The Man Who Put America on Wheels
By Tom Morrow
Ford didn’t invent the “horseless carriage,” but he was the first to mass produce gas-powered vehicles. He developed the auto “assembly line,” making it possible to roll out dozens of automobiles each day. In early on, a new Ford Model T costs $700. A few years later, the selling price dropped to $300. Ford’s mass production made it possible so every American could afford a Model T.
With a price nearly every American could afford, cities, counties, states, and the federal government, had to build streets and highways for the thousands of automobiles jamming roadways. Ford was chiefly responsible for connecting the “Lower 48” states and their population centers across America. The Model T, to this day, continues to hold the record of the largest-selling auto of all time.
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 well into the first half of the 20th century.
But, as his empire expanded, making him one of the key industrialists who built America, Ford became controversial because he was unabashedly anti-Semitic and said as much in scathing editorials in his weekly Dearborn, Michigan, newspaper distributed nationally through his more than 7,000 dealerships. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he became an isolationist, vehemently railing against America getting involved in any European war. However, war production of bombers added even more wealth to the Ford coffers.
Ford made it known he would pass the company to his son Edsel, yet, to coin a phrase, he never really gave Edsel “the keys to the car.” Despite Edsel being made the president of Ford Motor Co., Henry’s constant criticisms and rejection of ideas helped drive Edsel to an early grave.
Examples of his father’s interference: Henry steadfastly believed all Americans really needed was his 1915 Model T. Until later years all Model Ts were painted black. Edsel maintained all owners should have a choice of colors, Henry famously said: “The buyer can have any color he wants as long as it’s black.”
Edsel finally persuaded Henry to introduce the 1927 Model A, and five years later Edsel sold Henry on the 1932 roadster, armed with the V-8 engine, the revolutionary power plant for the future.
There was a mean side to Henry. He was widely known for his pacifism during the first years of World War I, and anti-Jewish diatribes in his newspaper. He alleged the book, “The International Jew,” had an influence in the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Henry was vehemently against union organizers and to stop them he surrounded his factories by a gang of thugs posing as a “security force.” This force was 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, Bennett had control of the company by intimidating executives and workers, shutting Edsel out. Workers could be fired for talking to one another while on the assembly 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 at Bennett’s, continued influence. When World War II started, Henry’s mind was slipping and the company was not meeting Washington’s demand for aircraft, tanks, various other vehicles, and armaments. Realizing the problem, the War Department took grandson Navy Lt. Henry Ford II, off active duty and placed him in charge of the company. One of the first decisions “Hank the Deuce” carried out was to fire Bennett and his thugs.
While Henry, his son, Edsel, and three grandsons, Henry II, Benson, and William, all made historic 20th century contributions revolutionizing the American auto industry, the sweeping accomplishments of son Edsel have been all but lost to history.
Like his father, Edsel was a visionary, but unlike Henry, he was mild-manner, gentle, and well-liked. Henry didn’t have any of those traits. Still, Henry Ford was one of the top six builders of America, securing a trademark known around the world. The old man died April 7, 1947, and, today car collectors continue to covet various iconic models of Mustangs, Thunderbirds and, of course, the ’32 roadster.