Henry Ford: Hell on Wheels
The history of Henry Ford is the history of America in the 20th century.
A review by Bruce McKinney
Recently I read Wheels for the World, a biography of Henry Ford and a history of the Ford Motor Company by Douglas Brinkley who has written more books than Zsa Zsa had husbands. This book was written with the support and cooperation of the Ford family with the understanding that the story would be a balanced account. The Ford saga is a complex one and the book is 764 pages of primary text to which is appended 90 pages of notes, bibliography and index. For the first 500 pages it is the history of Henry Ford and it then continues on to tell the story of the firm with an emphasis on the firm's leadership. It is not, in the final analysis, a story about cars and trucks. It is a story about people and one person in particular. The book was released as Ford Motors prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2003.
Most of what you "know" about Henry Ford is probably not going to be confirmed in this book. This is the 21st century and we don't hold much back anymore though, by television standards, this book is down right polite. This is the “many sides” of Henry Ford though some of the more difficult aspects of Henry Ford are alluded to but not explained.
Henry Ford was born in what is today Dearborn, Michigan during the Civil War in the same month the Battle of Gettysburg was fought: July, 1863. He grew up on a farm during the heady decades following the Great War as America was beginning to embrace the role of world leader. In the final decades of the 19th century all things seemed possible to the nation and to Henry Ford in particular. He believed in possibilities. As the American century was looming he was tinkering with the horseless carriage. He was not its inventor though in time he would become its "perfecter". By 1905, after an initial failure, he was building "Fords," one of more than 2,000 automotive brands that would be built at the dawn of the automotive age. Among car builders he alone had a unique and absolutely correct concept about how to build, not only cars but also, his company. He would seek the maximum market when others sought the maximum profit. Today it sounds logical but it was revolutionary then. This man could build cars. He would also build a business.
In time, in the quest to increase production and lower selling prices so to find the broadest possible market, he developed the concept of the assembly line, an incalculable advance in manufacturing technique. Previously, parts to build a car arrived around a chassis in a star pattern where piece by piece they were bolted together to make a finished vehicle. He, his staff and engineers determined that a chassis moving down a line from work station to work station could simplify, improve and speed up the assembly process. With the implementation of this concept the modern manufacturing era was born.
Henry Ford: Hell on Wheels
Union organzing in the 1930s.
He was very open about his manufacturing techniques. Competitors could study the new methodology, Fordism*, first hand. Neither did he patent advances that he believed would enhance safety. Other manufacturers were free to use them. As efficiency increased he lowered his selling prices and continued to reduce them almost every year well into the 1920s. If he was an effective automotive innovator he was also a devastating competitor and by the mid 1920s was selling more than 60% of all cars in America.
He was not an early advocate of the frequent styling changes that soon became institutionalized as the annual model change-over. And he famously offered his cars for years in any color so long as it was black. Neither was he attracted to sleek design. This would open the door for General Motors, in the 1930s, to build sleeker, mid-market cars in a variety of colors and to take from Ford market leadership. The early Fords were the VW Bugs of their day and Henry saw no need to annually revise them. GM sought to provide choices.
Henry Ford was an exceptional innovator but hardly perfect. You could take Henry out of the country but you couldn’t take the country out of Henry. Prejudice, the ever present social virus, found fertile soil in his soul and it would, as his role in the world became more public, become an embarrassment. He had an exceptional record of fairness toward blacks but was deeply infected with hatred for Jews. This would lead him, in the 1920s, into a very public anti-Semitism. He published The International Jew, a four volume anti-Semitic work as well as the Dearborn Independent, a weekly newspaper distributed to Ford dealers that published anti-Semitic material. Like Lindburgh he was later impressed with the reconstruction of Germany under Hitler but failed to understand that what was succeeding economically could also mask evil social policy. The certainty of his opinions that earlier made it possible for him to establish a unique approach to car manufacturing would in time deeply undermine his legacy. It is a stain that will not go away.
Ford Motors would a few years later, when called upon to support America's WWII industrial effort, set aside Mr. Ford's personal views and become a highly important supplier of Jeeps, tanks and aircraft. The skills that Ford has honed earlier, were when needed, provided with speed and efficiency in support of the United States. In doing so, the company moved beyond the man.
* Fordism is a term coined by Antonio Gramsci and used by critical analysts to designate a specifically 20th century corporate regime of mechanized production coupled with the mass consumption of standardized products.
Henry Ford: Hell on Wheels
Henry would die in 1947 but he had been absent from the management of the company for many years. His son Edsel, the next generation of Fords, predeceased him in 1943 without ever escaping from the shadow of his famous father. Edsel's death opened the way for a young Henry Ford II to assume control of the business in 1945 and he would see the company through to the 1980s. Under his tenure the Thunderbird was introduced in 1955, the Edsel in 1959 and the Mustang during the mid-1964 car year. He would also be in charge when back-ended Pintos began to explode.
The final 25 years of this Ford history have a different tone from the first 75. It's as if the men, and they are virtually all men Brinkley writes about, are listening and he seems to take pains to be excessively polite. It does not really detract from the book but it is noticeable. Henry Ford is not spared but more recent people are. It's as if the story is sung in noticeably different chords. And the unions which became a factor in the 1930s and a dominant element in the 1970s have absolutely no DNA in this account. Nevertheless it is a worthwhile read for those with an interest in the 20th century generally and business history specifically.
Certainly Henry Ford was a giant of the 20th century. Few others have had a greater impact on mankind in any century. He almost single handedly created the American middle class by making transportation affordable, by paying higher wages simply because he could afford to, and by later reducing the work week to give his employees more time to enjoy their lives and more people a chance to work. He was an American original and the tapestry of the American experience is not complete without his threads. I recommend this book. He was to put it succinctly: hell on wheels.
Wheels for the World by Douglas Brinkley. First published in 2003. Available in hardcover and paperback on the net and in the bookstores around the world. 764 pages + 93 pages of acknowledgments, notes, selected bibliography and index.