Motoring History: Henry Ford (Part I)

HenryFord_youngHenry Ford was a lot of things: industrialist, self-made man, wealthy and successful, maker of men (as he liked to say).  His business philosophy became known as “Fordism” – mass produce inexpensive goods and pay high wages.  It seemed he had an opinion on just about everything in the world.  After he became successful, he printed his own newspaper espousing those (often controversial) views and opinions.

Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863 to parents William and Mary (Litogot) Ford in Wayne County, Michigan not far from Detroit.  His father was born in Cork County, Ireland and his mother was the daughter of Belgian immigrants.  Henry was their eldest and four children followed him.  William, a farmer, expected his children would contribute by working on the family farm.  But, Henry was different – he was a tinkerer.

Rather than forcing him to perform chores he despised, his parents instead set up a work bench in the kitchen.  He repaired watches and studied every piece of machinery he encountered.  His ideas centered around making machinery that would make farm work easier.  After his mother died in 1876, farm life became even more tedious and tiresome.

When Henry turned sixteen, his father arranged for him to live with an aunt in Detroit and helped him secure a job as an apprentice machinist at James F. Flowers & Brothers.  Later he returned to the family farm and learned to operate a steam engine.  During the winter season he attended Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business University in Detroit, studying mechanical drawing, bookkeeping and business.

In 1888 Henry married Clara Bryant and together they had one child, a son named Edsel, born in 1893.  In 1891 he was hired as an engineer at Edison Illuminating Company and by 1893 he had been promoted to Chief Engineer.  The main purpose of the Edison Company was to provide electricity to American cities, but that wasn’t what fascinated Henry Ford – he was determined to build a horseless carriage.

The idea of a horseless carriage was being discussed and Henry and his engineer buddies read all the magazine articles and books they could find on the subject.  He and his friends worked late at night and on weekends to build their first motorized carriage.  On June 4, 1896, Henry Ford took his horseless carriage for a drive around Detroit for the first time.

QuadricycleThe quadricycle, as it was called, had twenty-eight inch bicycle wheels, could reach a speed of twenty miles per hour and had no brakes – and it could only be driven forward and was prone to overheating.  It was definitely an oddity and attracted a lot of attention – even the mayor wanted to invest in Henry Ford and his ideas.

Three years later, Henry quit his engineering job, assembled a team of engineers and incorporated his own car manufacturing company on August 5, 1899.  The Detroit Automobile Company was one of fifty-seven other companies founded that year.  The horseless carriage was catching on.

The company rolled out their first product in January of 1900, a delivery truck which a company spokesman said was “near perfect”.  In reality it looked like a “horse drawn delivery wagon without the horse.”  It was top heavy, and with ignition and engine problems, could only run a few minutes at a time.  To enable him to open his first car company, Ford had taken on investors and the investors wanted something more appealing and reliable.

FordFirstTruckHenry was determined to perfect the first one before designing another model.  Being the tinkerer he was, he would move parts, test and re-test.  Still his investors pressed him for another model.  To satisfy their demands and buy himself some time, he had his employees make parts for cars that would never be built.  His investors were not pleased and would no longer provide capital.

He would blame the investors, something that would be repeated later in his career — for you see, Henry Ford despised the wealthy.  According to historian Douglass Brinkely, investors “were the scum of America, to Henry Ford.”  He held this sentiment even though he himself would later become fabulously wealthy.  The Detroit Automobile Company closed its doors in January of 1901.

With the help of another engineer, he built a 26-horsepower automobile and entered a race sponsored by the Detroit Driving Club.  In the annals of Ford Motor Company history, they call it “the race that changed everything” (see last week’s article here).   Henry won that race, besting one of the most skilled race car drivers of the day, Alexander Winton.

On June 16, 1903 the Ford Motor Company was incorporated after investment offers poured in following his unexpected victory in October of 1901.  Within a short period of time, the first model was ready to be marketed – a two-seat vehicle with an eight-horsepower engine.  The first order cam from a Chicago dentist, followed by several more.  In less than two years the Ford Motor Company was building twenty-five cars a day, having already sold over one thousand.

Henry Ford was still not satisfied, however.  He walled off one corner of his factory and set his top engineers and mechanics to work behind locked doors.  He suggested ideas for design, engine function, body type and was eager to plunge himself into the process and get his hands dirty.

The company began to produce a new model every few months, naming their way through the alphabet: Model A, and so on.  After two years of tinkering and development (and nearing the end of the alphabet!), Ford introduced the Model T.  The car had a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine, a generator that provided enough power for the ignition and lights, and an improved transmission.

Model_TThe Model T came in green (later black) with an open top and optional cover.  It weighed about twelve hundred pounds and could go 40 miles per hour on a well-maintained and straight road.  The T’s were both durable and reliable, rarely breaking down.  When a breakdown did occur they were easy to repair.  The price of the average car at that time was over $2,000.  The Model T sold for $850 and later the price would drop.

Orders came pouring in from people from all walks of life.  According to historian Greg Grandin, “The Model T changed everything.  It gave people a new sense of power and authority and control over their lives.”  In a sense, Henry Ford became a hero of sorts.  One woman, a farm wife from Rome, Georgia, wrote him a letter:  “Your car lifted us out of the mud.  It brought joy into our lives.”

Even with all the accolades he and his company received, Henry Ford still strived to find a way to make his automobiles better while increasing daily production.  His goal was to sell an inexpensive product, and to keep them affordable he had to find a way to produce more of them in a shorter period of time.  Next week’s article will focus on Henry Ford’s production and business innovations (and missteps), as well as delving into some of his controversial social and political philosophies.

NOTE:  A related series on Ghost Town Wednesday continues this week with Part Two of Fordlandia (read Part One here).

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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