Henry Ford: How Success Can Change a Man
Posted on 30th September 2019 at 12:00
Read about the complicated man behind the Ford Motor Company and see how his image as the helping hand to the every man was warped over time...
It was 1863 and, soon to be an engineering tycoon. Henry Ford was born on a farm near Detroit, Michigan to an Irish immigrant father and a Michigan born mother. As a boy Henry was fixated on taking things apart and putting them back together again and would use this passion to later become a machinist, working on a variety of machines for a variety of companies although would return to his family farm to work on their Westinghouse portable steam engine but he had other, more ambitious ideas. Using the skills, he had picked up throughout the years.
Henry built his very first vehicle, the Ford Quadricycle, in 1896. Now, despite what people have been lead to believe, this was not the first ethanol-powered car to be manufactured, Karl Benz had developed it in 1886, but Ford's creation wasn't designed to change the world of transportation, there was nothing of great notability about this car compared to what else was on offer at the time, this seemed to be a simple hobby project that would lead to much greater things.
In 1899, Ford created the Detroit Automobile Company to primarily manufacture vehicles to transport deliveries. This company was a failure, having very few vehicles be produced, and by 1901 the company had to be closed but rose from the ashes just ten months later now under the title The Henry Ford Company.
Only a few months after establishing this company however Henry left after a dispute with the company's stockholders. In response to Ford's absence it was decided that the company should be renamed, and the name Cadillac Automobile Company was decided on.
Yes, that Cadillac. Ford took a break from starting and leaving companies to start research into building racing cars and eventually would obtain public recognition for his engineering which gave him the spark to start up once again. Ford took up some investors, including Horace and John Dodge, and in 1903 in Dearborn, Michigan Henry started the Ford Motor Company.
Henry had ambitions to create a car for the everyman.
Currently cars were worth approximately $115,000 by today's inflation rate and were a luxury for the rich. Ford knew that the car making business was in its infancy and if he was to bank on the fact that because this industry was very young and therefore very expensive, he knew he could be making a huge profit. So, Ford got to work on his first car for his new company: The Model A.
The Model A wasn't exactly the car for the everyman like Ford had inspired to make. The car cost approximately $22,000 by today's rates which still wasn't cheap, especially compared to today's cars, but it was a good start as it was still far more affordable than the 6 figure cars that were around in the years prior. However, Ford wasn't alone in his quest to make cars affordable for everyone.
Companies such as Oldsmobile and Success were making cars that were even cheaper, but these cars were only had around 2 Horsepower whilst The Model A had a staggering 8!
The cars of Ford's competition would never even be able to hit 20 MPH so news of Ford's powerful car that could be driven by the middle class rose him up the ranks and made him a serious competitor in the automobile industry
But when it came to designing The Model A's successor Henry seemed to put his ideas of lowering the costs of car on the shelf as The Model B would cost what is equivalent to $57,000 today, more than double that of The Model A, but would offer a 24 Horsepower engine and was seen as a very fancy car in its day. Both models had been a reasonable success, but it wasn't until 1908 that Ford would have his big break with The Model T.
The Model T is considered by many to be one of the most important cars of all time and was named the most influential car of the 20th century by The Car of the Century (COTC) in 1999. The Model T was a 20 Horsepower engine car that only cost approximately £27,000 by today. Again, this still seems expensive but at the time a car that powerful would have never been affordable by anyone other than the rich. Ford changed this. The car was an outstanding success for more than just it's low price.
The Model T was manufactured on an assembly line using interchangeable car parts meaning it could be made quickly and cheaply as the parts could just be repurchased. The car was very big compared to others on the market meaning families could use it for day trips. One of Ford's greatest assets though was his marketing. Ford became a household name and represented honesty and quality in the eyes of the general public. General Motors (Who now owned Oldsmobile and Cadillac) took note of Ford's success and offered to buy the company. Ford named his price and GM thought it was far too high, as I'm sure you can imagine this was a huge mistake on GM's part further down the line.
Ford would continue to innovate his assembly lines following the Model T's success meaning he could build cars more effectively and sell them for a lower cost. Ford also began paying his workers very decent wages for the time and had high working conditions in his factories meaning his image of being an honest American icon was further cemented.
However, not everything was great for Ford Motor Company. A company called ALAM, headed by George Selden, had bought the patent for the automobile back in 1899 and claimed that all companies who manufacture cars must pay royalties for infringement. This holding of rights to the car also made it very difficult for new manufacturers to start up. The legitimacy of the patent is a topic of controversy but nevertheless, despite Selden's patent being bad for any company other than ALAM, all companies who produced cars paid up.
That was until Henry Ford came along. Ford said no. He claimed that the designs and advancements for what lead up to the car to many people from all over the world many decades and would go on record saying "We believe that the art [of automobiles] would have been just as far advanced today if Mr. Selden had never been born." Selden went on to sue Ford and what seemed like the impossible for the early 20th century happened. The courts ruled in favour of Ford and the people and the patent of the automobile was abolished. Ford felt on top of the world and this enthusiasm would begin to take him down a far more nefarious pathway.
After the ruling the Dodge brothers became fed up with not receiving the recognition for Ford's success and the payment they were promised. This led the brothers to leave and they decided to make their own automobile company: The Dodge Brothers Company. This is, of course, the company we know as Dodge today. Following this however something changed inside of Ford...
He realises, now being a far wealthier man, that he doesn't need investors in his company anymore and wants all the profits to go to him. Additionally, the Dodge brothers still owned stock in the Ford Motor Company despite them now owning their own automobile company.
This led him to craft a plan. Henry announced to the world that he was done manufacturing cars, he said he had had enough with the world of automobiles and would leave his son, Edsel Ford, to run the company.
Edsel was a no body in the industry. He had no outstanding achievements or anything to put him on the same level as his father. Investors quickly became terrified and sold all their stocks for very little money. Henry then bought all the stocks up and became the sole owner of his company. Edsel was named president of Ford, but this title was meaningless as Henry still had full control over the company as he pupated his son. This was the first sign of Henry's more antagonistic behaviour.
Ford had once again showed the world who was boss. He had beaten the once terrifying ALAM, had bested all his investors and was now running the largest and most powerful car manufacturing company in the entire world. Henry had started to slowly become egotistical and narcissistic. He thought he was a genius and the achievements he had made could have only ever been done by him.
This led to ideas within his company other than his own being instantly dismissed. Edsel would often come to his father asking to implement new technological advancements to the Model T but Henry would never give them any thought. This was a bad move as by 1927 Ford's main automobile still being produced was the Model T and it had been in production for over 20 years without any new major redesigns simply because Henry didn't think there needed to be any despite the constantly evolving technology of the time.
This mentality would of course come back to bite Ford as it would any company with no desire to innovate. GM were now making cars a staple of fashion instead of just a practical way to get from point A to point B. It was the roaring 20's and people wanted more than just the utilitarian minimum, they wanted style and GM knew this now making cars with new trendy designs and colours and leaving Ford in the dust. GM had now become the top manufacturer of cars in the US but this still wasn't enough to make Henry reconsider his "I'm always right" ideology.
Edsel saw eye to eye with GM's ambitions to make automobiles pieces of art, focusing heavily on how the car looked instead of their practicality, but Henry didn't like this outlook and therefore grow further away from his son. Ford decided to take interest in a new figure: Harry Bennett, Ford's security department head. Bennett was a former boxer and would often get into fights seemingly only getting the position he had because he was a strong individual who could put others in their place.
Despite all this the Model T needed to be discontinued fast to make way for a real competitor for GM's monopolistic growth so after much arguing Henry allowed Edsel to design a new car for the company which he called the Model A. No, not the Model A from 1903 but a new Model A.
Edsel shifted from Henry's ideas of minimal flair by releasing the car in 4 different colours and at first it appeared to sell very well. Many saw this as the true successor to the Model T and Edsel had proven himself to his father. But then The Great Depression happened.
America as a nation was poor. There were mass unemployment and most people simply didn't have the money to afford cars. This meant that the industry was plummeting and so the Model A began to sell poorly. Henry didn't see this as an unavoidable problem with the economy however, instead he blamed Edsel for the poor sales of the Model A claiming that the Model T should have never been replaced which of course further complicated his relationship with his son.
Ford had bigger problems brewing than his relationship with his son. However, The Great Depression saw a rise in unions which Henry grew to despise and on the 7th of March 1932 a group of unionists marched outside of Ford's factory which resulted in police intervention.
The police fired a few shots and let of tear gas but amongst the chaos Harry Bennett saw this as a perfect opportunity to let out some rage. Bennett started firing aimlessly into the crowd injuring dozens of protestors and police officers and killing a few civilians but despite committing multiple acts of murder Bennett was never convicted or even fired from his position at Ford which began to tarnish Ford's once great public image.
The man who once was viewed as an icon who was selling cars for the everyman, having great working conditions and fighting for the little guy in courts was now condoning the killing of civilians. Ford's troubles with unions didn't end there. In 1937, whilst Ford began to trail behind other car companies once again, the unions were still going strong.
GM and Chrysler had given in to the unions but Ford hated them with such a passion that he still refused to budge and on the 26th of May 1937 employees at Ford began handing out leaflets showing their intent to receive a raise. Some photographers showed up to take photos of the event for the papers but while they were there Harry Bennett and his security team saw it appropriate to run up to these workers and beat them up with the photographer’s seconds away from taking the pictures. Needless to say, the newspapers took Ford to town and his public image was in shambles. Ford still refused to give into the unions but eventually caved once his wife, Clara Jane Ford, threatens to get a divorce if he doesn't take any action.
Then came World War 2. Ford wanted no part in the war as he identified as a pacifist, despite his previous endeavours (also he apparently didn't like Jewish people). Edsel disagrees with his father's position and decides to help the military out by supplying cars. Henry was upset but after the Attack on Pearl Harbor it didn't matter what he thought, all vehicle manufacturers now worked for the government. This was a very bad time for Henry Ford. In 1947 his son, Edsel would die of cancer and even though they had a rocky relationship Henry would mourn his son dearly. Henry then became official president of Ford once more but everyone else in the company doesn't like this decision because of his old age and very questionable past decisions so a new president is found in his grandson: Henry Ford II.
Ford retires after his grandson takes the reins in 1945 and would later die on the 7th of April 1947 at the age of 83 from a Intracerebral haemorrhage. Despite Henry's questionable actions in the later part of his life the nation mourns him as they feel they've lost a larger than life figure. The self-centred deeds he had acted upon pale in comparison to the advancements he made in engineering. He brought the car to the masses and for that he shall forever be remembered.
Share this post: