Motoring History: Henry Ford (Part Three)

EdselFordHenry Ford, with only an eighth grade education, always valued hard work.  He did, however, make sure that his only child Edsel received a good education at a prestigious Detroit all-boys school.  As a young boy, Edsel had followed his father around the plant, much to the delight of Henry – to see his son in coveralls and getting his hands dirty was what he expected.

All along he was being groomed to run the company someday.  However, after Edsel graduated he preferred to spend time with the Detroit well-to-do crowd, marrying into one of the most prominent families in Detroit.  Eleanor Clay’s uncle was the founder of the Hudson’s Department Store.  The differences in Henry and Edsel were striking – Henry was a highly disciplined individual who neither drank nor smoked and Edsel had a taste for the high life.

After Henry announced his plans to build a new plant and install his son as the new CEO of Ford Motor Company (this after ridding himself of investors and the Fords now owning all the controlling shares of the company), he still continued to run the show despite stepping down from leadership.  Edsel was left to handle the day-to-day sales and production of their flagship Model-T.

Edsel came up with the idea that the administration building needed to be enlarged due to overcrowding.  When Henry saw the hole that had been dug for the foundation, he insisted the new building was unnecessary.  Edsel acquiesced and offered to fill the hole.  Henry, however, told him to leave it just as it was.  That way Edsel would have to see the hole every day.  He remarked to a close friend, “I don’t know what kick father gets out of humiliating me this way.”

Henry Ford had quite an ego it seems and he was all about self-promotion whenever he needed publicity.  Early in the summer of 1919, however, Henry Ford had an unfortunate run of “bad press” when he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel.  The paper had called him an “ignorant idealist,” as well as an “anarchist enemy of the nation.”  The reasons for the Tribune’s harsh editorial stemmed from reports that Henry Ford intended to fire employees who joined the Michigan National Guard.


When called to take the stand and testify, Henry was asked by the newspaper’s lawyer if he knew anything about the Revolution.  Henry replied in the affirmative and was asked what revolution he was referring to.  “In 1812,” Ford replied.  The defense attorneys then spent time portraying him as semi-literate.  One day he was asked to read something and Henry refused – he had forgotten his glasses.  The next day he couldn’t read because his eyes were watering.

He was ridiculed relentlessly by the press but concurrently his own relentless self-promotion continued:


Try as they might, the Tribune’s lawyers were not successful in defending against Ford’s libel claims.  The jury, composed primarily of local farmers, ruled in Ford’s favor.  He was, after all, a man of the people – the “People’s Tycoon.”  He may have been ignorant but he wasn’t an anarchist.  The outcome did nothing to prevent the press from further ridicule of Ford.  The New York Times had this to say: “Mr. Ford has been submitted to a severe examination of his intellectual qualities.  He has not received a pass.”  The New York Post was more succinct: “The man is a joke.”

He retreated for awhile with friends Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone and upon his return he discovered there had been an outpouring of support from farmers, shopkeepers and small-town newspaper editors – his people.  Ministers were offering prayers for his vindication.  If the press intended to tear Henry Ford down, the everyday man-on-the-street would not be complicit.  Still, though, Ford continued his own media campaign – he made sure that when he had a grand plan, or executed one, that the press or a film maker was on hand to record it.


Henry Ford had ideas and opinions on just about everything.  He seemed sure that he knew how best people should live (see last week’s article about Ford as a “maker of men”), how they should exercise, no one should smoke or drink and so on.  While some of his views might have been tolerated, a line was drawn when he began to espouse ideas and opinions which smacked of anti-Semitism.

Ford had purchased the Dearborn Independent in 1918 and in May of 1920 he decided to editorialize some of his thoughts and theories about Jews.  Famously, Henry Ford was no fan of Wall Street (i.e., investors and bankers).  He wrote: “If there is one quality that attracts Jews, it is power.  It is not merely that there a few Jews among international financial controllers; it is that these world-controllers are exclusive Jews.”

To ensure that his views reached as many people as possible, the Dearborn Independent was distributed to the more than seven thousand Ford car dealerships throughout the country.  Even though President Woodrow Wilson condemned his views, Ford would not relent.  “The Jews are the scavengers of the world.  Wherever there’s anything wrong with a country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there,” he declared.  He was finally forced to issue a public apology after a Jewish lawyer sued him for defamation.

He even shuttered the newspaper, but those who knew him best knew that his views would never change.  Perhaps in recognition of his anti-Semitism, the German consul awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938, the most prestigious medal that could be accorded a foreigner by Nazi Germany.

Keeping Up With the Times

After the reins changed hands at the company, Edsel wanted to move past the Model T and on to more luxurious automobiles.  To Henry Ford, buying a car fancier than his reliable Model T was sheer folly and decadence.  But his competitors didn’t think like that.  Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors, began by initiating a yearly model change, something Henry Ford had apparently never considered necessary.  After the various GM lines were created – Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs – Ford Motor Company would then have to compete for consumers’ hard-earned dollars.

Even as the ten-millionth Model T came off the assembly line in 1924, Ford was still outselling competitors six-to-one, but that would soon change.  In the following year, sales precipitously fell to a market share of fifty percent less than the previous year.  General Motors advertised that their cars were available in almost every color except black, the most common color for Model Ts.  Although sales of GM cars tripled, Henry Ford refused to see the handwriting on the wall, declaring, “The Model T is the most perfect car in the world.”

Ford Motor Company dealers were demanding change, even switching to other companies like Dodge and General Motors in protest.  All the while, Edsel tried to convince his father to relent and begin planning a different strategy for the company.  When Edsel presented new plans, his father would send him away.  Henry was so exasperated after one meeting with Edsel that he demanded that a colleague send Edsel to California.  “Make it a long stay.  I’ll send for him when I want to see him again.”

15MilModelTHenry finally relented after he and Edsel appeared together on May 26, 1927 to witness and celebrate the fifteen-millionth Model T.  In front of the press, he announced that the Model T was being discontinued.  An “entirely new Ford car” would be forthcoming, but it would require that the entire production line be shut down for six months in order to re-tool and gear up for the new line.

ModelA1927The sporty and sleek Model A, available in a range of colors, made its debut in December of 1927.  It had a powerful four-cylinder engine, electrical system, still affordable and now available on an installment plan.  Edsel had been responsible for the new style and design, but Henry took all the credit.

According to historian Steven Watts, “Henry Ford loved the Model T more than anything in his entire life.  It was central to his identity.  Getting rid of the Model T, in essence, was sort of cutting out part of himself.”  He never forgave his son for being forced to abandon it, even though the Model A was a success.

By the end of 1928 the new factory at River Rouge was fully operational.  It had taken ten years to complete construction and the goal was to make ten thousand cars a day.  It was a massive complex – it had its own rail system (100 miles of track) and its own fire department, like an “automobile city.”  The plant operated twenty-four hours a day and employed seventy-five thousand people.

Given Henry’s penchant for the “good old days” he began to realize that he had created a heartless monster, not at all in line with his personal beliefs.  He spent less and less time there and instead turned his attention to other projects.  His next big idea was to create his own idyllic place that would remind him of his boyhood and simpler times.  One writer called it “Henry Ford’s Village of Yesterday.”

He purchased 245 acres just a mile from the massive new complex and began to purchase historic buildings which he would have disassembled and sent to Dearborn for reassembly.  Buildings like the Wright Brother’s bicycle shop, Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the garage where he had built his quadricycle.  He named it Greenfield Village after his wife Clara’s hometown.

While the monstrous industrial complex was humming along just a mile away, Henry was recapturing memories of his nineteenth-century boyhood.  Even though he appreciated technology, he would not allow a telephone in his village.  He had millions of dollars at his disposal and he spent it freely.  Another project he launched about this time was his plan to grow the company’s own rubber in the jungles of Brazil.  Greenfield Village may have been a successful and satisfying personal endeavor, but Fordlandia would not be.  See “Ghost Town” articles Part I  and Part II here.

Of course, the company had to contend with the devastating effects of the Great Depression after the stock market crash in 1929.  The Model A had been successful and Henry Ford was determined to keep his employees by raising their wages to seven dollars a day.  Not long after the crash, however, the company was forced to lay off workers.  The mayor of Detroit estimated that of the two hundred thousand people standing in breadlines, one-third of them had previously worked for Ford.

Sales again fell precipitously and Ford dropped to third place behind both Chrysler and General Motors.  Henry Ford’s response was to tighten company operations, practices and policies.  To accomplish that he employed a thug-like character by the name of Harry Bennett who would roam throughout the complex enforcing the rules.  Historian Nelson Lichtenstein remarked that “workers described it as internal Gestapo, a kind of police force inside the factory.  Terror and fear were pervasive in the organization.”

With Henry’s reliance on Harry to enforce company policies his relationship with his own son grew more strained.  Henry was not pleased with how Edsel was running the company, but people who worked with Edsel liked him because he wasn’t tyrannical like they perceived Henry to be.  Edsel’s management style was considered too soft by his father.

Henry was not happy with Edsel’s lifestyle either – he lived in a sixty-room mansion and held lavish parties for his wealthy friends, and drank alcohol which Henry most certainly disapproved of.  Henry even directed Harry Bennett to spy on Edsel.  According to Douglass Brinkley, Henry would break into Edsel’s house when he left town and smash all of the liquor bottles.  Their relationship was deteriorating at an alarming rate even as the company’s fortune and prestige were declining.


Henry Ford hated unions.  After the 1935 Wagner Act was passed, the United Auto Workers were emboldened.  General Motors was hit with a six-week strike and finally recognized the union.  Three months later Chrysler followed suit.  Henry Ford would fight.  He directed that no one was allowed to speak with union officials except his “enforcer” Harry Bennett.  That was a huge mistake.  On March 7, 1932 one instance of union agitation had turned tragic when several were injured and four people died at an event organized as the “Ford Hunger March.”  It would later be referred to as the Ford Massacre.  Even Bennett was injured and taken to the hospital.

When union organizers, with photographers present, began to hand out leaflets on May 26, 1937, Bennett and his security force moved in.  They grabbed cameras and a melee ensued.  Photographs of the Ford Motor Company’s resistance and brutality were printed all over the country.   Simply put, Henry Ford had to remain in control, but his increasingly paranoid state of mind was beginning to take its toll.  He did begin to slow down and spend more time at Greenfield Village, but he didn’t exactly step into the shadows.  He was still distrustful of Jews, fearful that they were persecuting him.  Edsel was worried about his father, who known to just a few had suffered a mild stroke.

With the procurement of large government defense contracts at the outbreak of World War II, the company could get back on more stable financial footing – except that the workers were demanding union representation.  Anyone caught talking in groups which were suspected to be union-related would immediately be fired, and sometimes beaten as well.

Edsel wanted to work it out so the company could move forward, but Henry was adamantly opposed.  When thousands of workers walked off the job, Edsel met with union officials (without Henry’s knowledge or permission) and forged an agreement.  Henry would not sign, however, saying that he would rather shutter the whole operation rather than give into the union.  Apparently at some point he embraced reality and relented.  Later he would admit that his wife threatened to leave him if he did not.

Edsel became ill not long after the strike; for years he had suffered from ulcers due to stress.  Henry believed that Edsel’s decadent lifestyle had contributed to his ill health.  What he wasn’t aware of was that Edsel actually had stomach cancer – only his wife Eleanor knew.  Because his father wasn’t aware of the cancer, he continued to think that it was a sign of weakness in his son.  Eat right and stop drinking were his recommendations – oh and stop hanging out with all those rich people.

When Edsel was confronted with his father’s list of grievances he broke down in tears.  A short time later he collapsed and became bedridden.  Eleanor finally told Henry the truth but he refused to accept it.  His only son died at the age of forty-nine on May 26, 1943.  Henry Ford was never the same.

He resumed the presidency of the company after Edsel’s death.  His mental acuity after suffering numerous strokes, however, resulted in management decisions which brought disorganization and chaos to the company.  He began to demand that the company return to the good old days of the Model T – just make one Ford.  In 1945 he suffered a major stroke and became even more frail.  On April 7, 1947 Henry Ford died at the age of 83.

After his death, Edsel’s oldest son Henry Ford II took over company leadership.   One of his first acts as president was to initiate the first public offering of company shares on the New York Stock Exchange.  He also ended his grandfather’s experiments in social engineering.  By this time, operations in Brazil had been shuttered after years of unsuccessful efforts.  Henry Ford II sold the land back to Brazil at a considerable loss.

Perhaps because of some of founder Henry Ford’s missteps through the years, especially in his own lavish spending on projects such as Fordlandia and Greenfield Village and, not to mention relentless pursuit of absolute and near tyrannical control, the Ford Motor Company never again dominated the market as they had in the early days of automobile mass-production.

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

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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