Wheels for the World
Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress
"History on a grand scale...sweeping, absorbing." Robert Caro
In this monumental work, one of our finest historians reveals the riveting details of Ford Motor Company’s epic achievements, from the outlandish success of the Model T and V-8 to the glory days of the Thunderbird, Mustang, and Taurus. Brilliant innovators, colorful businessmen, and clever eccentrics, as well as the three Ford factories themselves, all become characters in this gripping drama. Douglas Brinkley is a master at crafting compelling historical narratives, and this exemplary history of one of the preeminent American corporations is his finest achievement yet.
I think the wheels were in his head," Margaret Ford Ruddiman explained about her big brother Henry's lifelong mania for tinkering.1 Indeed, from the early days of his youth, the wheels in Henry Ford's head were turning, in his fascination with farm tools and engines, gadgets and machines, and automobiles. And after that, with business, industry, and society; always, in sum, with how the world, and everything in it, works. Some of the flawed notions his mental gears ground out may detract from Ford's legacy as a human being, but even his worst failings cannot lessen the impact of his brightest ideas or of Ford Motor Company, which he founded to express them. Through the company or his own constant activity, the influence of Henry Ford was felt on American history and on human civilization, for good and ill.
The Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, an Episcopalian minister who for many years would head Ford Motor Company's sociological department, wrote of Henry Ford in 1923, "There are in him lights so high and shadows so deep, that I cannot get the whole of him in the proper focus at the same time."2 W. C. Cowling, the company's sales manager from 1931 to 1937, likewise had trouble penetrating his boss's mercurial temperament. "I think," Cowling explained in reminiscences taped by the Henry Ford Museum and Library in 1951, "Henry Ford's personality was almost ethereal. You might not see him for months, but the spirit of Henry Ford was in that organization always. His personality dominated people whether he said anything or only sat there. He dominated a group because of his personality, not his money, but his personality I can't describe. I think he would have been the same if he'd only had twenty cents."3
As I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo located on the Maumee River, Henry Ford and his motor company were a part of my life. Every spring, with pronounced regularity, my classmates and I would board a school bus and travel fifty-five miles to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village for our annual field trip. The collection of buildings in Dearborn is homage to American invention, all of the edifices moved from their original location by Henry Ford. We learned how Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in his New Jersey laboratory, how George Washington Carver experimented with peanuts in his Alabama institute, and how the Wright brothers transformed their Ohio bicycle shop into an airplane design center. Decades later I still have fond memories of wandering around Greenfield Village, having a try at churning butter, watching a blacksmith make harnesses, and putting around the premises in a chauffeured Model T. Ford's goal was to make history tangible, and so he did. But mostly on these field trips we learned about Henry Ford-the tireless mechanic who put the world on wheels.
The Ford dealership closest to my house growing up was in the town of Maumee, just across the Maumee River from Perrysburg, on a bluff where General William Henry Harrison built a fort during the War of 1812. It was owned by a wonderful man named Will Donaldson, who regaled me with incredible stories about being Henry Ford's chauffeur during the Great Depression. Donaldson, whose father worked for Ford Motor, had graduated from the first high school class sponsored by Henry Ford, held in an old nineteenth-century schoolhouse built in Greenfield Village. Ford, with an eye for young talent, employed Donaldson while still a teenager to drive him around metropolitan Detroit to conduct farm and factory inspections. Together they also drove to Boston, excavated an old fort in Georgia, made soybean burgers for dinner, and rebuilt old Model Ts that had been scrapped in a junkyard. Donaldson once showed me the special pass he had granting access to any Ford Motor facility at any time. Captivated by his tales, I did a school paper on the unique relationship he fostered with Henry Ford: it was, essentially, my first oral history project.4
During those class trips and casual talks with Will Donaldson, the stranger sides of Henry Ford's multifaceted personality naturally escaped my purview. Ford was, to my uninformed mind, the father of the automobile, a tinkerer extraordinaire in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. In fact, Scotch-taped to my bedroom wall, next to autographed pictures of Detroit Tiger All-Stars Mickey Lolich and Al Kaline, was a Norman Rockwell illustration of the young Henry Ford sitting with his father on a Dearborn workbench, taking machines apart and reassembling them. Purchased at a Greenfield Village gift shop, this poster, titled "The Boy Who Put the World on Wheels," had been commissioned by Ford Motor Company in 1953 to help commemorate the company's fiftieth anniversary (it also appeared in Life magazine). Eventually, as I entered high school, the Rockwell picture came down, replaced by rock 'n' roll posters of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, but I did occasionally flip through a book called Quotations from the Unusual Henry Ford. Rereading it twenty-five years later, I found two quotes I had underlined in green felt pen. One read: "I refuse to recognize that there are impossibilities. I cannot discover that anyone knows enough about anything on this earth definitely to say what is and what is not possible." Another one, starred, offered this counsel: "Life, as I see it, is not a location, but a journey. Even the man who feels himself 'settled' is not settled-he is probably sagging back. Everything is in flux, and was meant to be. Life flows. We may live at the same number of the street, but it is never the same man who lives there."5
It's not hard to fathom why such cracker-barrel wisdom would appeal to a high schooler. I, like many others, responded to Henry Ford's unfettered optimism. After graduation in the summer of 1978, I abandoned the security of Perrysburg for the Haverfield Hall dormitory at Ohio State University. And my own set of "wheels" became my rolling address, a used, gold 1970 LTD four-door hardtop. From 1960 to 1970, Ford Motor Company had manufactured over 411 different body-styles-the reliable LTD, sadly, ranked as one of the least exciting to a teenager. Yet, brainwashed, perhaps, by those field trips to Dearborn, I was proud to drive a Ford. That car, which bounced like a boat on water, was an extension of myself, my personal sanctuary, my trusty friend, which could take me wherever I wanted to go. Known simply as "the LTD," it remains a part of my college years as surely as Ohio State-Michigan football games, Halloween Harvest balls, and buckets of beer at the Varsity Club just off High Street.
Besides my attachment to the LTD, for which I would change spark plugs, put on new fan belts, and pour transmission fluid, I took a general interest in cars. Nearly every month I would purchase Car and Driver, Cars & Parts, and Road & Track from the 7-Eleven just a few blocks from my dormitory. Someday I hoped to drive a red Mustang II built on a 96.2-inch wheelbase with a 302-cubic-inch V-8 engine or a vintage Thunderbird convertible, which to my mind had always been much "cooler" than the Chevrolet Corvette. Some people fantasize about a dream home; I always imagined owning my own dream car.
It was as a history major at Ohio State that I learned some of the more surprising facts of Henry Ford's illustrious career. As a student, I developed a particular passion for studies of the U.S. labor movement, thanks in large measure to the best teacher I've ever encountered, Professor Warren Van Tine. With great conviction, Van Tine regaled his class with stories about Woody Guthrie hitchhiking across America with "This Machine Kills Fascists" carved on his six-string guitar, Mother Jones assailing mine owners for poisoning the lungs of babies, and Samuel Gompers championing the Cigar Makers International Union as a prelude to organizing the American Federation of Labor. As I read books by labor historians David Brody, David Montgomery, Nelson Lichtenstein, and others, I was astonished to discover that Henry Ford was considered one of the bad guys, the man who boldly gave workers the "$5 Day" in 1914 only to become the most impassioned anti-union voice in America during the Great Depression. Suddenly, the Henry Ford I had first encountered through the idyllic history at Greenfield Village and at Donaldson Ford, full of Horatio Alger-like pluck and blessed with a genius for machines, was tainted. But one fact was irrefutable: in 1914 his company-Ford Motor-produced and sold more cars than the combined total sold throughout the rest of the world.
After Ohio State, I went on to earn a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history at Georgetown University. On the side, I read whatever I could about the remarkable Henry Ford, thinking that someday I would write a book about him. Two biographies I particularly enjoyed were Roger Burlingame's Henry Ford and Carol Gelderman's Henry Ford: The Wayward Capitalist. The most informative book ever written about the sage of Dearborn, however, is David L. Lewis's The Public Image of Henry Ford. It soon became clear just how elusive the Motor Magnate was. Biographers had long grappled with contradictory accounts of Ford's own verbal accounts and his six ghostwritten memoirs, all of which are laced with anecdotes that don't ring quite true. "I've read everything that I could get my hands on about Henry Ford and I've never agreed with any of them in total," W. C. Cowling once grumbled. "I don't know of anybody that really captured him."6
Yet Ford's story hardly needed embellishment: he lived through fascinating times, and did as much as any other individual to make them so. Ford entered the world on July 30, 1863, just under seven months after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States, and just four years after French engineer Jean-Joseph-Etienne Lenoir built the first practical internal combustion engine, as well as the first vehicle to be powered by one. Although only five hundred of the temperamental Lenoir engines were ever built, they inspired budding engine designers throughout Europe. Even so, Lenoir's achievements were seen as no more than just another couple of sparks in the technological explosion that was redefining Western civilization throughout the last third of the nineteenth century. It was not until Henry Ford's day that the masses would begin to see the possibilities for a "horseless carriage."
Science and engineering burst forth, fueled by the enthusiasm of myriad thinkers and tinkerers in Europe and in North America. In Boston, Scottish-born American inventor Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent on the telephone revolutionized human communication. Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, New Jersey, poured out a stream of world-changing inventions, including his 1877 phonograph and his 1879 lightbulb. Slowly but surely, the automobile was coming, too.
In 1878, Germany's Nikolaus August Otto improved on Lenoir's internal combustion engine by using an electric spark to ignite a mixture of coal, gasoline, and air into enough of an explosion inside a cylinder to push a piston and turn a drive wheel. In 1885, Otto's collaborator Gottlieb Daimler developed a gasoline-fueled, high-speed internal combustion engine that could propel a small motorcycle, and, a year later, the first gas-powered four-wheel car. Daimler's work not only predated Henry Ford's by a full decade but provided the basic mechanics for it as well. The pioneering French car manufacturing firm Panhard et Levassor, which issued a catalogue describing its gasoline-fueled automobile line, added to the fundamentals the American inventor would later draw on.7
For Henry Ford, being young in an age of prodigious invention meant being alive to share in the bounty of the day's innovations. Even better, he was part of a capitalist nation with an abundant supply of natural resources, the most advanced techniques for extracting them, and the biggest, richest, and least thrifty market of eager consumers in the history of human civilization. In retrospect, Henry Ford's career appears in part to be the product of an uncanny combination of fortuitous circumstances that put a Michigan mechanic of certain obsessive predilections in precisely the right places for him to meet exactly the right people at just the right times. In this way his natural talents were able to express themselves to the fullest.
In his 1855 masterwork Leaves of Grass, poet Walt Whitman offered a celebratory hymn to the doers in American life, those driven by the urgent potency of the dawn of the twentieth century: "A worship new I sing," Whitman rhapsodized. "You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours / You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours."8 Indeed, when Henry Ford was growing into manhood, many of America's most durable heroes were bold individualists whose careers had melded science with commerce. Their inventions described their achievements: Eli Whitney's cotton gin, Robert Fulton's steamboat, Cyrus McCormick's reaper, Samuel F. B. Morse's telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, John Deere's steel plow. The young Henry Ford aspired to join their ranks.
Populist to his core, Ford preferred fortunes born of production rather than the paper-shuffling kind that benefited only the stock manipulators and financial speculators who contrived them. He disdained men like railroad baron Jay Gould for being greedy "city slickers" helpless in a machine shop, research laboratory, or manufacturing plant. "Did you ever see dishonest calluses on a man's hands?" Ford once asked. "Hardly. When a man's hands are callused and women's hands are worn, you may be sure honesty is there. That's more than you can say about many soft white hands."9 Ford, like his fellow automotive pioneers, had to either thread every rod and bore every cylinder himself or get an associate to do it. He also had to invent his own ignition system, and he did it all with midnight zeal. Ford saw himself as heir to a tradition of innovation that started with Benjamin Franklin, changing our national character and the world with it. As historian Willis M. West put it, "The American invents as the Greek chiseled, as the Venetian painted, as the modern Italian sings."10
Anybody interested in understanding the inventor Henry Ford and his car company must begin by reading historian Allan Nevins's indispensable three-volume study, written between 1954 and 1963. Nevins, working with Frank Ernest Hill, was given unprecedented access to the Ford Motor Company Archives. A combination of group biography and business history, the Nevins trilogy profiled such underappreciated figures as James Couzens, Alexander Malcomson, Charles Sorensen, and Percival Perry. Other important books have been written since, but most focused on the Ford family, including a pair that were critically acclaimed: Peter Collier and David Horowitz's The Fords: An American Epic and Robert Lacey's Ford: The Men and the Machine. But nobody had ever written a comprehensive, single-volume business and social history of Ford Motor Company, and the centennial of its founding on June 16, 1903, suggested the perfect time for such a book.
In addition to my lifelong interest in Henry Ford, and the recognition of the need for a comprehensive Ford Motor Company business and social history, a number of circumstances converged that persuaded me to write Wheels for the World. As director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, I oversee the largest collection of World War II oral histories in existence. We have tape-recorded and transcribed thousands of first-person recollections of our "citizen soldiers" at D-Day and the Bulge, Iwo Jima and Bataan. Impressed by our collection, William Clay Ford Sr., grandson of Henry Ford and a World War II veteran himself, contacted the center. Did we know that Ford Motor Company had hundreds of oral history "reminiscences" starting with its founding in 1903? Did we realize that in 2003 Ford Motor would be celebrating its centennial? Would we be interested in having access to the company's archive? An offer was made for me-with no strings attached-to pick up where Nevins left off in 1962 and write a fourth volume of the history of Ford Motor. Intrigued, I flew to Dearborn to discuss the possibility.
It was 1997; I had just finished writing The American Heritage History of the United States and was looking for a big subject to tackle. No subject could be quite as big as the whole American story, but Ford came surprisingly close. Its rich and influential history sheds light on most major aspects of the twentieth century. In conversations with Bill Ford Jr.-the son of William Clay Ford-who became CEO of the company in 2001, I made it clear that I had no interest in finishing the Nevins project. By its very description that would be a disjointed effort. What did interest me, however, was writing a single-volume business and social history of Ford Motor from 1903 to 2003.
Over the years I've been shocked at how the histories of major corporations have been ignored in high school textbooks and forgotten in university curriculums. Conservatives claim that the trend against corporate history came about because academia is dominated by liberals and leftists who disdain anything that smells of a Fortune 500 company. There is some truth to this argument-but only some. Corporations themselves are also to blame for the fact that they're largely absent from popular history books. By nature, corporations are secretive-afraid of costly lawsuits, upsetting stockholders, or revealing design innovations. They prefer to keep company files closed, cloistered away in some hidden storage facility on the outskirts of town. Most never donate their files to a public archive, where scholars would be free to analyze their achievements and follies. Most companies are overwhelmed with frenetic imperatives to sell this year's product and stimulate future profits. To them, history is often an inconvenience. They prefer glossy, illustrated books that present the company in a flattering Madison Avenue glow, or they opt for dull tomes that outline the facts chronologically, strictly according to the company line.
"What bothers me is that many people who work for our company don't have any idea of our incredible history," Bill Ford Jr. told me over coffee when we first met at his Dearborn office. "We've done a lot of things right and some wrong, but we've survived. We have a great heritage. I don't want to read a candy-coated history that pulls punches. A history of this company should be straight and honest, warts and all." Then he smiled and his eyes grew large. "We'll help you if you include the warts."11 His comment struck me as a generous, if slightly unusual, attitude for the chairman and CEO of a major corporation. But Bill Ford Jr. is not just another run-of-the-mill executive. He is the great-grandson of Henry Ford, the founder of the company, and was bursting with what some call New Age ideas about the role of automobile manufacturing in the modern world. His pro-environment comments had made him the darling of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, and he was on the record deploring many aspects of industrialization. He was unafraid, to the dismay of some stockholders, to discuss how petroleum might someday become obsolete, or how hydrogen fuel cells were the wave of the future. When a boiler exploded at the Rouge factory on a sad day in February 1999, killing six plant workers and injuring fourteen, he had received an emergency telephone call. He immediately drove to the site of the accident. Like any volunteer worker, he tried to help the situation the best he could, consoling families and digging through rubble. The Detroit News and Free Press applauded his actions, deeming him a caring capitalist. "Can you believe we've sunk so low," he asked me shortly after the event, "that when workers get hurt or killed they just assume the company executives won't show up, that we're only worried about lawsuits and insurance costs?"12
Only time will tell whether Bill Ford Jr. will become a successful chairman and CEO, but it's difficult not to like him as a person. A history major at Princeton University, Ford not only knows a great deal about his great-grandfather but has carefully studied the career of his uncle Henry Ford II, who took over the company in 1945. As our conversation continued, I was amazed to learn how much Ford Motor Company was planning to do to celebrate its centennial: a yearlong "heritage" media campaign promoting the enduring virtues of the Thunderbird, Mustang, Ford trucks, and other vehicles; a classic auto show on the grounds of Henry Ford II World Center (also known as World Headquarters) in Dearborn with thousands of collectors' cars displayed; a NASCAR race in Brooklyn, Michigan; charity fund-raisers on the Dearborn Proving Grounds Test Track; the production of six new Model Ts; and on and on.13 He promised that at the next Ford Centennial meeting, he would raise the idea of allowing me free rein from the corporate archives to the company Rolodex, with no strings attached. It sounded good to me: we promised to stay in touch.
Convincing others that I would not be a Trojan horse at World Headquarters as the company prepared for its centennial party was not an automatic sell. Objections emerged from numerous corners. How would this sort of "warts and all" history help sell SUVs? Did the company really need to be reminded of Henry Ford's anti-Semitism, Harry Bennett's thuggish anti-unionism, and Lee Iacocca's exploding Pinto on the eve of such an important company occasion? Understandably some members of the Ford family feared that what I professed would be a business and social history would end up being another exposé about the debauches of the rich. Eventually, however, Bill Ford Jr. prevailed, and I began writing Wheels for the World, making numerous research visits to Dearborn over a period of nearly six years.
To help me wade through the mounds of archival material and write Wheels for the World, Julie Fenster, a personal friend and historian, was brought onto the book project. We had worked closely together when I was writing The American Heritage History of the United States, and the editor of that esteemed magazine, Richard Snow, hired her to write the captions for the illustrations (I was impressed). She had started her career as an editor at Automobile Quarterly and was a well-respected expert on cars. When told about my plan to write a history of Ford Motor Company, she immediately hopped on board. She has been my partner on this book, researching obscure facts, helping organize chapter drafts, and offering her shrewd insights into the role the automobile has played in shaping the modern world. Collaborating with her was a joy. Somewhere along the line we decided that once Wheels for the World was finished, and Ford Motor was put into historical perspective, we would together undertake a centennial history of General Motors, which was founded in 1908, as a companion volume.
In writing Wheels for the World, I drew upon hundreds of oral histories; the more recent ones are quoted exclusively here for the first time. There are two main archives connected to Ford Motor Company on which I relied. One is the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum and Library, which contains more than 25 million pieces of printed and archival source material on the company and related topics. The other is the Ford Motor Company Archives, established in 1951, currently containing approximately 10,000 cubic feet of records, including executive correspondence files, financial records, marketing and public relations materials, production and plant records, company publications, annual reports, photographs, and moving images. The Ford Motor Company Archives, which is not generally open to the public, has entered into a collaborative partnership with the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village to provide access to the historical records of the company. Records will be transferred to the museum when they become available for outside research. I utilized both, but not without the help of some extraordinary assistance. Three Ford Motor Company archivists put untold hours into making this book a reality: Greta Krapac, Cynthia Korolov, and Elizabeth Adkins. Their knowledge of Ford Motor Company and their willingness to track down obscure articles and records were always beyond the call of duty.
As Wheels for the World developed, an unexpected change occurred in the way I would write the book. I originally thought that Henry Ford would not loom as large as he does, particularly during the fifty-six years after he died, in 1947. However, on the eve of the centennial, the business philosophy of Henry Ford was still a part of the company. Whether it was his unshakable belief in the importance of company "branding," his maxim that the consumer comes first, or his conviction that progress comes from a cooperative form of rivalry, Ford personified what the company was all about. "Why flounder around waiting for good business?" Ford once asked. "Get the cost down by better management. Get the prices down to the buying power." That is still the company's primary objective. Wheels for the World, therefore, tries to trace the enduring force he left to the company he created. It's not just that his only son, Edsel, and then grandson Henry Ford II and great-grandson Bill Ford Jr. have run the company in his wake. It is that at difficult junctures the Ford corporate executive or floor manager sometimes thinks about what the old man would have done. The main reason for Henry Ford's enduring legacy-both within the company and in the business world at large-was perfectly summed up by Atlantic Monthly senior editor Jack Beatty, who wrote in Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America that, "more than any other inventor, artist, writer or politician, Henry Ford made American dreams come true."14
Yet it often surprises people to learn that Henry Ford the "dreammaker" does not appear in the first wave of car inventors celebrated at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but his hometown museum does credit him with putting the "world on wheels." Along the same lines, in 1999 Fortune magazine named Ford one of the five "businesspersons of the twentieth century" for creating the affordable Model T and selling more than 15 million of the "people's cars" between 1908 and 1927. Time magazine also honored Ford as one of the one hundred most significant industrialists of his time, noting that he changed U.S. labor dynamics by doubling pay for production workers back in 1914.15 His company's implementation of the moving assembly line the previous year made "Fordism" the most imitated concept in businesses around the world. With the implementation of mass-production methods, including the moving assembly line on the eve of World War I, Henry Ford and his associates set in motion a second industrial revolution. Additionally, it was Ford's opinion-that the work should move while the worker stood still-that forever changed the way things are made, and even the way people think.
However, even though Henry Ford-and his motor company's assembly line-developed the means to put a good solid car in the lives of drivers around the world (an industrial miracle if ever there was one), he also sponsored the well-meaning if ridiculous Peace Ship expedition during World War I. He created a dense network of spies within his company and fought unionization with intrigue as well as deadly violence. He exhibited an odious anti-Semitism that will always stain his record. Yet he was in his early years an enlightened employer and implemented notably progressive policies for the recruitment of African Americans and the physically challenged in his factories. Henry Ford made one of the world's greatest fortunes partially off the genius of others, but it was he who drew them together and provided the spark of opportunity. All things considered, Henry Ford was a contradiction in virtually every term imaginable. As humorist Will Rogers would note of his industrialist friend, "It will take a hundred years to tell whether he helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn't leave us where he found us."16
As for that disappointing PEACE SHIP voyage, upon returning to the United States three weeks after his vessel's launch, Ford admitted that "I didn't get much peace, but I learned that Russia is going to be a great market for tractors."17 Indeed, the wheels were always turning.
Part Two: The Forward March
Part Three: The Battle Joined
Part Four: The Modern Corporation
Part Five: The Turnaround Years
History on a grand scale!... Sweeping, absorbing. (Robert Caro)
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