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date: 14 August 2020

Ford, Henryfree

(30 July 1863–07 April 1947)
  • James J. Flink

Henry Ford.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111278).

Ford, Henry (30 July 1863–07 April 1947), automobile manufacturer, was born on a farm in Springwells (now Greenfield) Township, Wayne County, Michigan, the son of William Ford and Mary Litogot. After attending one-room public schools during the winter months from 1871 to 1879, Ford was barely proficient in reading and writing from the McGuffey readers, but he excelled in arithmetic. He was fascinated by machinery.

On 1 December 1879 Ford walked to Detroit to seek employment as a mechanic. Fired after only six days as a beginning apprentice engineer at the Michigan Car Company, he found employment at the Flower Brothers’ Machine Shop. To supplement his $2.60 for a sixty-hour work week he took a part-time job at the Robert Magill Jewelry Shop repairing watches six hours a night and six days a week for $3 weekly. In August 1880 Ford moved from the Flower Brothers at a fifty-cent-a-week cut in pay to an apprenticeship at the Detroit Dry Dock Company, Detroit’s largest ship-building firm. He was assigned to the engine shop, where he acquired excellent hands-on knowledge of various types of power plants.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1882 he returned to his father’s farm. A neighbor, John Gleason, paid him $3 a day to operate a small portable steam engine that cut corn, ground feed, and sawed wood. Ford’s ability came to the attention of the district representative of the Westinghouse Engine Company of Schenectady, New York, and he was hired late in the summer of 1882 to travel throughout southern Michigan setting up and servicing Westinghouse steam traction engines.

In 1888 Ford married Clara Bryant. As a wedding gift, Ford’s father gave him forty acres that would become his legally when he had turned it into a productive farm. However, instead of beginning to farm the land, Ford cut down and sold the timber on the property. By the fall of 1891 all the timber had been cut, and Ford refused to farm.

So on 25 September 1891 Henry and Clara moved to a small apartment in Detroit, where he found employment as night engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company at a salary of $40 a month. On 6 November 1893 their only child, Edsel Bryant Ford, was born. Three weeks after the birth of his son, Ford was promoted to chief engineer at Edison at a salary of $100 a month. The Fords moved to larger quarters in what became a pattern as their fortunes improved. They changed addresses eleven times between 1892 and 1915 before finally settling on their 2,000-acre “Fair Lane” estate in Dearborn, just two miles from Ford’s birthplace.

Ford’s Experimental Cars

In the early 1890s Ford began to work on an internal-combustion engine to power an experimental car, joining several thousand bicycle mechanics, machinists, and backyard inventors who hoped to build a commercially viable car.

Ford completed his experimental car at 1:30 a.m. on 4 June 1896. It had been built in a brick shed that he used as a workroom behind the duplex he was then renting. The car, which he called a Quadricycle, ran on four bicycle tires and weighed a mere 500 pounds.

With the backing of Detroit mayor William C. Maybury, Ford began to build a second experimental car. Completed by July 1899, it was larger, sturdier, and heavier than the Quadricycle. After the car’s successful demonstration drive to Pontiac, Michigan, and back, William H. Murphy, a wealthy Detroit lumber merchant, agreed to help Ford form a company to manufacture motorcars. On 5 August 1899 the Detroit Automobile Company was formed with only $15,000 of its nominal $150,000 capitalization paid in by a dozen shareholders. Ford put up no money for his shares of stock. On 15 August he resigned from his position at Edison to become superintendent in charge of production at Detroit Automobile at a monthly salary of $150. The Detroit Automobile Company went out of business in November 1900 after turning out only about a dozen automobiles. The company was briefly revived on 30 November 1901 as the Henry Ford Company. (Ford later testified that from 1896 through 1901 he had built between seventeen and twenty-two cars.)

On 10 October 1901 Ford’s newly designed racer defeated the vehicle of Cleveland auto manufacturer Alexander Winton, the nation’s leading racing driver, at the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, track. This gave his backers new hope. But to their consternation Ford developed, in the words of his biographers Allan Nevins and Frank E. Hill, “an almost complete preoccupation with racing.” On 10 March 1902 Ford was fired from his position as superintendent of production at the Henry Ford Company and began building racing cars with racing-driver Tom Cooper. Henry M. Leland and his son Wilfred, of the Detroit precision toolmaking firm of Leland & Faulconer, were brought in to manage the company, and the backers agreed to discontinue the use of Ford’s name. On 22 August 1902 the Henry Ford Company became the Cadillac Motor Car Company, named after the Sieur Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit.

Ford and Cooper constructed the most powerful racing cars then built in the United States, the 999 and the Arrow. The 999, driven by former bicycle racer Barney Oldfield, who had never before operated an automobile, surpassed Winton’s car again at Grosse Pointe on 25 October 1902. Oldfield went on to establish several American speed records in the 999. Then on 12 January 1904 Henry Ford and “Spider” Huff in the four-cylinder, 24-horsepower Arrow broke all American records for cars of all weights for the one-mile straightaway, with a time of 39.4 seconds (91.4 miles per hour) on the ice of Lake St. Clair northeast of Detroit. With these victories Ford established himself as the foremost American designer of racing cars.

Formation of the Ford Motor Company (1903)

With new backers (principally Detroit coal dealer Alexander Y. Malcomson, who joined him in 1902), Ford reentered automobile manufacturing with the formation of the Ford Motor Company on 16 June 1903, with only $28,000 paid-in capital, a dozen workmen, and an assembly plant on Mack Avenue just 250 feet by 50 feet. Entry into the industry was easy because Ford, like just about all early auto manufacturers, was merely an assembler of components jobbed out to other small businesses. The first Ford engines and completed chassis, for example, were supplied by the machine shop of the Dodge Brothers, John and Horace, who became minority stockholders in Ford’s company. John S. Gray, Malcomson’s uncle and president of Detroit’s German-American Bank, became nominal president of the new firm, and James Couzens, Malcomson’s clerk, became its treasurer (unofficially until 1907) and business brains. Ford, who put up no cash, ran the manufacturing end as vice president and general manager.

A stumbling block to the new company was the patent on the gasoline automobile that had been awarded in 1895 to George B. Selden, a New York patent attorney. The rights to the patent were bought by the Electric Vehicle Company in 1899 as a hedge on its bet on the electric car. Some leading American makers of gasoline-powered cars, under the leadership of Henry B. Joy of Packard and Frederick L. Smith of Olds Motor, then negotiated an agreement with the Electric Vehicle Company to form a trade association, the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), under the Selden patent to control entry into automobile manufacturing and competition.

In early 1903 Ford applied for but was denied a license by ALAM, which claimed that he lacked experience as an automobile manufacturer. Angered and assured of the support of his eastern agent, department store magnate John Wanamaker, Ford built cars without the requisite license and fiercely contested the lawsuit that was brought against him and other auto manufacturers by the ALAM in October 1903. Ford gained public sympathy by contrasting his own humble midwestern origins and status as a pioneer inventor and struggling small businessman with the image of the ALAM as a group of powerful and parasitical eastern monopolists.

ALAM won a fleeting victory when the U.S. Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York upheld its claim in 1909. But on 11 January 1911 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Selden patent valid only for cars that used Brayton two-cycle engines. Since almost all automobiles, including Fords, used Otto-type four-cycle engines, the decision made the Selden patent worthless. ALAM collapsed, and Ford was vindicated.

A controversy developed between Malcomson and Ford in 1905 over design and market philosophy. Malcomson wanted to move toward the production of heavier, more expensive cars. Ford, in contrast, was increasingly committed to the volume production of light, low-priced cars, exemplified by the 1906 Model N, an 800-pound runabout powered by a front-mounted, fifteen- to eighteen-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Extensive use of vanadium steels in its construction made the $600 Model N a lighter, tougher, more reliable car than much higher-priced models. Ford boasted to reporters, “I believe that I have solved the problem of cheap as well as simple automobile construction.”

The controversy between Ford and Malcomson was resolved when Ford bought out Malcomson on 12 July 1906. As his main strategy to get rid of Malcomson, Ford independently had formed the Ford Manufacturing Company on 22 November 1905 to manufacture his own engines and other chassis components for the popular Model N. This drained Model N profits from Malcomson and the smaller stockholders into Ford’s pocket. It was the first step toward the vertical integration of the Ford Motor Company that would in less than a decade make Ford largely independent of outside suppliers, except for auto bodies. On 1 May 1907 the Ford Manufacturing Company was absorbed into the Ford Motor Company. The acquisition in 1911 of the John R. Kiem Mills of Buffalo, New York, a leading producer of pressed- and drawn-steel parts, and the movement of Kiem machinery and key personnel to Detroit in late 1912 gave Ford the capacity to make its own crankcases, axles, housings, and bodies. Complete independence from the Dodge Brothers for engines and finished chassis came in 1913.

The Model T

Even while deluged with orders for the Model N, work had begun on the Model T in an experimental room at the Ford Piquette Avenue plant some two years before the car was announced in a 19 March 1908 circular to dealers. It was the product of an engineering team of a dozen men headed by Ford, designer C. Harold Wills, and draftsman Joseph Galamb. The Model T was first made available to dealers on 1 October 1908 at initial prices ranging from $825 for the runabout to $1,000 for the landaulet, a design featuring an open driver’s side and collapsible roof. By the time the last Model T rolled off the assembly line on 27 May 1927 the price for the coupe had reached a low of $290, and 15 million units had been sold. (Only the Volkswagen Beetle was to surpass this record output in a vastly expanded World War II market.) The Model T put the world on wheels.

Henry Ford designed the 22-horsepower, 100-inch wheelbase Model T to be “a farmer’s car” for a nation of farmers. He advertised it as the “Universal Car,” by which Ford meant that a number of body types serving different purposes could be fitted to a common chassis. As in the Model N, the Model T used lightweight vanadium steels. No other car in 1908 offered so many advanced features. Ford’s advertising boast was essentially correct: “No car under $2,000 offers more, and no car over $2,000 offers more except in trimmings.”

The Model T was the first mass-produced car. The term “mass production” dates from Ford’s article of that title in the thirteenth edition (1926) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Until then the system of flow-production perfected at the Ford Highland Park plant in 1913–1914 was popularly referred to as “Fordism.”

The 62-acre Highland Park plant, designed by Albert Kahn, that Ford opened in January 1910 possessed an unparalleled factory arrangement for the production of motorcars. Its well-lighted and well-ventilated buildings were a model of advanced industrial construction. Elementary time-and-motion studies begun at the Piquette Avenue plant were continued at Highland Park and led in 1912 to the installation of continuous conveyor belts to bring materials to the assembly lines. And with the move to Highland Park, manufacturing and assembling operations began to be arranged sequentially so that components traveled to completion over the shortest route possible with no unnecessary handling. This entailed the abandonment of grouping machine tools together by type in plant layout. Magnetos, motors, and transmissions were assembled on moving lines at the plant by the summer of 1913. After production from these subassembly lines threatened to flood the final assembly line, a moving chassis-assembly line was installed. It reduced the time of chassis assembly from twelve and a half hours in October to two hours and forty minutes by 30 December 1913. “Every piece of work in the shop moves,” boasted Ford in 1922.

Creation of a New Breed of Industrial Workers

At Highland Park a new breed of semiskilled industrial workers was created. According to Ford, in his My Life and Work, mass production meant “the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker and the reduction of his thoughts to a minimum.” Machines were closely spaced for optimal efficiency, and material was delivered to the worker at a waist-high level so that unnecessary motion was not expended in walking, reaching, stooping, or bending. The worker not only had to subordinate himself to the pace of the machine but also had to be able to withstand the boredom inevitable in repeating the same motions hour after hour. A fifteen-minute lunch break, which included time to use the restroom, was the only interruption in the fatiguing monotony of repetitive labor. Straw bosses and company “spotters”—another new element in the work force—enforced rules and regulations that forbade leaning against machines, sitting, squatting, talking, whistling, or smoking on the job. Workers learned to communicate clandestinely without moving their lips in the “Ford whisper” and wore frozen expressions known as “Fordization of the face.”

On 5 January 1914 Ford announced the five-dollar, eight-hour day, which roughly doubled the going rate of pay for industrial workers while shortening the workday by two hours. The five-dollar minimum pay for a day’s work was boldly conceived by Ford as a plan for sharing profits with his workers before the money was earned. Eligible workers were those who had been at Ford for six months or more and were married men living with and taking good care of their families, single men over twenty-two years of age of proved thrifty habits, men under twenty-two years of age, or women who were the sole support of some next of kin. Almost 60 percent of the Ford workers qualified immediately, and within two years about 75 percent were included in the profit-sharing plan.

A Sociological Department (after 1915, the Educational Department) was formed to check on the eligibility of employees and to ensure that the profits shared with them were put to uses approved by Henry Ford. A staff of investigators visited workers’ homes gathering information and giving advice on the intimate details of the family budget, diet, living arrangements, recreation, social outlook, and morality. Americanization of the immigrant was enforced through mandatory classes in English. The worker who refused to learn English, rejected the advice of the investigator, gambled, drank excessively, or was found guilty of “any malicious practice derogatory to good physical manhood or moral character” was disqualified from the plan and put on probation. If a disqualified worker failed to reform within six months, he was discharged, and his profits accumulated under the plan were given to charity.

The Beginning of World-Wide Expansion

In the spring of 1915 Ford had begun buying up huge tracts of land along the River Rouge southeast of Detroit and announced plans for a great industrial complex there. The Dodge Brothers brought a lawsuit against Ford to stop his diversion of Ford profits into expanding the Rouge plant instead of distributing them as dividends, which the Dodge Brothers, who held a minority interest in Ford stock, were counting on to finance expansion at Dodge. On 6 January 1917 the courts permitted Ford to go ahead with the development of the Rouge facilities on the condition that he post a $10 million bond to safeguard the interests of minority stockholders. But on 7 February 1919 another court decision forced the Ford Motor Company to pay a special dividend of $19.275 million plus interest. Although Henry Ford, the principal Ford stockholder, received the bulk of this dividend, he resolved to buy out the minority stockholders, whom he had come to consider parasites.

Finally, on 11 July 1919 Ford managed to borrow $75 million from a syndicate of bankers to buy out his remaining stockholders, most importantly the Dodge Brothers. The reorganized Ford Motor Company was a wholly family-owned and family-managed business. Edsel became titular president, a position he held until his death from cancer in 1943. No one, however, doubted that the Ford Motor Company after its reorganization was an autocracy subject to the whims of its aging, egocentric founder.

By 1918 the inflation of the World War I years had reduced the $5 minimum daily pay to the equivalent of $2.80 in 1914 purchasing power, wiping out the workers’ gains. The Educational Department folded, and its records were burned in 1921. Ford benevolent paternalism had ended earlier. Over the course of World War I the company’s labor policies had undergone, as labor historian Stephen Meyer III put it, “a transition from a variant of welfare capitalism, which captured the mood of the Progressive Era, to a version of the American Plan, which typified the more recalcitrant employer attitudes of the twenties.” Although all automobile manufacturers in the 1920s employed labor spies and informants to ferret out union organizers, the Ford Motor Company gained particular notoriety. Harry Bennett, an ex-pugilist with underworld connections, enforced discipline in the Ford plants as head of a gang of labor spies and thugs called the Ford Service Department. Bennett came to be Henry Ford’s most trusted associate and comrade after the Model A replaced the Model T in 1928.

By American entry into World War I, Ford branch assembly plants had been set up at freight rate-breaking points in twenty-eight cities under the supervision of William S. Knudsen. By 1920 the Ford Motor Company owned, in addition to its main Highland Park and River Rouge plants, branch plants scattered across the globe, rubber plantations in Brazil, iron mines and lumber mills in Michigan, coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, glass plants in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, a railroad, and a fleet of ships. With the phenomenal success of the Model T and the consequent vertical integration and worldwide expansion of his giant enterprise, Henry Ford thus “wielded industrial power such as no man had ever possessed before.” Outside the United States, assembly plants were built in Canada in 1904 and at Trafford Park, England, in 1911 under Percival Perry. This was the beginning of multinational expansion that would see Ford assembling cars in twenty-one countries on six continents by 1928. Control of these foreign subsidiaries remained tightly in Dearborn, which mandated policy through thick loose-leaf manuals called Ford Bibles.

Ford as Humanitarian and Pacifist

With the inauguration of the five-dollar day in 1914, Henry Ford had begun to express his social views and to get involved in social causes. He donated $600,000 to build the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and assumed total responsibility for its administration. It became one of the best-publicized medical centers in the nation and contributed, as had the five-dollar day, to Ford’s reputation as a humanitarian. Then in 1916 Ford formed the Henry Ford Trade School to train boys from poor families in a variety of trades. He later instituted a private school system at Greenfield Village in which the elementary pupils were taught in three one-room schools and the secondary students in a modern high school. Emphasis was on vocational training and learning by doing. Ironically for the innovator of mass production, Ford also set up a series of village industries for farmers to produce Ford parts part time using waterpower. He tried to revive square dancing and country fiddling. He championed drinking unpasteurized milk and substituting soybean meal for meat as health measures. He restored the farmhouse in which he was born, the Botsford Inn northeast of Dearborn, where the Fords had attended dances in the 1880s, and the Wayside Inn at South Sudbury, Massachusetts. On 21 October 1929, at a celebration of Edison’s invention of the electric light, the Henry Ford Museum–Greenfield Village Complex was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover. It has become the most important historical preserve under nongovernmental operation in the United States.

Until U.S. entry into World War I, Henry Ford took an outspoken stand against conscription and preparedness. Couzens resigned in October 1915 in objection to Ford’s mixing of his personal pacifism and opposition to American preparedness for World War I with company policy. Ford idealistically declared that he would spend half his fortune to shorten the war by one day and joined the American Peace Society, in which he came under the influence of Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian pacifist. Schwimmer wanted to stop the war before either side gained a complete victory and to establish a permanent organization for the mediation of international disputes. To implement these goals Ford sponsored a “Peace Ship,” the Oscar II, which set sail on 5 December 1915 on a planned fourteen-day voyage to Oslo, Norway, carrying an array of delegates, students, technical advisers, and reporters. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic stressed the idealistic naiveté of the Peace Ship and seized on bizarre details in an attempt to discredit “Ford’s folly” as an exercise in futility and absurdity. After Ford became ill and left the delegation at Oslo, the peace party went on to Sweden and Denmark, ending up at The Hague in the Netherlands, where it disbanded on 15 January 1916, demoralized and dissension-ridden.

World War I

Once diplomatic ties between the United States and Germany were severed on 3 February 1917, Ford abruptly reversed his position, stating, “we must stand behind the President” and “in the event of war [I] will place our factory at the disposal of the United States government and will operate without one cent of profit.” Tractors were desperately needed by the British to help alleviate grave food shortages caused by German U-boat attacks on ships importing foodstuffs and by the loss of 80,000 farmhands to the military services. Experiments with a number of makes of tractors conducted by the Royal Agricultural Society had left the British authorities most impressed with the Fordson, a 2,500-pound machine that Ford personally introduced in August 1915 at a plowing demonstration at Fremont, Nebraska. With a wheelbase of only sixty-three inches, the Fordson could turn in a 21-foot circle. It was cheap to operate because its four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower engine ran on kerosene. And, like the Model T, the Fordson was designed to be mass-produced at low cost. Henry Ford & Son was organized on 27 July 1917 to manufacture the Fordson as a corporation separate from the Ford Motor Company.

The Fordson tractor contributed little toward alleviating food shortages during the war. By 1 March 1918 only 3,600 of the 8,000 Fordsons ordered by the British government had been delivered, and privately owned steam tractors were plowing considerably more acres of British farmland than the government-owned Fordsons. It was 23 April 1918 before the first Fordson for domestic use came off the assembly line. Too late to have any significant impact on winning the war, mass production of the Fordson reached fantastic heights just as the market for American agricultural commodities rapidly evaporated in the postwar period. The proliferation of the Fordson farm tractor was a contributing factor in creating the ruinous combination of higher fixed costs and overproduction of staple commodities that plagued American farmers during the 1920s.

Even before Ford abandoned his pacifist neutrality, the Ford branch plants in Paris and Great Britain had disregarded Dearborn and turned out thousands of motor vehicles for the Allies. From an initial contract for 2,000 ambulances on 30 May 1917, Ford’s American factories went on to produce about 39,000 motor vehicles for the war effort. They also made aircraft motors, armor plate, caissons, shells, steel helmets, submarine detectors, and torpedo tubes. Sixty Eagle Boats (submarine chasers) were completed by Ford too late to see action, and two tank prototypes developed by the company had just reached the point at which quantity production could begin when peace came. Although the manufacture of Model Ts for the civilian market never was stopped, automotive work was cut back significantly at Ford during the war. The production of Ford motor vehicles declined from a high of 734,800 units in 1916 to 438,800 units in 1918.

The abrupt termination of war contracts because of the armistice of 11 November 1918 caused little concern in the automobile industry. Automobile plants were quickly converted back to the production of passenger cars—at Highland Park it took only about three weeks—to fill the huge back orders for new cars that had accumulated during the war. Automobile manufacturers embarked on ambitious expansion programs, confident that the demand for motorcars was insatiable.

The Ford Motor Company in the Postwar Years

This illusion was shattered with the onset of the postwar recession. New-car sales slackened with the general decline in purchasing power. As the full impact of the recession began to be felt in the summer of 1920, Henry Ford still owed $25 million, due in April 1921, on the loan used to obtain control of his company in 1919. He also had pledged to distribute a $7 million bonus to employees in January, and he had to pay between $18 million and $30 million in taxes. Over the past three years he had spent $60.45 million on developing the River Rouge plant and between $15 million and $20 million on purchasing mines and timber tracts. Ford estimated that he needed $58 million, but he had only $20 million in cash on hand. He abandoned the thought of seeking another loan once it became apparent to him that the bankers would demand in return a voice in the management of his company.

The Ford Motor Company closed its plants “for inventory” on Christmas Eve 1920 and remained closed until 1 February 1921, while the company disposed of “stocks on hand.” Unlike most of his competitors, Ford maintained full production up to the shutdown of his plants, curtailing only the purchase of raw materials. The strategy implemented at Ford was foremost to turn the huge inventory of raw materials that had been bought at inflated prices into a reservoir of finished cars, then to stop production until those cars were disposed of at a profit and raw-material prices had declined. Consignments of unordered cars were forced on more than 6,300 Ford dealers who had the unhappy choice of borrowing heavily from local banks to pay cash on delivery or forfeiting their Ford franchises.

The shutdown at Ford was accompanied by stringent economy measures that went beyond what was essential for survival and jeopardized the future well-being of the firm. The Ford plants were stripped of every nonessential tool and fixture, including every pencil sharpener, most desks and typewriters, and 600 extension telephones. The sale of this equipment netted $7 million. The company also benefited from replacing some equipment with improved machinery and methods that increased output per man-hour of labor. These gains were canceled out, however, by a ruthless halving of the office force from 1,074 to 528 workers as most departments, including critical ones such as auditing, were overly simplified, merged, or eliminated. Many capable executives were discharged or resigned from the company. Although this critical loss of executive talent defies adequate summarizing, besides Couzens the most significant losses were probably William S. Knudsen and Norval A. Hawkins. (Knudsen left in disgust over Ford’s callous treatment of employees and intransigent commitment to the Model T.) Both went to General Motors and were instrumental in Chevrolet’s sales surpassing Ford’s by 1927.

After stripping his business to the bone, Ford unaccountably undertook two new business ventures. On 4 February 1922 he bought the Lincoln Motor Company out of bankruptcy from Henry and Wilfred Leland for $8 million. After resigning from Cadillac in 1917 the Lelands had formed Lincoln to build Liberty aircraft engines. In 1919 they turned to building luxury cars, which were mechanically excellent but poorly styled. The Lelands lasted only four months as Ford managers; Henry Ford fired them on 10 June 1922 after the father-and-son team had altercations with the production men. Edsel was given control of Lincoln, and under his supervision the car became a style trend-setter. He and Eugene T. “Bob” Gregory created two of the outstanding classic cars of the 1930s, the Zephyr and the Continental. And Edsel was instrumental in encouraging leading custom coachbuilders, most important, Raymond H. Dietrich, to move from the East Coast to Detroit. Although the Lincoln did not set sales records, it set the main direction of American luxury-car design—great power combined with smooth performance and riding comfort—for the interwar decades and gave Ford visibility at the very top as well as at the bottom of the market.

It is less clear why Ford branched out into aviation by investing in late 1922 in a company formed by William Stout to build metal airplanes. The Stout Metal Airplane Company was incorporated into the Ford Motor Company in 1925. On 1 July 1925 Stout began a Detroit-Cleveland air service, and in 1926 the government awarded Stout the mail contracts between Detroit and Cleveland and between Detroit and Chicago. Ford hoped to develop a low-priced plane for the mass market, but the experiment ended when his forty-horsepower “flivver plane” crashed in 1926, killing its pilot. The most successful Ford aircraft venture was the Ford Tri-Motor, a three-engine plane that could carry eight passengers plus cargo. Some 198 Tri-Motors were built between 1926 and 1932, when production was halted because of the declining market for commercial aircraft. A monument to Ford’s early aircraft ventures remains in the landmark Dearborn Inn, the world’s first airport hotel, completed in 1931.

“Emancipator of the Common Man”

More was written about Henry Ford during his lifetime, and he was more often quoted, than any figure in American history. Theodore Roosevelt complained that Ford received more publicity than even the president of the United States. The people of what scholar Reynold M. Wik calls “grassroots America” thought Ford a greater emancipator of the common man than Abraham Lincoln. From the early 1920s through the early 1930s Ford received several thousand letters a day, ranging from simple requests for help and advice to demands that he solve America’s remaining social and economic problems.

Ford probably could have been elected president of the United States had he really wanted the office. In 1916 he spurned efforts to get him to head the tickets of the American party and the Prohibition party on a platform of peace and prohibition. And, even though he refused to campaign, he won the 1916 Michigan presidential primary of the Republican party by a comfortable margin.

President Woodrow Wilson, who sought a Senate favorable to the establishment of a League of Nations, urged Ford to run for U.S. senator from Michigan in 1918. He won the Democratic nomination, but the state was heavily Republican, and his opponent, Truman Newberry, spent lavishly and stooped to a mud-slinging campaign that questioned Ford’s patriotism at the outbreak of World War I and hammered away at the draft deferment that Ford had obtained for Edsel. Still, Ford only lost the election by the slim margin of 212,751 votes to Newberry’s 217,088.

Ford-for-President clubs sprang up spontaneously across the nation from 1920 to 1923. In the summer of 1923 both a poll conducted by Collier’s Weekly and the Autocaster nationwide survey found Ford far ahead of President Warren G. Harding. However, the Ford-for-President boom ended in October 1924 when Ford announced that he would support Calvin Coolidge, who had assumed the presidency after Harding’s death in 1923, if Coolidge would enforce Prohibition. The evidence suggests that Ford supported Coolidge in exchange for the president’s endorsement of Ford’s bid to develop a government-owned nitrate plant at Muscle Shoals, Tennessee, a plan that was meeting stiff opposition in Congress.

Ford’s Anti-Semitism

Apart from Ford’s increasing callousness toward his work force—from key executives to floor sweepers—the main blot on Ford’s reputation was his blatant anti-Semitism. Ford’s magazine, the Dearborn Independent, edited by William J. Cameron, began publishing anti-Semitic articles in 1920. Between 1920 and 1922 Ford reprinted them in four brochures and in a more comprehensive book, The International Jew, which was translated into most European languages and was widely circulated throughout the world. Among other things, Jews were accused of controlling the world’s banks, starting World War I, and plotting the destruction of Christian civilization. In March 1927 Aaron Shapiro sued Ford for libelous material printed in the Dearborn Independent. The suit was settled out of court on 7 July, when Ford published an apology to Shapiro and a retraction of his attacks on the Jewish people.

But the damage could not be so easily undone. Ford was considered a “great man” in the Nazi pantheon of heroes. A picture of Ford was displayed in a place of honor at the National Socialist party headquarters, and he was the only American mentioned favorably in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. By late 1933 the Nazis had published some twenty-nine German editions of The International Jew, with Ford’s name on the title page and a preface praising Ford for the “great service” his anti-Semitism had done the world. At the post–World War II Nuremberg war crime trials, Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler youth movement, testified that he had learned his anti-Semitism at age seventeen from reading Ford’s book. On 30 July 1938, his seventy-fifth birthday, Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle with Hitler’s personal congratulations.

The End of the Model T Era

Except for minor face-liftings and the incorporation of basic improvements such as the closed body and the self-starter, the Model T remained basically unchanged long after it was outmoded. The popularity of the Model T declined in the 1920s as rural roads were improved, consumers became more style- and comfort-conscious, and the market for new cars shifted from a demand for low-cost, basic transportation by first-time owners to filling replacement demand.

In contrast with Ford’s commitment to a single, static model at an ever-decreasing unit price, at General Motors Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., developed the counterstrategy of blanketing the market with “a car for every purse and purpose” at the top of every price bracket and by instituting the annual model change that called for an essentially new model every three years with minor face-liftings in between. Most important, GM’s bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet was vastly improved mechanically and in appearance under the leadership of Knudsen (who had joined GM in 1922). The payoff was that the thirteen-to-one ratio by which the Model T had outsold Chevrolet in 1921 was cut to two-to-one by 1926, forcing even Henry Ford to recognize that the Model T era was over.

Model T production was halted on 27 May 1927, and the Ford plants were shut down while its successor, the Model A, was hastily designed. Some 400,000 orders were received before the Model A had been seen by the public. Following what was probably the most extensive changeover of an industrial plant in history, the assembly lines at River Rouge began to turn out limited numbers in November, and the Model A was introduced on 2 December. Unlike the revolutionary Model T, however, the Model A was a very conventional car for its time and was made obsolete even as it was introduced by further developments at Chevrolet, especially by the introduction of a six-cylinder engine as standard in the 1929 model year.

Ford took the radical step of going Chevrolet one better by introducing his 65-horsepower Model 18 V-8 on 2 March 1932. Casting its entire engine block as a single unit was perhaps the most significant manufacturing innovation of the 1930–1950 decades because it significantly reduced manufacturing costs, making a V-8 engine practical for low-priced cars. The 1932 V-8 engine remained the basic power plant of Ford cars for twenty-one years. V-8 styling followed that of the top-of-the-line Lincoln, and with the V-8 Ford began to emulate the annual model change innovated at GM.

Despite the V-8’s excellence, Chevrolet outsold Ford in every year from 1931 through 1986 except 1935 and 1945, and the latter year was an exception only because Ford was the first automaker to return to civilian production after World War II. Plymouth also cut into Ford sales in the low-price field after it was introduced in 1929 by the Chrysler Corporation. Only in the sale of light trucks did the Ford Motor Company enjoy a slight lead over its competitors. In the oligopoly that had come to dominate the automobile industry, by 1936 Ford had dropped from undisputed leadership to third place in sales of passenger cars, with 22.44 percent of the market versus 43.12 percent for General Motors and 25.03 percent for Chrysler.

The Great Depression was an even more important impediment to the revival of the Ford Motor Company than competition from General Motors and Chrysler. Automobile registrations declined for the first time in the United States during the depression, and not until 1949 did the automobile industry equal its record 1929 output of 5.3 million units. Ford production collapsed from more than 1.5 million units in 1929 to a low of 232,000 units in 1932 and bounced back to only 600,000 units in 1941, the last full year of civilian automobile production before World War II. The number of Ford employees declined sharply from 170,502 in 1929 to 46,282 by 1932. Henry Ford, with the help of his Service Department, managed to resist unionization longer than General Motors or Chrysler. As a result the company’s wages for 1937–1941 fell a few cents below the average for all industry in the United States and well below the average for the automobile industry.

A survey by Fortune magazine conducted in 1937 for the National Association of Manufacturers found that 47.2 percent of the respondents still approved of the policies of the Ford Motor Company, versus an insignificant 3.1 percent approval for General Motors and 1.2 percent approval for Chrysler. Yet the Ford myths were beginning to be shattered, and Henry Ford at least was no longer being deified. In 1932 critic Jonathan Leonard noted the paradox that Ford “is hated by nearly everyone who has ever worked for him, and at one time was worshipped by nearly everyone who had not. His story is certainly the most fascinating in all the gaudy tales of American business.” Ford’s rhetoric increasingly seemed irrelevant nonsense even to the grassroots Americans who had deified him for a generation as the depression wore on. Letters to the “Sage of Dearborn” dwindled and became bitter and resentful.

The Establishment of the United Automobile Workers of America

Ford refused to participate in the code drafted for the automobile industry by the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (NACC), the industry trade association, under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Section 7(a) of that act gave labor the right to collective bargaining. After Title I of the NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, Section 7(a) was replaced on 5 July 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which set up a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), empowered to conduct elections to determine workers’ bargaining agents. The American Federation of Labor then issued a charter to the International Union, United Automobile Workers of America (UAW).

By the end of 1936 the UAW had closed most General Motors plants through the new tactic of the sit-down strike. Michigan governor Frank Murphy refused to call out the National Guard to evict strikers from GM’s Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants in Flint, which led GM to capitulate to the UAW on 11 February 1937. Following a sit-down strike at Chrysler in April, the automaker negotiated a similar agreement with the UAW.

These GM and Chrysler settlements left Ford the holdout against industry unionization and the main strike target of the UAW. Because the Roosevelt administration refused to enforce the law fully, the intransigent Ford Motor Company remained in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, even after the Supreme Court had upheld its constitutionality. Members of the Ford Service Department brutally beat Walter Reuther and several other UAW organizers in the notorious “battle of the overpass” at the River Rouge plant on 26 May 1937.

After the discharge of several union members on 1 April 1941, a spontaneous walkout of Ford workers closed down the River Rouge plant, initiating a UAW organizing strike. The UAW won about 70 percent of the votes in the NLRB election held at Ford on 21 May 1941. On 20 June Henry Ford finally signed a contract with the UAW—agreeing, ironically, to more generous terms than had either GM or Chrysler, including the deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks. With the signing of the Ford-UAW contract a new era of labor relations in the automobile industry had dawned as workers turned from dependence on Henry Ford’s paternalism and fear of Bennett’s Service Department to the union shop steward and the skills of UAW negotiators.

World War II

In 1938 Ford suffered a severe stroke, and his mental capacities eroded rapidly. He developed the hallucination that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a warmonger controlled by General Motors and the Du Ponts and that U.S. involvement in World War II was part of a conspiracy to gain control of his company. “His memory was failing as rapidly as his obsessions and antipathies increased,” Ford production head Charles E. Sorensen recalled. “His pet peeve was Franklin Roosevelt, but any mention of the war in Europe and the likelihood of this country’s involvement upset him almost to incoherence. Edsel, who was suffering from stomach trouble, came in for unmerciful criticism.”

With the rapid Nazi conquest of Europe, Hitler came to control Ford operations in eight countries on the Continent by late 1940. After the German declaration of war against the United States on 11 December 1941, Hitler seized these Ford European plants as “enemy property.” Without the knowledge of Ford–U.S., the German management of Ford–Werke AG had been for some time “secretly engaged in the production of war materials” (American Business Abroad, p. 320). Despite proclamations of neutrality from Dearborn, Ford’s British Commonwealth plants were quickly converted to war production during the fall of 1939.

In the United States President Roosevelt appointed Knudsen, who had risen to president of General Motors, to the chairmanship of the National Advisory Defense Committee (NADC). Knudsen left GM to assume his new duties at no salary on 28 May 1940. In late November, at a meeting in New York with more than one hundred auto-industry executives, he called on American automobile manufacturers to give their full cooperation to U.S. defense plans. His first priority was a program to produce aircraft engines and 35,000 aircraft.

Henry Ford already had reneged on an early June 1940 agreement with Knudsen to undertake the manufacture of Rolls-Royce aircraft engines for the British and was consequently under attack for his lack of patriotism by the press, especially in the United Kingdom. Edsel and Sorensen, however, managed to obtain his reluctant consent to participate in the aircraft engine program for the U.S. Air Force. Ford’s failure to comply in this voluntarily, they knew, would invite the governmental takeover that his paranoia led him to fear.

On 1 November 1940 the Ford Motor Company signed a contract to make Pratt and Whitney aircraft engines for the U.S. Air Force, while Packard undertook production of the Rolls-Royce engines for the Royal Air Force. In February 1941 the government approved Ford plans for a vast bomber plant at Willow Run, near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Snags in getting “Will-It-Run” into production delayed acceptance of the first B-24 bombers completely assembled by Ford until September 1942. By then the Ford Motor Company, along with the rest of the American automobile industry, had completely converted to war production and was playing an indispensable role in producing a variety of other military items, including tanks, jeeps, trucks, armored cars, and gliders. Ford, who had suffered another stroke in 1941, feared that the military personnel at Willow Run were spies sent by Roosevelt to assassinate him and took to carrying an automatic pistol under the cowl of his car.

Difficult Final Years

After Edsel’s death in 1943, Ford reassumed the presidency of the Ford Motor Company. Aware of Ford’s mental incompetence, Roosevelt toyed with the idea of removing him from the company and having the government operate it for the duration of the war. It took threats by Edsel’s widow and Clara Ford that they would sell their shares of Ford stock outside the family to induce Ford finally to step down in favor of his grandson, Henry Ford II, who was granted a discharge from the navy to assume the Ford presidency a few weeks after the Japanese surrender in September 1945.

“During the last two years of his life,” writes Ford biographer Richard B. Folsom, “Henry Ford resembled a blurred and faded photograph of his former self. Alert one moment, he was bewildered the next… . He tired easily and often did not feel well. Sometimes he wore a shawl and increasingly appeared to be an enfeebled old man.” He died at his Fair Lane estate during a power outage caused by the flooding Rouge River.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of Ford’s life was the Ford Foundation, a legal device conceived on 3 February 1936 as a means of avoiding Roosevelt’s “soak-the-rich” taxes while maintaining family control of the Ford Motor Company. The foundation was given a 95 percent equity in the Ford Motor Company in nonvoting common stock. A 5 percent equity of all voting common stock was retained by the Ford family. Had it not been for the Ford Foundation, the heirs of Edsel and Henry Ford would have paid federal inheritance taxes estimated at $321 million and would have lost control of the company in selling the stock necessary to raise the money. But by the end of 1955 the foundation had disposed of some $875 million of the Ford fortune and had announced plans to diversify its investments; this involved selling nearly seven million reclassified shares of Ford common stock. Thus three-fifths of the Ford Motor Company voting common stock ended up in the hands of key Ford executives and the general public. The family control of the firm that the Ford Foundation was formed to preserve ended less than a decade after Henry Ford’s death while the foundation had dispersed millions of the Ford fortune in ways that would not have pleased Henry Ford.


So much has been written about Henry Ford that any Ford bibliography must be highly selective. The bulk of primary materials are on file at the Ford Archives, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. Researchers now are more handicapped than those of several decades ago because before his death Henry Ford II removed and destroyed a great amount of material on his grandfather and father from the archives as well as the family medical records from Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. Henry Ford published three books, My Life and Work (1922) and Today and Tomorrow (1926), in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, and My Philosophy of Industry (1929), a series of authorized interviews with Fay L. Faurote. Although the writing in these volumes is undoubtedly Crowther’s and Faurote’s, there can be no doubt that the sentiments expressed either were made or approved by Ford. The major secondary work on Ford remains the monumental trilogy by Allan Nevins and Frank E. Hill, Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company (1954), Ford: Expansion and Challenge (1957), and Ford: Decline and Rebirth (1963). For the best account of Ford’s career by a close associate, see Charles E. Sorensen with Samuel T. Williamson, My Forty Years with Ford (1956). The most informative single book on Ford is David L. Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford (1976). Lewis’s book not only contains everything of value in the Nevins and Hill trilogy but also far more on some important aspects of Ford’s life, and it is more objective and balanced in its interpretations. Probably the most informative short biographic article on Ford is Richard B. Folsom’s “Henry Ford,” in The Automobile Industry, 1896–1920, ed. George S. May (1990), pp. 192–222. For criticisms of Ford and the Ford myth, see especially Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (1949); Jonathan N. Leonard, The Tragedy of Henry Ford (1932); and the material on Ford in John Kenneth Galbraith, The Liberal Hour (1960). For Ford’s reputation among the common people of America and the world, see Reynold M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-roots America (1972). The definitive work on Henry Ford and the Selden patent is William Greenleaf, Monopoly on Wheels (1961); on the five-dollar, eight-hour day and Ford labor practices and relations from 1908 to 1921, see Stephen Meyer III, The Five Dollar Day (1981). Ford’s attitude toward and treatment of blacks is covered in August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (1979). By far the best exposition and assessment of Ford mass-production methods is David A. Hounshell, “The Ford Motor Company and the Rise of Mass Production in America,” in his From the American System to Mass Production (1984). The most comprehensive study of Ford’s overseas business empire is Mira Wilkins and Frank E. Hill, American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents (1964). The most informative book on the Model T remains Floyd Clymer, Henry’s Wonderful Model T (1955). An obituary is in the Detroit Free Press, 9–10 Apr. 1947.