Henry Ford 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 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
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 in an «ocean-to-ocean» 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 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 , 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 ceding control.
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, 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, 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 operation.
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 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. 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.