Henry Ford: A Complex Character Whose Automobiles Changed America

Henry Ford was both the quintessential entrepreneur/industrialist and one very complex individual. No other person comes to mind whose influence produced the effect that Ford and his Ford Motor Company have had on the way we Americans live our lives today. Imagine: Barely a century has passed since the time when people and their goods were still transported by horse and wagon, yet today, our lives and our landscape are dominated by the presence of the automobile.


Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, although he was an early player in its American introduction. Nor did he invent the concept of mass production, yet he espoused and perfected it on a scale beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. His rise to fame and fortune was fueled by personal traits eerily reminiscent of those of the equally famous and successful “brothers of flight,” the Wright Brothers – Wilbur and Orville from nearby Dayton, Ohio.

13499743301[1]Henry Ford’s place in history hinges on his early and unique vision for the motorcar in America. Unlike virtually all of his dozens of early competitors, he and he alone saw the motorcar not as an expensive rich man’s convenience and toy, but as an affordable product for the middle-class that would quickly revolutionize life in America …and that belief was the engine that powered his ambition. He visualized and sought to sell a well-built, reliable automobile that the average American could afford to buy and own. He believed in this vision with all his heart, and he was also convinced that he was the man who could and would make it happen. Henry Ford proved himself right, yet again.

Ford possessed a no-nonsense, common-sense attitude toward life, living, and things technical. Like the Wright brothers in the aviation field, Ford believed in hands-on (his) development backed by intelligent testing and product refinement. Ford maintained that “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Despite the failure of his first two car companies, he persisted in his beliefs and successfully started the Ford Motor Company in June of 1903 with a capital investment of $28,000. For Henry Ford, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”

Ford had been able to start his first company in 1899, the Detroit Automobile Company, in part with money saved from his early stint as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in the early 1890’s. Later in life, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone (of tire fame) became fast friends, a trio often prone to retreat to the “woods” for a few days of outdoor camping. It is interesting to ponder this who’s-who of industrial power and wealth off in the woods on a “camping” trip!

Henry Ford married Clara Ala Bryant in 1888; their early support came from Henry’s farming and work in a sawmill. In 1893, they had their only child, Edsel Ford, namesake for one of Ford Motor Company’s later and greatest failures, the Edsel automobile, and a somewhat tragic figure with great promise who was continually subjected to the vagaries of his father’s substantial ego. Many have claimed that the difficulties of living in Henry’s shadow contributed to Edsel’s early death at age 49.

Henry was born on a Michigan farm in 1863, but he always despised the nature of farming. He grew up loving things mechanical, all the while exhibiting a fine curiosity and the ability to quickly decipher machinery, from wristwatches to steam engines. Young Henry’s schooling was spotty at best, and he never progressed beyond the eighth grade.

Henry Ford succeeded for many reasons, but his mechanical/engineering intuition, his attention to detail, and the single-minded pursuit of his unique vision for the automobile were the prime factors behind his spectacular success. By 1903, he and his Ford Motor Company were in hot pursuit of his ideal automobile and the mass-production techniques required to meet quality/price goals for the car. Ford became a master of time-and-motion studies while configuring factory mass production in anticipation of his “ideal automobile.”

In 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced the famous Model T Ford, the most iconic automobile ever to roll off American assembly lines. Whereas his early competitors were selling luxury cars to well-heeled clients for $2,000, Ford priced the Model T at a stunningly low $825 – and it was a great car, with huge long-term sales. Thanks to mass-production, in 1924, when production peaked at 1,922,048 Model T’s, the car’s price sank to an incredibly low $265! Oh, and you could have it in any color you want…so long as it’s black! Ford and his engineers had determined that, in addition to the savings inherent in offering only one color, black paint dried faster than the others, making it ideal for mass-production and high factory throughput. The advent of the Model T and its success signaled the arrival of the Ford Motor Company as a long-term player in the market while verifying to Henry Ford that his dream had become a reality. He had his ideal automobile; nothing in America would ever be the same.


Workforce Problems in the Ford Factory

The advent of the Model T and the factories which produced it so rapidly and in such high volumes soon produced workforce problems for Ford in the form of rapid employee turnover. The working conditions were difficult, and the work was monotonous, yet it hummed along at “double-time” as dictated by mass production. A Ford worker did not truly build an automobile; he instead sat at a station beside a long assembly line and added yet another part to growing subassemblies traveling down the line of workers – the same operation hour after hour, day after day, etc. Boredom and close, noisy, working conditions literally fried some men’s brains within a few weeks of joining the company. High turnover and constant retraining of replacements was anathema to the operation of a mass-production facility, so Henry Ford came up with a solution which blew the socks off his investors and competitors.


Ford increased line worker’s salaries from just under $2.50 per day to $5 and initiated a profit-sharing plan, as well! Ford’s investors went berserk over the proposal, but Ford was absolutely correct: The morning after the news was released, Ford’s facilities were besieged by armies of potential employees who, for the “fantastic” money on the table were determined to just “deal” with the hardships of the job. This was, indeed, an interesting solution from the head of a company who much later was to have serious quarrels with employee unions!

When his investors told Ford he was crazy to throw so much money at employees, the boss countered that it would prove to be a good bargain for the company in addition to halting employee turnover. He went on to emphasize that, with more money in their pockets, his employees would now have the means to buy a car – his car – and the company would recoup the money in spades! I know of no better example of Ford’s outside-the-box thinking than this specific episode which initially so flustered his less-clever investors.

Alf and his  '37 Ford - 1937

   My father in 1937 with his hard-earned, brand new ’37 Ford V-8

There is so much to the Henry Ford story that it can only be presented in the form of a sizeable book or documentary. Ford was a man driven by principles, yet his actions often reflected stark contradictions. Here was a man dedicated to the simple life, one who early-on espoused what we today call “green” mandates for living, yet he industrialized our lives to an extent never matched in modern history.

Despite his revulsion of “paternalism” on the part of government in people’s lives, his early corporate profit-sharing program was partially administered by Ford’s “Social Department” which frowned on rewarding employees whose personal lives did not mesh with the founder’s guidelines on drinking, gambling, and “deadbeat” dads at home. A Ford quote summarizes his views on government intervention into our private lives: “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him, better take a closer look at the American Indian.”

Ford’s “Social Department” at the company was ill-advised in light of his views on paternalism…and short-lived. Ford also had strong anti-Semitic views which provoked much controversy during his lifetime.

81IePfwEcpL._SL1500_[1]For a more comprehensive, yet absorbing story of the man and his industry, I heartily recommend the PBS American Experience DVD documentary, Henry Ford – it is extremely well done and interesting. As usual, I have no connection with this product other than the fact I just ordered a copy on Amazon, having  recently watched it on public broadcasting.

4 thoughts on “Henry Ford: A Complex Character Whose Automobiles Changed America

    • Thanks, Kevin. Well worth watching. If you have not been following my public blog, you are invited. Just click “Follow.” Lots of other posts in my archives, too.

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