Henry Ford:
From Model T to Tyranny

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2000

The automobile era began in earnest in 1908 when Henry Ford introduced his Model T to the American marketplace.

Before then, only the well-to-do could afford cars. Thanks to Ford Motor Company, purchase of an auto became possible for millions. The rackety sound of the Model T – “chuck-a chuck-a” – became a major part of the nation’s soundtrack.

Henry Ford is rightly respected as one of the most important forces in business history, not only for his successful introduction of mass-market cars, but also for his perfection of the assembly line and his generous wage policies. Largely forgotten, it seems, is the side of Ford that was strikingly stupid and flat-out destructive.

Henry Ford and his Model T.

Ford was born a few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 30, 1863, near Dearborn, Michigan, west of Detroit. He was the eldest of six children of William Ford and Mary Litogot Ford. His father, an Irish Protestant from County Cork, arrived on American shores at age 21 and embraced with gusto the New World’s freedom and cheap land, pouring heart and soul into his farm, and bestowing upon his children a passion for labor and success. Work was the mainspring for William Ford, and for Henry Ford as well. In later years, the younger Ford had a favorite pronouncement: “It is always too soon to quit.”

In 1876, when he was 13, Henry got his first close-up view of a steam-powered “road roller,” also known as a steam roller, a bulky vehicle that chugged along country roads and performed farm chores for hire. This was a primal moment for him – a glimpse of the full potential of the Industrial Revolution – not merely brute factory power but mobility, the capacity of a machine to venture deep into the countryside, off the beaten track, far from the railroad, and enhance the lives of farmers who had previously felt cut off from things.

Formal education didn’t much interest young Henry; he quit school after the eighth grade. Like his future friend Thomas Edison, and countless other youngsters across the nation, he found satisfaction by working with his hands on a complicated task. At some point after seeing the road roller, Ford began dreaming of building his own mobile contraption. He began assembling internal combustion engines in the 1880s, and within a few years was one of many Detroit inventors working on horseless carriages. Holding down a full-time engineering job at an electrical plant in Detroit, he devoted every spare hour to a prototype car, often in the company of other lovers of mechanical gear, ambitious young men who, like their spiritual descendants in Silicon Valley’s computer business, aspired to change the world with their creations and get really rich in the process.

The challenge of building an excellent horseless carriage was daunting. Virtually every component had to be created from scratch. No decent carburetors sat on store shelves, no proper bearings, wheels, batteries, spark plugs, brakes, steering systems, camshafts, crankshafts, piston rings, or gears. Ford labored in a shed behind his house with the will and need of a great artist – with a focus that would have made his father proud. “We often wondered when Henry slept,” recalled a friend years later. His wife, Clara, whom he married in 1888, supported him fully. He called her “the Believer” which suggests there were doubters. (Their marriage was happy, lasting 59 years, to his death in 1947; Clara died in 1950.)

In 1903, after a couple of false starts, Ford unveiled a car that he felt would succeed. He and his partners incorporated the Ford Motor Company, named their product the Model A, and began selling.

The automobile market was tiny in those days. Most autos were either inexpensive vehicles lacking power and reliability (the early Fords were among the better entries in this category) or hand-built numbers too expensive for ordinary folk. Conventional wisdom held that the industry’s future would be limited to luxury vehicles. (Again, the computer business offers a rough parallel. A University of Cambridge mathematician named Douglas Hartree predicted in the early 1950s that three computers could perform all the calculations Britain would ever require.)

A few visionaries thought about building a car that millions of people would buy – inexpensive, dependable, easy to repair. R.E. Olds created the first mass-market automobile but lost his financial backing and made only a modest dent in the market. Henry Ford kept his company afloat, and in October, 1908, introduced his dream car: the Ford Model T, history’s most important consumer product until the personal computer.

The “Tin Lizzie” (also known as the “Flivver” and the “T”; the letter doesn’t stand for anything special) was a seemingly miraculous combination of simplicity, ruggedness, power, and low cost. Its pricetag of $825 was half that of many other autos. Ford Motor sold 18,000 Model T’s in the first year of production; the number climbed steadily; in 1920 the company achieved sales of one million of the cars in a single year. The Flivver ushered in the auto era, the consumer-driven economy, and the age of mass production. (In 1914 Americans owned 1.3 million registered cars of all makes; by 1929 the figure was 26.5 million, with the T leading the way.)

Demand for the car inspired Henry to devise the ideal way to build it. In 1913-14, at Ford Motor’s Highland Park factory on the outskirts of Detroit, he and his team introduced the modern assembly line, which reduced the amount of time required to build a T from more than 12 hours to 93 minutes. This, in turn, enabled a price cut to $440. By the mid-1920s a T could be assembled in fewer than 30 seconds and sold for $290.

(The antecedents to Ford’s assembly line are debated. The world’s first automatic production line was created in a U.S. flour mill in the late 18th century by Oliver Evans [1755-1819], according to author Harold Evans in American Heritage magazine [October 2003]. Other inspirations for Ford Motor Co. were the meatpacking plants of Chicago and Cincinnati and the flour mills of Minneapolis. Carmaker R.E. Olds also used an assembly line. That said, Henry Ford perfected the process, dramatically expanding what it could do.)

Ford Motor became the world’s biggest automaker and highest-profile corporation in the 1910s and ’20s, admired and copied by business executives in every industrialized nation. Henry Ford became one of the most famous men alive – a folk hero with great power and influence. In 1918 he narrowly lost a contest for the U.S. Senate from Michigan, running as a Democrat. In the early 1920s, as Model T sales went through the roof, a “Ford for President” boomlet cropped up, similar in some ways to the Ross Perot flurry in the 1990s; it’s not inconceivable that Ford could have won the White House if he had wanted it and been willing to spend money for it.

When Henry Ford spoke, millions of people listened. He was not shy about speaking. A sampling of his pronouncements: “I do not believe in charity, but I do believe in the regenerating power of work in men’s lives, when the work they do is given a just return.” “I wouldn’t give five cents for all the finest art in the world.” “History is more or less bunk.” “I invented the modern age.”

He was wiry and intense, with a personal energy that was sometimes overwhelming. He stood a little over 5’8″ and weighed about 145 pounds. His hands were quite large. He paid strict attention to his health, with long walks and a diet that emphasized vegetables. “Most people,” he said, “dig their graves with their teeth.”

In his younger days, in the 1890s and ’00s, as he worked on engines and cars, Ford exhibited an appealing openness, a willingness to listen, play with new ideas, and mess around in imaginative ways. But this openness faded as the Model T became more and more successful. He turned nasty.

Occasionally, to be sure, he allowed his gentle side to emerge – playing with his grandchildren; traveling into the countryside to camp with Thomas Edison, his hero. Mostly, though, Ford was egocentric and controlling, and these tendencies mushroomed into rigidity, paranoia, and cruelty. The story of his moral deterioration is not well known today, enshrouded as he is in gauzy legend, but it’s been studied exhaustively over the years, and it stands as a key historical example of the narcissism and hubris that can result from success.

An early sign of Ford’s encroaching arrogance came in 1912. He was 49. Since the introduction of the Model T four years earlier, he had resisted any fundamental change in the car’s design, believing, with some justification, that alterations would lead to unnecessary manufacturing expenses, which he abhorred. Also, he had invested enormous emotional energy in the car. He seems to have felt that, in some sense, the Model T was not just his, it was him, a manifestation of his life, his dreams, his efforts, his soul.

In 1912, while he was away traveling, several Ford executives and engineers got together and built a Model T with a few modest improvements, hoping to surprise and delight the boss upon his return. They apparently were not cognizant of his identification with his product and not aware of his expanding ego; perhaps these characteristics had not yet come forth in public.

The boss returned from his trip. “What is that over there?” he asked when he walked into a design room.

“A new car,” someone replied.

Ford walked over to the slightly-modified T and inspected it, assessing it like a hawk deciding whether or not to swoop down on a field mouse. Suddenly he reached out, grabbed the car’s left-hand front door, and with an explosive tug, ripped it off the frame. The sound of shearing metal echoed in the room. No one spoke.

He climbed on the hood and kicked in the car’s windshield. He attacked the vehicle for a couple of minutes, a skinny guy seemingly possessed by a demon, and then he stalked off, leaving behind a battered auto, twinkling shards of glass, and a group of strong men shaken to their bones. Mr. Ford thus passed his judgment on any innovation that he himself did not launch.

The most dangerous manifestation of the ego-mad Henry Ford was his sustained attack on Jews.

During the First World War he decided he was an expert on international relations, with useful perspective about why Europe had been plunged into chaos. It was the fault, he said, of the Jews: “I have evidence here. Facts,” he barked to reporters, slapping his hand on a document in his pocket in an uncanny foreshadowing of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The document was a concoction of lies, of the type Jews had long battled, having to do with supposed conspiracies of an “international Jewish banking power.” In 1920 Ford began publishing the “facts” in the pages of a newspaper he owned, the Dearborn Independent – “the Ford International Weekly” – which circulated widely among his fans and customers, from New York to Los Angeles, from St. Paul to Houston, reaching a circulation of 700,000 in 1924. Ford-paid hacks produced dozens of anti-Semitic articles through the ’20s, commenting on many aspects of culture, harping on the notion of a destructive conspiracy afoot in the land. A typical headline: “Jewish Jazz – Moron Music – Becomes Our National Music: Story of ‘Popular Song’ Control in the United States.”

The newspaper’s articles were collected in book form under the title “The International Jew.” This volume was widely translated. It sold well in Germany in the 1920s and early ’30s as the Nazis sought support. Among the readers were the industrialists of the Ruhr Valley, who regarded Henry Ford as a god, and whose support was crucial to Hitler.

In 1927 Ford abruptly stopped his attacks on Jews, sold his newspaper, and apologized for his newspaper’s rhetoric, having been pressured to do so by a court case, meanwhile claiming he was “too busy” to read the contents of the massively popular newspaper he owned. In 1939 he urged Americans to welcome Jewish refugees. But he waited until 1942 to try to suppress publication of “The International Jew,” and he claimed that Jewish bankers helped foment the Second World War.

Then came the reckoning. In the spring of 1945 Ford watched film of a Nazi death camp. He was stunned and was stricken ill; perhaps it suddenly hit him in the gut that he, Henry Ford, had helped create a climate in which the most terrible crime of modern history could occur. The author Max Wallace notes that Ford’s ideas “imbue” Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf,” and writes, “Historian Albert Lee believes that, while Ford did not necessarily inspire Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, he lent him a framework for his burgeoning anti-Semitism.”

Would the Nazis have risen to power without help from Henry Ford? The question cannot be answered with accuracy, but it’s worth pondering.

To this day the idiotic ideas of “The International Jew” receive global circulation via hate groups on the Internet. These Websites have had a direct and powerful impact on people inclined toward terrorism.

Henry’s only child, Edsel, became president of Ford Motor Company in 1918 at the age of 25. He was a gifted auto man, trained from childhood to study and love cars and to sell them by the millions. Unfortunately for him, he was also reasonable, rational, and willing to listen to the opinions of others. His father disapproved of such behavior. “The boy is too soft,” he muttered.

Henry badgered and bullied Edsel, spied on him, overturned his decisions, and encouraged other executives to subvert his work. Edsel never worked up the ruthlessness to treat his father in the only way the old man understood – by snarling. Instead, Edsel consistently exhibited loyalty to his father, saying, “It’s his business.” The bullying went on year after year, surely contributing to Edsel’s long string of health problems, including serious ulcers. Edsel died of stomach cancer in 1943 at the age of 49. Henry Ford, writes author David Halberstam, had perpetrated something “very close to filicide” – murder of one’s child.

In 1919 Henry hired a new bodyguard, a man named Harry Bennett, a thug with ties to Detroit’s underworld. The two men became buddies, and Bennett rose in the company, eventually controlling big sections of it, including hiring and firing for many jobs.

Bennett’s talents were especially useful during Ford Motor’s war in the 1930s with the United Auto Workers. The New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which came into office in 1933, legalized labor organizing in the U.S., but Henry loathed trade unionism. Edsel Ford wanted to cut a deal with the UAW and move on, but Henry forbade it, and Ford Motor dug in its heels, in common with the rest of the U.S. auto industry.

At the behest of the boss, Bennett assembled an army of so-called “servicemen” to intimidate and beat up union officials and sympathizers. Bennett also got permission to spy on workers with dozens of hidden microphones and a network of informants. “The fear in the plant was indescribable,” writes historian Carol Gelderman.

Bennett accumulated more and more power through the ’30s and stole the occasional chunk of company money. Henry, meanwhile, busied himself with putting barriers in the path of a new six-cylinder engine that Edsel wanted and the company needed. A pall of decline and corruption fell over the firm, and by the late ’30s and early ’40s, once-mighty Ford was third in U.S. auto sales behind GM and Chrysler, with Wall Street asking serious questions about the company’s long-term survival. World War II, with its huge weapons contracts, was a god-send for Ford Motor.

After Edsel’s death in 1943, his eldest son, Henry Ford II, came to work at the family business, possessed of a cold-blooded streak that his father lacked. Perhaps, on some level, the younger Ford was driven by a thirst for revenge against the martinet in the corner office. Henry Sr. instantly perceived a threat in the young man, and struggled to hang on to power, but by now he was often absent-minded and confused – senility was replacing ferocity. The Ford family took action to ease him out, with the reluctant participation of his wife Clara. The old man retired in 1945 to his Dearborn estate, and died there on April 17, 1947, at the age of 83.

Henry Ford changed the world as much as any business pioneer who ever lived. He put cars and trucks at the center of our lives, permanently changing the global landscape and mindset. The humorist Will Rogers offered a reasonable summary of Ford’s life: “It will take a hundred years to tell whether he helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn’t leave us where he found us.” E.B. White commented, “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”

Ford’s business success was epic, as were his crimes. ●