Henry Ford (July 30, 1863 - April 7, 1947) was the founder of the Ford
Motor Company and is credited with contributing to the creation of a middle class
in American society. He was one of the first to apply assembly line manufacturing
to the mass production of affordable automobiles.
Ford was born on a prosperous farm in Springwells Township (now in
the city of Dearborn, Michigan) owned by his parents, William and
Mary Ford, immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. He was the eldest
of six children. As a child, Henry was passionate about mechanics,
preferring to tinker in his father's shop over doing farm chores.
At 13, he saw a self-propelled vehicle, a steam powered thresher,
for the first time.
In 1879, he left home for the nearby city of Detroit to work as an
apprentice machinist, first with James F. Flower & Bros., and later
with the Detroit Dry Dock Co. In 1882, he returned to Dearborn to work
on the family farm and became adept at operating the Westinghouse portable
steam engine. This led to his being hired by Westinghouse company to
service their steam engines. Upon his marriage to Clara Bryant in 1888
Ford supported himself by farming and running a sawmill.
In 1891, Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company,
and after his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893, he had enough time
and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on internal
combustion engines. These experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion
of his own self-propelled vehicle named the Quadricycle, which he test-drove
on June 4 of that year.
After this initial success, Ford left Edison Illuminating and, with
other investors, formed the Detroit Automobile Company. The Detroit
Automobile Company went bankrupt soon afterward because Ford continued
to improve the design, instead of selling cars. Ford raced his vehicles
against those of other manufacturers to show the superiority of his
designs. With his interest in race cars, he formed a second company,
the Henry Ford Company. During this period, he personally drove his
Quadricycle to victory in a race against Alexander Winton, a well-known
driver and the heavy favorite on October 10, 1901. Ford was forced
out of the company by the investors, including Henry M. Leland in 1902,
and the company was reorganized as Cadillac.
Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford, with eleven other investors and $28,000 in capital, incorporated
the Ford Motor Company in 1903. In a newly-designed car, Ford drove
an exhibition in which the car covered the distance of a mile on the
ice of Lake St. Clair in 39.4 seconds, which was a new land speed record.
Convinced by this success, the famous race driver Barney Oldfield,
who named this new Ford model "999" in honor of a racing
locomotive of the day, took the car around the country and thereby
made the Ford brand known throughout the U.S. Henry Ford was also one
of the early backers of the Indianapolis 500.
The Model T.
In 1908, the Ford company released the Model T. From 1909 to 1913,
Ford entered stripped-down Model Ts in races, finishing first (although
later disqualified) in an "ocean-to-ocean" (across the USA)
race in 1909, and setting a one-mile oval speed record at Detroit Fairgrounds
in 1911 with driver Frank Kulick. In 1913, Ford attempted to enter
a reworked Model T in the Indianapolis 500, but was told rules required
the addition of another 1,000 pounds (450 kg) to the car before it
could qualify. Ford dropped out of the race, and soon thereafter dropped
out of racing permanently, citing dissatisfaction with the sport's
rules and the demands on his time by the now-booming production of
the Model Ts.
Racing was, by 1913, no longer necessary from a publicity standpoint
because the Model T was already famous and ubiquitous on American roads.
It was in this year that Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly
belts into his plants, which enabled an enormous increase in production.
Although Ford is often credited with the idea, contemporary sources
indicate that the concept and its development came from employees Clarence
Avery, P.E".Ed" Martin, Charles E. Sorensen, and C.H. Wills.
By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts. The design, fervently
promoted and defended by Henry Ford, would continue through 1927 (well
after its popularity had faded), with a final total production of fifteen
million vehicles. This was a record which would stand for the next
45 years. Ford said, "Any customer can have a car painted any
colour that he wants so long as it is black".
On January 1, 1919, after unsuccessfully seeking a seat in the United
States Senate, Henry Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company
over to his son Edsel, although still maintaining a firm hand in its
management - few company decisions under Edsel's presidency were
made without approval by Henry, and those few that were, Henry often
reversed. Also at this time, Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining
stock from other investors, thus becoming sole owners of the company.
The company remained privately held by the family until 1956, when
the family allowed a public offering of a portion of the company without
By the mid 1920's, sales of the Model T began to decline due to rising
competition. Other auto makers offered payment plans through which
consumers could buy their cars, which usually included more modern
mechanical features and styling not available with the Model T. Despite
urgings from Edsel, Henry steadfastly refused to incorporate new features
into the Model T or to form a customer credit plan.
The Model T's key to success was the fact that it had been made in
the assembly line, which allowed for many different cars to be made
consecutively, identically and much faster than other hand made vehicles.
The cars sales triggered the modern era of vehicles. For the first
time everyone could own a car, the downside was that every Model T
produced after 1913, (the year the assembly line was created) was painted
black because the paint dried a lot faster than any other color. The
Model T was a very simple car, as simple as it could be made. One screw
held 10 or 20 parts. But that's what made it unique. Henry Ford's assembly
line was so unique that it turned the Ford Motor Company into a Giant,
(and became a tool for every other industry that creates merchandise
in the assembly line, of course the assembly line does not use people
anymore, but uses robots) while the other car companies were still
stuck with the technologies of the earlier days. By 1928 there were
about 30 million cars world wide. Half of these were Ford Model Ts.
The Model A and later.
By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T convinced Henry of what Edsel
had been suggesting for some time: a new model was necessary. The elder
Ford pursued the project with a great deal of technical expertise in
design of the engine, chassis, and other mechanical necessities, while
leaving it to his son to develop the body design. Edsel also managed
to prevail over his father's initial objections in the inclusion of
a sliding-shift transmission. The result was the highly successful
Ford Model A, introduced December, 1927 and produced through 1931,
with a total output of over four million automobiles. Subsequently,
the company adopted an annual model change system similar to that in
use by automakers today.
During the thirties, Ford also overcame his objection to finance companies,
and the Ford-owned Universal Credit Company became a major car financing
Henry Ford long had an interest in plastics developed from agricultural
products, especially soybeans. Soybean-based plastics were used in
Ford automobiles throughout the 1930s in plastic parts such as car
horns, in paint, etc. This project culminated in 1942, when on January
13 Ford patented an automobile made almost entirely of plastic, attached
to a tubular welded frame. It weighed 30% less than a standard car
of the same size, and was said to be able to withstand blows ten times
greater than could steel. Furthermore, it ran on grain alcohol (ethanol)
instead of gasoline. The design never caught on.
On May 26, 1943, Edsel Ford died, leaving a vacancy in the company
presidency. Henry Ford advocated Harry Bennett to take the spot. Edsel's
widow Eleanor, who had inherited Edsel's voting stock, wanted her son
Henry Ford II to take over the position. The issue was settled for
a period when Henry himself, at the age of 79, took over the presidency
personally. Henry Ford II was released from the navy and became an
executive vice president, while Harry Bennett had a seat on the board
and was responsible for personnel, labor relations, and public relations.
The company saw hard times during the next two years, losing $10 million
a month. President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered a federal bailout
for Ford Motor Company so that wartime production could continue. By
1945 Henry Ford's senility was quite evident, and his wife and daughter-in-law
forced his resignation in favor of his grandson, Henry Ford II.
Ford's labor philosophy.
Henry Ford had very specific thoughts on relations with his employees.
On January 5, 1914 Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The
program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8
hours and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying
workers. Ford labeled the increased compensation as profit sharing
rather than wages. The wage was offered to men over the age of 22,
who had worked at the company for 6 months or more, and, importantly,
conducted their lives in a manner of which Ford approved. The company
established a Sociological Department complete with 150 investigators
and support staff in order to verify this last point. Even with these
requirements a large percentage of workers were able to qualify for
the profit sharing.
In 1926, Ford instituted the five-day, forty-hour work-week, effectively
inventing the modern weekend. In granting workers an extra day off,
Ford ensured leisure time for the working class. The "short week" as
Ford called it in a contemporary interview, was required so that the
country could "absorb its production and stay prosperous".
Conversely, Ford was adamantly against labor unions in his plants.
To forestall union activity, he promoted Harry Bennett, a former Navy
boxer, to be the head of the Service Department. Bennett employed various
intimidation tactics to squash union organizing. The most famous incident,
in 1937, was a bloody brawl between company security men and organizers
that became known as The Battle of the Overpass.
Ford was the last Detroit automaker to recognize the United Auto Workers
union (UAW). A sit-down strike by the UAW union on April 2, 1941 closed
the River Rouge Plant. Under pressure from Edsel and his wife, Clara,
Henry Ford finally agreed to collective bargaining at Ford plants,
and the first contract with the UAW was signed in June 1941.
The final days.
Ford suffered an initial stroke in 1938, after which he turned over
the running of his company to Edsel. Edsel's 1943 death brought Henry
Ford out of retirement. In ill health, he ceded the presidency to his
grandson Henry Ford II on September 21, 1945, and went into retirement.
He died in 1947 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 83 in Fair Lane,
his Dearborn estate, and is buried in the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.