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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Architects of America- Part 5

Henry Ford: Industrial Leader in the 20th Century

By Tom Morrow

If ever there was a story deserving of a Hollywood movie, the saga of Henry Ford is at the top of that list. He’s the fifth of our cadre of six moguls who built America.

Everyone knows Henry Ford was a pioneer in automobile manufacturing, but while he didn’t invent the automobile, Ford was the first automaker to mass produce vehicles. He created the auto assembly line, making it possible to roll out dozens of automobiles each day. At $700, nearly everyone in American could afford a Model T. Accordingly, cities, counties, states, and the federal government, had to build streets and highways for cars, thus connecting the population across America. People who never had been more than 25 miles from home, were free to venture 35 to 40 miles in little more than an hour. Ford’s vehicles were the basis of a new industrial revolution, employing up to 100,000 workers. He was the undisputed world leader of industry into the first half of the 20th century.

But, as his empire expanded, Henry Ford became a troubled man. He was unabashedly anti-Semitic and said as much in scathing editorials in his weekly newspaper distributed nationally through his more than 7,000 dealerships. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he was an isolationist, vehemently railing against America getting involved in any European war. He made it known his successor would be son Edsel, yet, to coin a phrase, never really gave his son “the keys to the car.” Despite Edsel finally being made the president of the company, Henry’s constant criticisms and rejection of ideas helped drive Edsel to an early grave (1943).

Examples of his father’s interference: Henry steadfastly believed all Americans really needed was his 1915 Model T, the most successful automobile in history. It was Edsel who finally persuaded his father to introduce the 1927 Model A. Then Edsel went to the mat, finally convincing his father the 1932 V-8 engine was the revolutionary auto power plant of the future.

When Edsel wanted to offer multiple colors on auto exteriors like other companies, (GM vehicles came in all colors “except” black), Henry flatly rejected the idea declaring, “Buyers can have any color they want as long as it’s black!”

There was a mean, anti-union side to Henry. To stave off union organizers, Henry surrounded himself and his factories by a gang of thugs posing as “security.” The “bodyguards” were led by Harry Bennett, who gained tremendous influence over the old man, coming between father and son. Henry never realized the extent of Bennett’s power. In reality, he had control of the company by intimidating executives and workera, shutting Edsel out. Workers could be fired for talking to one another while on the line. For years, unionization was rejected by Henry until Edsel finally gave in to worker demands.

In 1943, Edsel died of stomach cancer, leaving the old man back in charge, but Bennett continued to control Ford. When the war started, the company was not meeting Washington’s demand for aircraft, tanks, various other vehicles, and armaments. Realizing the problem, the War Department took Lt. Henry Ford II, the grandson, out of the Navy and placed him in charge of the company. One of the first decisions the young executive, (who became known as “Hank the Deuce”) made was to fire Bennett and his gang of thugs.

While Henry, his son, Edsel, and three grandsons, Henry II, Benson, and William, all made historic 20th century contributions that revolutionized the American auto industry, the sweeping accomplishments of Edsel have nearly been lost to history.

Like his father, Edsel also was an inventor and transportation visionary, but unlike Henry, he was mild-manner, gentle, and well-liked. During his company leadership, he introduced the Mercury and Lincoln automobiles along with countless innovations.  The next time you hear that low rumble of a V-8 engine, think of Edsel and his 1932 revolutionary power plant.

As for Henry, he was the first of our six great American builders to make his mark in the 20th century. Of the six, he was by far the best-known around the world.

NEXT WEEK: Thomas Edison


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