In Greek mythology, few figures were more exalted than the hero who had a tragic flaw. Think of Achilles and his heel, after whom your ankle tendon is named.
Which brings us to the reason today is special.
Today is Henry Ford’s birthday.
A man who was a hero. And a man who had a few flaws, too, as heros do.
But, ultimately, a man who transformed the world.
Henry Ford was born in Greenfield, Michigan on July 30, 1863.
It has become popular to view Ford as an eccentric, someone who hung on too long, who didn’t “get it,” and who succeeded because he had one good, lucky idea.
Henry Ford was, in truth, a man of remarkable vision and intellect,
He didn’t invent the automobile, though he was right up there with those who did. Henry Ford didn’t invent mass production, either. He didn’t even invent the standardization of parts for automobiles.
Though Ford wasn’t the first in any of these concepts, he was the first to put them together.
From the perspective of 2007, it is very difficult to comprehend the impact of the Model T Ford on society in its time. Introduced in 1908, the Model T remained in production into the 1927 model year.
In 1908, the company produced far less than 10,000 Model T Fords. In 1910, the company built 20,173 Model Ts. Those were huge production numbers at the time.
But by 1916, Ford was producing over a half million a year, 586,202. In 1920, it broke the million a year mark: 1,038,447. In 1923 – which was only four years before the end of the Model T’s production – Ford broke the two million mark: 2,055,299. Even in the last full year of its production, 1926, the company produced 1,629,177 Model T Fords. The last year’s production, that of 1927, was 387,778, as the company terminated production early to close plants for the change over to the Model A.
At one point, 9 of every 10 cars in the world – not just in America – were Fords.
Henry Ford was not merely a lucky industrialist who was in the right place at the right time.
One look at the River Rouge plant complex located on 2000 acres a few miles South of Detroit should dispel that notion.
Begun in 1917 and completed in 1928, the River Rouge complex was the largest industrial facility in the world.
It was not an automobile assembly plant.
It was an automobile creation facility.
At one end, cargo ships from the Great Lakes loaded with iron ore from the Mesabe range in Minnesota offloaded their cargo.
At the other end, new cars drove into the daylight.
That’s right: everything necessary to the creation of a new car occurred in that complex, including smelting the iron ore into steel.
Ford doesn’t make steel anymore, but it still builds Fords at the Rouge.
Henry Ford built the Rouge because he didn’t want to pay anyone else to do what he could do as well or better.
He did not like sharing profit.
Do you grill out? Use charcoal? Is it Kingsford?
The “ford” in Kingsford is Henry Ford. He owned forests to supply the high quality wood required for building wheels for the Model T. But, he didn’t like to waste the left-over wood. So he and Mr. King figured out a way to turn it into charcoal. Kingsford.
To this day, there are still abandoned buildings in Brazil where Henry Ford built Fordlandia, a community created around acreage devoted to growing rubber trees. Ford, despite the fact that he and Harvey Firestone were best friends, wanted to have his own rubber supply, so that he could manufacture his own tires. The plan didn’t work out because the agronomy of rubber trees was not then fully understood, but Ford didn’t fail for lack of trying. Eventually, the development of synthetic rubber made the idea obsolete and Fordlandia was abandoned. Nevertheless, Fordlandia is an example of how Henry Ford kept pushing the envelope, how he constantly pursued a better way to do it, whatever “it” might be.
Henry Ford also raised wages, to $5 per day.
At the time, that was about three times what anyone else was paying.
Plus, he cut the work day to 8 hours, two to four hours less than anyone else required.
Today, some economists to claim that Ford doesn’t deserve any credit for this, that he didn’t do this altruistically. So they condemn him because he expected to benefit from the higher wage.
Of course he expected a benefit. At the time, Henry Ford was faced with a huge turnover of workers and a very large absentee rate at his plants. The concept of mass production was still alien to most of the people who had grown up in a craft economy.
Ford made the $5 per day wage contingent on showing up and staying with the company, and required part of it to be saved in a Ford bank. The wage didn’t depend on the profit and loss statement. Nonetheless, by the way the wage was paid and the conditions imposed, Ford had created what would now be called a form of profit sharing.
But, in the process, he also accomplished something deeper.
He created the American consumer economy.
At the time, the notion that an ordinary American worker could actually own a car was fantasy. Ford recognized that he couldn’t expect the best from those he employed if they were only building someone else’s dream.
Raising wages moved the ordinary American into the class of prospective buyers of a Ford.
And he did everything he could to make it more affordable.
Over the time the Model T was produced, Ford was merciless in cutting the price of the car. At its introduction, the Model T cost $850, a fifth of what many cars cost at the time. But by the end of the model run, the price was below $300.00, which would be about $3,000 today.
By its end in 1927, 15,000,000 Model Ts had been sold.
That means that during its model run, there was a Model T produced for one of every ten people - men, women and children - in America.
But heros have flaws, and Henry Ford had flaws.
He failed to appreciate the genius of his son, Edsel Ford.
He failed to appreciate that America could not isolate itself from events in Europe.
He failed to appreciate that the his workers required more than his largesse, they required their own dignity and independence.
Edsel Ford was what Henry Ford should have wished in a son, his only child. Edsel Ford was a true genius, someone who understood his father’s achievements and could carry on the dream in a new environment.
It was Edsel Ford who first appreciated that the automobile market had changed and that Ford could not continue to depend on the Model T. It was a change which, perhaps understandably, his father had missed. In a few short years, the ability of the company to sell cars by making them ever cheaper to buy had run aground. People were sufficiently prosperous to want to spend money on something better.
Edsel Ford rammed through a new car that leapfrogged, for a time, the competition and he did it just in time: the Model A. He also had an intuitive sense of line and style. He was, in many ways, the equal of Harley Earl at GM – one who could not draw, but could define what he wanted drawn. It was Edsel Ford that created the Lincoln Continental, the classic Lincolns of the thirties, and the lines of the Model A.
Regrettably, his father never appreciated Edsel’s genius, and resented his successes. Edsel threatened Henry, because Edsel Ford saw what Henry could not. Edsel died in 1943, and the future of the Ford Motor Company almost died with him. Many believe that the father drove the son into the grave.
Henry Ford also opposed the New Deal and America’s involvement in Europe’s political problems. Ultimately, that put him out of synch with both events and popular sentiment. However, at the time, isolationism was a popular political opinion, so much so that even Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on a platform that included staying out of European wars.
But it is Ford’s anti-Semiticism that has most damaged his place in history.
It is a hit he deserves.
But he isn’t the only one.
Henry Ford was born and lived in a society in which anti-Semiticism was accepted. European anti-semiticism was an enabling factor in the rise of the Nazi party. Even today, it remains an issue throughout the Continent and Eurasia.
He should have done better. We expect better from people with vision, from our heroes. And, in this he failed us. It is distressing to discover that a man of vision is myopic, after all.
Then there is the matter of the United Auto Workers.
Ford said that the UAW would organize his company “over his dead body.” He turned out to be wrong. The UAW was recognized in 1943, four years before Ford’s death.
But he fought the UAW more directly than any other automaker. Faced with sabotage by UAW members on the Ford assembly line, Ford hired muscle to do whatever it took. The result was war, and wars are bloody. This one was. Eventually, Ford caved in to the union, after General Motors had knuckled under first. But at no other auto company was the war so bitterly fought, and the residue of those events is still part of the legacy in labor relations between Ford and its workers.
In the end, though, despite his flaws, Henry Ford must be regarded as an American heroic figure.
Henry Ford died at his home on April 7, 1947.
He did something no one else could have done.
He gave us cars.