pocket Giants
By David Long
The History PressCopyright © 2014 David Long
All rights reserved.
More than any individual before or since, Henry Ford (1863–1947) is remembered as the man who took an expensive contraption of doubtful utility, a device then little more than a rich man's unreliable plaything, and brilliantly recast it as the machine that would change the world.
It has been said that all political careers end in failure, and perhaps the same is true in the highest echelons of industry.
In 1945, when Henry Ford finally relinquished control of the company he had founded, losses at the Ford Motor Company were running at an astonishing $10 million a month and the bills were piling up at such a rate that at least one department was weighing invoices rather than counting them. By this time well into his eighties, and very much against his wishes, the autocrat was finally forced out by members of his own family, his rude defenestration part stage-managed by a government concerned at the likely fate of what had become the largest industrial complex on the planet.
For all its size and Henry Ford's genius as an innovator, the business was on its knees. It might even have collapsed completely had it not been for lucrative government contracts to build hundreds of thousands of aircraft, trucks and Jeeps for the long war against Germany and Japan. Given time it was to recover, but the founder was finished. Less than two years after being ousted, the man who put the world on wheels was dead, his final hours played out by the flickering light of oil lamps when a freak storm silenced the technologically advanced generators he had commissioned years before to power to his home.
The reasons behind his removal were sound, and the company might indeed have perished had its creator remained at the helm. Yet today that same bitter, cantankerous and lonely old man is lauded as one of the great pioneering spirits of the twentieth century, and widely and deservedly hailed as a rare and authentic genius of industry.
That he is takes some explaining. After all, Henry Ford did not invent the motor car: by 1896, when he had built his first primitive automobile in his backyard, the German Carl Benz's Patent-Motorwagen was already a decade old and around two dozen of them were chugging around the streets of Europe. Nor, for all the claims that continue to be made on his behalf, did Henry Ford invent the assembly line or even introduce mass production to the motor industry. That honour goes to a rival, Ransom Eli Olds, whose pioneering Oldsmobile Curved Dash first went on sale in 1901, several years before Henry Ford had anything similar available.
But far more than Olds and Benz, indeed more than any individual before or since, Henry Ford (1863–1947) is remembered as the man who took an expensive contraption of doubtful utility, a device then little more than a rich man's unreliable plaything, and brilliantly recast it as the machine that would change the world. This he did by almost single-handedly transforming the way motor cars were built and sold, combining the role of visionary and zealot with the determination, grit and personal energy needed to see a dream through to completion.
Because of this, and in a business with more than its fair share of brilliant innovators and powerful magnates – among them André Citroën, Vincenzo Lancia, Louis Renault, Britain's William Morris and Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat – Henry Ford still stands tall as the motor industry's greatest ever mogul. How great? Within a year of the Model T's launch in 1908 the company behind it was responsible for half the cars built in continental America, and before long Henry Ford could say the same of the entire world.
Pre-Ford America had not even built its own taxi cabs (for years New York's fleet was imported from France, at that time the world's largest manufacturer of cars), but by 1920 his Rouge River component plant in Detroit was its own motor city, boasting its own docks, more than 27 miles of conveyors, 16 million square feet of floor space, and a workforce 100,000 strong.
This seems to have been an industry that produced more than its fair share of egomaniacs, among them Italy's inspired but flawed Enzo Ferrari, Ettore Bugatti in France, Ferdinand Porsche and Britain's Walter Owen Bentley. But here, too, none of them came even close to rivalling Henry Ford. Already middle-aged when he hit the jackpot with the Model T, his forceful but contradictory character, incendiary opinions and deeply unpleasant personality came close to destroying everything that he had spent his life creating.
It was Ford's personal spark of genius, however, that ignited the industry on which we have all come to depend. Following his death, no one felt it necessary to contradict the Detroit newspaper that ran the news on its front page under the banner headline, 'The Father of the Automobile Dies'.
Henry Ford came from nowhere: a Michigan farmer's son who rose from traditional, rural roots to become a multi-billionaire. (Historic wealth comparisons are notoriously difficult to calculate, but at his peak he might have been worth in excess of $150 billion at present values.) He was also a ruthlessly single-minded autocrat who became a genuinely popular folk hero, and an ardent pacifist who went on to inspire Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (neither of them in a good way). Here was a chief who voluntarily chose to pay factory workers twice what his competitors were paying, yet who went on to wage a bitter, personal war against trades unions; a man who genuinely wished to improve the lot of the working poor, yet committed deliberate and repeated abuses of power, and employed thugs to enforce his oppressive rules.
Of course, only the most naïve observer would expect an industrialist operating on such a scale to be nice, but Henry Ford was worse than most. Early photographs show him with a wry little half-smile and a positive twinkle in his eye, looking every bit the benign, avuncular benefactor he thought he was. But the reality is that he paid his men double knowing this was the only way they could afford to buy the cars he wanted to sell to them. It worked, too, so well that Henry Ford got back much of the money almost immediately, which he then used to bankroll his own, private newspaper.
Published with the express purpose of campaigning against Jews, whom he blamed for all manner of world ills including female fashions and jazz, news of the The Dearborn Independent travelled far and wide. Today Ford enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only American citizen mentioned by name in Hitler's autobiographical Mein Kampf.
That we forgive him for this, or at least turn a blind eye to it, is entirely down to one car, the aforementioned Model T. The celebrated 'Tin Lizzie' – the nickname possibly derived from a racing version, which, though battered, was victorious – is the car that motorised America. A well-engineered, soundly built utilitarian machine that ordinary US citizens could afford to buy and run, it was also the best possible advertisement for Ford's company and one which helped propagate his radical production-line techniques. It was a creation whose underlying philosophy can be said to have paved the way for the machine age, to have kick-started a second industrial revolution.
Among customers in America's rural hinterland the Model T was widely admired because it was rugged, straightforward to repair and easier to drive than most of its rivals. Thanks to what now looks like a uniquely thoughtful design, it turned out to be largely free of the quirks and pitfalls that early motorists had hitherto considered inevitable. It was also versatile, so that tough little truck and bus variants soon joined the many car and pick-up versions plying the dusty roads of early twentieth-century America.
By 1914, Ford was building so many Model Ts that his company had become the largest in America. At its peak, one car came off the production line every ten seconds. Such was its ubiquity that years later, in Cannery Row, the novelist John Steinbeck was to suggest that 'most babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them'. Inevitably, not everyone greeted its arrival with such enthusiasm. The FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, for example, denounced cars generally as what he called 'camouflaged brothels', even before hearing that both John Herbert Dillinger and Clyde Barrow – two of the most famous bank robbers in American history – had written to Henry Ford personally to congratulate him for designing their favourite getaway car. Henry Ford's competitors were not too happy either, realising very early on that this new one posed the deadliest possible challenge to their continued profitability.
The Model T challenged the way everyone had been designing and building cars since the early days of the first 'horseless carriages' – which in most cases meant using craftsmen to build them as if they were just that, carriages. Horses still cast a very long shadow over the auto business in those early days. Ransom Olds claimed to have designed his first car because he hated the smell of the stable, and Ford famously dismissed the idea that market research had any value, saying that if he had asked the public what it wanted before designing the Model T the answer would have been 'make us a faster horse'.
Ford's Model T provided a new three-dimensional blueprint for the future. Or perhaps that should be the three-dimensional blueprint, since just about every competing marque in the US and abroad faced the dawning realisation that if they were to stand the slightest chance of surviving then they needed to learn the lessons of what quickly became known as 'Fordism'.
Yes: Fordism. Such was the impact of the man and his car that before long Ford had become not merely the leading agent for change in the auto industry but a one-man worldwide movement, an 'ism'. Fordism was the new term applied to the sort of highly industrialised and standardised form of mass production that lay behind the Model T's success. It was something manufacturers ignored at their peril. Some of them might build faster cars, more expensive cars or better-looking cars than the Model T; but none of them managed to build more cars than Henry Ford, nor did anyone succeed in changing the world in the way that he had.
This is why Henry Ford is a giant. What he achieved with the Model T was complex and many faceted, but then as now it is startlingly easy to describe. He identified a huge potential demand for a relatively cheap mode of private transport. To meet this popular need he conceived the right machine for the time. And in order to make a profit he reorganised the entire manufacturing process to build cars as cheaply and as quickly as possible. He did this by standardising parts, part sizes and procedures, separating manufacturing from planning and management, and subdividing the tasks needed to assemble the cars.
From now on individual workers carried out small, specific tasks using components that were fitted to the chassis as it moved along the production line. Today the technique sounds obvious, but at the time it was a giant leap, and one that was genuinely transformational. Its implementation made Henry Ford not merely an industrial pioneer – arguably the greatest industrial pioneer of the twentieth century – but a revolutionary. Ford was the man who changed the world and the way we live our lives; the man who recognised that, as he put it, 'the market for a low-priced car is unlimited'. The man who worked out how best to build it, and who promised nothing short of 'a new world, a new heaven and a new earth'.CHAPTER 2
Ford was transfixed. 'It was that engine that took me into automotive transportation,' he later declared, and he used to draw visitors' attention to a photograph on his office wall of the self-same machine.
Like the British car makers William Morris and Herbert Austin, Henry Ford came from traditional farming stock. He was born on 30 July 1863 in Wayne County, Michigan, to a father who had abandoned Ireland for America during the Great Famine and a mother of Dutch and Scandinavian origins. His beginnings were modest, although he took pains in later life to distance himself from the legend that he had sprung from nothing.
In the introductory pages of My Life and Work, his ghostwritten autobiography, Ford was quick to dismiss the notion that 'my parents were very poor and that the early days were hard ones'. Admitting only that William and Mary Ford 'were not rich but neither were they poor', his own belief was that by the standards of Michigan farmers generally 'we were prosperous'. In fact, they came to own several hundred productive acres eventually, and so in time were certainly to be counted among the more successful of the cohort that had crossed the Atlantic from Ireland.
His personal recollections were suggestive of a happy, if hard-working youth spent lifting potatoes and picking fruit with his five younger siblings. Always more practical than academic, young Henry started attending a local one-room school in his eighth year. He must have enjoyed some of it – years later he bought his old schoolmaster's house – but was never a great reader or writer. From early youth onwards he appeared more interested in machinery than books and, according to his mother Mary, he was 'a born engineer'.
As a youngster, he says, 'my toys were all tools', some collected from around the farm and others that he made himself, including screwdrivers and files fashioned from knitting needles belonging to his mother. Impatient of theory but an extremely quick learner when it came to understanding anything mechanical, the loan of a watch belonging to a German farmhand was an opportunity to learn the basics of how timepieces functioned. An encounter on the road into the nearest town at around the same time was subsequently recalled as one of the real turning points in his life.
Travelling in a horse-drawn buggy with his father at the age of 12, Henry Ford saw a vast but primitive steam-driven traction engine – 'the first vehicle other than horse drawn' that he had ever seen. As Ford himself remembered the occasion, he immediately jumped down from his father's side and was soon deep in conversation with the driver of this noisy behemoth. Determined to find out what it was, what it was used for and – most importantly – the mechanics of how the thing worked, Ford was delighted to find the driver as keen to talk about the machine as he was to hear about it.
Eagerly absorbing the driver's words of wisdom, Ford was transfixed. 'It was that engine that took me into automotive transportation,' he later declared, and he used to draw visitors' attention to a photograph of the self-same machine on his office wall. The following day he returned to school and continued helping out on the farm in the evenings, but the die was cast. For Henry Ford the future lay in engineering rather than farming, about which (as he made clear in his autobiography) he always felt 'considering the results, there was too much work'. Thereafter he was always happier with a tool in his hand rather than a pen or pencil, fast becoming what his father described as 'a lad with wheels in his head'.
Soon after the serendipitous encounter with the steam engine, the gift of a watch of his own provided Ford with another opportunity to prove his ability and enthusiasm. Having rapidly removed the back of the case so that he could dismantle and then reassemble its delicate workings, before long he was making a few cents by mending clocks and watches for neighbours and family friends. As he approached 16, he finally managed to persuade his parents to let him leave the farm altogether and, after agreeing to lodge with an aunt, he walked the 8 miles to Detroit, where he hoped to train as an engineer.
His first job was as an apprentice building trams for the Michigan Car Company, but in less than a week he had been given his cards, possibly because his boyish enthusiasm tipped over into the kind of precociousness that many employers dislike in apprentices. From there he joined a firm that made bronze castings, and then went on to the Detroit Dry Dock Engine Works, the city's largest shipbuilder. There he met an Englishman called Samuel Townsend, an individual whose contribution to the developing Ford narrative was to lend the eager young American some back issues of World of Science, a British publication that he read and reread at a gallop.
At this stage Ford displayed an almost Leonardo da Vinci type of mind, the sort that is excited by many different things, albeit mostly in the mechanical sphere. In particular, he was thrilled to read a piece by the late Dr Nikolaus August Otto, the German inventor of the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine. Also the son of a farmer, Otto's theories were highly advanced but far from mainstream. In these pioneering days of motorised transport the smart money was still on steam rather than gasoline, with everyone from the US president to the New York Police Department choosing steam cars over any other kind.
Excerpted from Henry Ford Pocket Giants by David Long. Copyright © 2014 David Long. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 Early Years,
3 If at First You Don't Succeed,
4 The First Fords,
5 The Universal Car,
6 The Meaning of Mass Production,
7 Pacifism and Anti-Semitism,
8 Fordlandia: the Death of a Dream,
9 A Pacifist Rescued by War,