Driving Force: Henry Ford

He produced an affordable car, paid high wages and helped create a middle class. Not bad for an autocrat

  • The only time I ever met Henry Ford, he looked at me and probably wondered, "Who is this little s.o.b. fresh out of college?" He wasn't real big on college graduates, and I was one of 50 in the Ford training course in September 1946, working in a huge drafting room at the enormous River Rouge plant near Detroit.

    One day there was a big commotion at one end of the floor and in walked Henry Ford with Charles Lindbergh. They walked down my aisle asking men what they were doing. I was working on a mechanical drawing of a clutch spring (which drove me out of engineering forever), and I was worried that they'd ask me a question because I didn't know what the hell I was doing--I'd been there only 30 days. I was just awestruck by the fact that there was Colonel Lindbergh with my new boss, coming to shake my hand.

    The boss was a genius. He was an eccentric. He was no prince in his social attitudes and his politics. But Henry Ford's mark in history is almost unbelievable. In 1905, when there were 50 start-up companies a year trying to get into the auto business, his backers at the new Ford Motor Co. were insisting that the best way to maximize profits was to build a car for the rich.

    But Ford was from modest, agrarian Michigan roots. And he thought that the guys who made the cars ought to be able to afford one themselves so that they too could go for a spin on a Sunday afternoon. In typical fashion, instead of listening to his backers, Ford eventually bought them out.

    And that proved to be only the first smart move in a crusade that would make him the father of 20th century American industry. When the black Model T rolled out in 1908, it was hailed as America's Everyman car--elegant in its simplicity and a dream machine not just for engineers but for marketing men as well.

    Ford instituted industrial mass production, but what really mattered to him was mass consumption. He figured that if he paid his factory workers a real living wage and produced more cars in less time for less money, everyone would buy them.

    Almost half a century before Ray Kroc sold a single McDonald's hamburger, Ford invented the dealer-franchise system to sell and service cars. In the same way that all politics is local, he knew that business had to be local. Ford's "road men" became a familiar part of the American landscape. By 1912 there were 7,000 Ford dealers across the country.

    In much the same fashion, he worked on making sure that an automotive infrastructure developed along with the cars. Just like horses, cars had to be fed--so Ford pushed for gas stations everywhere. And as his tin lizzies bounced over the rutted tracks of the horse age, he campaigned for better roads, which eventually led to an interstate-highway system that is still the envy of the world.

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