Famed automobile manufacturer Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, on his family's farm in Wayne County, near Dearborn, Michigan. When Ford was 13 years old, his father gifted him a pocket watch, which the young boy promptly took apart and reassembled. Friends and neighbors were impressed, and requested that he fix their timepieces too.
Unsatistfied with farm work, Ford left home the following year, at the age of 16, to take an apprenticeship as a machinist in Detroit. In the years that followed, he would learn to skillfully operate and service steam engines, and would also study bookkeeping.
In 1888, Ford married Clara Ala Bryant and briefly returned to farming to support his wife and son, Edsel. But three years later, he was hired as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. In 1893, his natural talents earned him a promotion to chief engineer.
All the while, Ford developed his plans for a horseless carriage, and in 1896, he constructed his first model, the Ford Quadricycle. Within the same year, he attended a meeting with Edison executives and found himself presenting his automobile plans to Thomas Edison. The lighting genius encouraged Ford to build a second, better model.
Ford Motor Company
After a few trials building cars and companies, in 1903, Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company. Ford introduced the Model T in October of 1908, and for several years, the company posted 100 percent gains.
However, more than for his profits, Ford became renowned for his revolutionary vision: the manufacture of an inexpensive automobile made by skilled workers who earn steady wages.
In 1914, he sponsored the development of the moving assembly line technique of mass production. Simultaneously, he introduced the $5-per-day wage ($110 in 2011) as a method of keeping the best workers loyal to his company. Simple to drive and cheap to repair, half of all cars in America in 1918 were Model T's.
Philosophy, Philanthropy and Anti-Semitism
From a social perspective, Henry Ford's was marked by seemingly contradictory viewpoints. In business, Ford offered profit sharing to select employees who stayed with the company for six months and, most important, who conducted their lives in a respectable manner.
The company's "Social Department" looked into an employee’s drinking, gambling and otherwise uncouth activities to determine eligibility for participation. Ford was also an ardent pacifist and opposed World War I, even funding a peace ship to Europe. Later, in 1936, Ford and his family established the Ford Foundation to provide ongoing grants for research, education and development. But despite these philanthropic leanings, Ford was also a committed anti-Semite, going as far as to support a weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which furthered such views.
Henry Ford died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 7, 1947, at the age of 83, near his Dearborn estate, Fair Lane. Ford, considered one of America’s leading businessmen, is credited today for helping to build America's economy during the nation's vulnerable early years. His legacy will live on for decades to come.
The Model T was introduced on October 1, 1908. It had the steering wheel on the left, which every other company soon copied. The entire engine and transmission were enclosed; the four cylinders were cast in a solid block; the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs. The car was very simple to drive, and easy and cheap to repair. It was so cheap at $825 in 1908 ($21,650 today) (the price fell every year) that by the 1920s, a majority of American drivers had learned to drive on the Model T.
Ford created a huge publicity machine in Detroit to ensure every newspaper carried stories and ads about the new product. Ford's network of local dealers made the car ubiquitous in almost every city in North America. As independent dealers, the franchises grew rich and publicized not just the Ford but the concept of automobiling; local motor clubs sprang up to help new drivers and to encourage exploring the countryside. Ford was always eager to sell to farmers, who looked on the vehicle as a commercial device to help their business. Sales skyrocketed—several years posted 100% gains on the previous year. Always on the hunt for more efficiency and lower costs, in 1913 Ford introduced the moving assembly belts into his plants, which enabled an enormous increase in production. Although Ford is often credited with the idea, contemporary sources indicate that the concept and its development came from employees Clarence Avery, Peter E. Martin, Charles E. Sorensen, and C. Harold Wills.
Sales passed 250,000 in 1914. By 1916, as the price dropped to $360 for the basic touring car, sales reached 472,000. (Using the consumer price index, this price was equivalent to $8,000 in current dollars.)
By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model T's. All new cars were black; as Ford wrote in his autobiography, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black". Until the development of the assembly line, which mandated black because of its quicker drying time, Model Ts were available in other colors, including red. The design was fervently promoted and defended by Ford, and production continued as late as 1927; the final total production was 15,007,034. This record stood for the next 45 years. This record was achieved in 19 years from the introduction of the first Model T (1908).
President Woodrow Wilson asked Ford to run as a Democrat for the United States Senate from Michigan in 1918. Although the nation was at war, Ford ran as a peace candidate and a strong supporter of the proposed League of Nations. Ford was defeated in a close election by the Republican candidate, Truman Newberry, a former United States Secretary of the Navy.
Henry Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company over to his son Edsel Ford in December 1918. Henry retained final decision authority and sometimes reversed his son. Henry started another company, Henry Ford and Son, and made a show of taking himself and his best employees to the new company; the goal was to scare the remaining holdout stockholders of the Ford Motor Company to sell their stakes to him before they lost most of their value. (He was determined to have full control over strategic decisions.) The ruse worked, and Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining stock from the other investors, thus giving the family sole ownership of the company.
By the mid-1920s, sales of the Model T began to decline due to rising competition. Other auto makers offered payment plans through which consumers could buy their cars, which usually included more modern mechanical features and styling not available with the Model T. Despite urgings from Edsel, Henry refused to incorporate new features into the Model T or to form a customer credit plan.
Model A and Ford's later career
By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T finally convinced Henry to make a new model. He pursued the project with a great deal of technical expertise in design of the engine, chassis, and other mechanical necessities, while leaving the body design to his son. Edsel also managed to prevail over his father's initial objections in the inclusion of a sliding-shift transmission.
The result was the successful Ford Model A, introduced in December 1927 and produced through 1931, with a total output of more than 4 million. Subsequently, the Ford company adopted an annual model change system similar to that recently pioneered by its competitor General Motors (and still in use by automakers today). Not until the 1930s did Ford overcome his objection to finance companies, and the Ford-owned Universal Credit Corporation became a major car-financing operation. Ford did not believe in accountants; he amassed one of the world's largest fortunes without ever having his company audited under his administration.
The five-dollar workday
Ford was a pioneer of "welfare capitalism", designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men per year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. Ford astonished the world in 1914 by offering a $5 per day wage (approximately $120 today), which more than doubled the rate of most of his workers. A Cleveland, Ohio newspaper editorialized that the announcement "shot like a blinding rocket through the dark clouds of the present industrial depression." The move proved extremely profitable; instead of constant turnover of employees, the best mechanics in Detroit flocked to Ford, bringing their human capital and expertise, raising productivity, and lowering training costs. Ford announced his $5-per-day program on January 5, 1914, raising the minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers. It also set a new, reduced workweek, although the details vary in different accounts. Ford and Crowther in 1922 described it as six 8-hour days, giving a 48-hour week, while in 1926 they described it as five 8-hour days, giving a 40-hour week. (Apparently the program started with Saturday being a workday and sometime later it was changed to a day off.)
Detroit was already a high-wage city, but competitors were forced to raise wages or lose their best workers. Ford's policy proved, however, that paying people more would enable Ford workers to afford the cars they were producing and be good for the local economy. He viewed the increased wages as profit sharing linked with rewarding those who were most productive and of good character.
The profit-sharing was offered to employees who had worked at the company for six months or more, and, importantly, conducted their lives in a manner of which Ford's "Social Department" approved. They frowned on heavy drinking, gambling, and (what today are called) deadbeat dads. The Social Department used 50 investigators, plus support staff, to maintain employee standards; a large percentage of workers were able to qualify for this "profit-sharing."
Ford's incursion into his employees' private lives was highly controversial, and he soon backed off from the most intrusive aspects. By the time he wrote his 1922 memoir, he spoke of the Social Department and of the private conditions for profit-sharing in the past tense, and admitted that "paternalism has no place in industry. Welfare work that consists in prying into employees' private concerns is out of date. Men need counsel and men need help, often special help; and all this ought to be rendered for decency's sake. But the broad workable plan of investment and participation will do more to solidify industry and strengthen organization than will any social work on the outside. Without changing the principle we have changed the method of payment."
Ford was adamantly against labor unions. He explained his views on unions in Chapter 18 of My Life and Work. He thought they were too heavily influenced by some leaders who, despite their ostensible good motives, would end up doing more harm than good for workers. Most wanted to restrict productivity as a means to foster employment, but Ford saw this as self-defeating because, in his view, productivity was necessary for any economic prosperity to exist.
He believed that productivity gains that obviated certain jobs would nevertheless stimulate the larger economy and thus grow new jobs elsewhere, whether within the same corporation or in others. Ford also believed that union leaders had a perverse incentive to foment perpetual socio-economic crisis as a way to maintain their own power. Meanwhile, he believed that smart managers had an incentive to do right by their workers, because doing so would maximize their own profits. (Ford did acknowledge, however, that many managers were basically too bad at managing to understand this fact.) But Ford believed that eventually, if good managers such as he could fend off the attacks of misguided people from both left and right (i.e., both socialists and bad-manager reactionaries), the good managers would create a socio-economic system wherein neither bad management nor bad unions could find enough support to continue existing.
To forestall union activity, Ford promoted Harry Bennett, a former Navy boxer, to head the Service Department. Bennett employed various intimidation tactics to squash union organizing. The most famous incident, on May 26, 1937, involved Bennett's security men beating with clubs UAW representatives, including Walter Reuther. While Bennett's men were beating the UAW representatives, the supervising police chief on the scene was Carl Brooks, an alumnus of Bennett’s Service Department, and [Brooks] "did not give orders to intervene." The incident became known as The Battle of the Overpass.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Edsel (who was president of the company) thought Ford had to come to some sort of collective bargaining agreement with the unions because the violence, work disruptions, and bitter stalemates could not go on forever. But Henry (who still had the final veto in the company on a de facto basis even if not an official one) refused to cooperate. For several years, he kept Bennett in charge of talking to the unions that were trying to organize the Ford Motor Company. Sorensen's memoir makes clear that Henry's purpose in putting Bennett in charge was to make sure no agreements were ever reached.
The Ford Motor Company was the last Detroit automaker to recognize the United Auto Workers union (UAW). A sit-down strike by the UAW union in April 1941 closed the River Rouge Plant. Sorensen recounted that a distraught Henry Ford was very close to following through with a threat to break up the company rather than cooperate, but his wife Clara told him she would leave him if he destroyed the family business. In her view, it would not be worth the chaos it would create. Henry complied with his wife's ultimatum, and even agreed with her in retrospect. Overnight, the Ford Motor Company went from the most stubborn holdout among automakers to the one with the most favorable UAW contract terms. The contract was signed in June 1941.
Ford Airplane Company
Ford, like other automobile companies, entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. After the war, it returned to auto manufacturing until 1925, when Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company.
Ford's most successful aircraft was the Ford 4AT Trimotor, often called the "Tin Goose" because of its corrugated metal construction. It used a new alloy called Alclad that combined the corrosion resistance of aluminum with the strength of duralumin. The plane was similar to Fokker's V.VII-3m, and some say that Ford's engineers surreptitiously measured the Fokker plane and then copied it. The Trimotor first flew on June 11, 1926, and was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating about 12 passengers in a rather uncomfortable fashion. Several variants were also used by the U.S. Army. Ford has been honored by the Smithsonian Institution for changing the aviation industry. 199 Trimotors were built before it was discontinued in 1933, when the Ford Airplane Division shut down because of poor sales during the Great Depression.
World War I era
Ford opposed war, which he viewed as a terrible waste. Ford became highly critical of those who he felt financed war, and he tried to stop them. In 1915, the pacifist Rosika Schwimmer gained favor with Ford, who agreed to fund a Peace Ship to Europe, where World War I was raging. He and about 170 other prominent peace leaders traveled there. Ford's Episcopalian pastor, Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, accompanied him on the mission. Marquis headed Ford's Sociology Department from 1913 to 1921. Ford talked to President Wilson about the mission but had no government support. His group went to neutral Sweden and the Netherlands to meet with peace activists. A target of much ridicule, Ford left the ship as soon as it reached Sweden. Ford plants in the United Kingdom produced tractors to increase the British food supply, as well as trucks and aircraft engines. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917 the company became a major supplier of weapons, especially the Liberty engine for airplanes, and anti-submarine boats.
The coming of World War II and Ford's mental collapse
Ford had opposed America's entry into World War II and continued to believe that international business could generate the prosperity that would head off wars. Ford "insisted that war was the product of greedy financiers who sought profit in human destruction"; in 1939 he went so far as to claim that the torpedoing of U.S. merchant ships by German submarines was the result of conspiratorial activities undertaken by financier war-makers. The financiers to whom he was referring was Ford's code for Jews; he had also accused Jews of fomenting the First World War. In the run-up to World War II and when the war erupted in 1939, he reported that he did not want to trade with belligerents. Like many other businessmen of the Great Depression era, he never liked or entirely trusted the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, and thought Roosevelt was inching the U.S. closer to war. However, Ford continued to do business with Nazi Germany, including the manufacture of war materiel. Beginning in 1940, with the requisitioning of between 100 and 200 French POWs to work as slave laborers, Ford-Werke contravened Article 31 of the 1929 Geneva Convention. At that time, which was before the U.S. entered the War and still had full diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, Ford-Werke was under the control of the Ford Motor Company. The number of slave laborers grew as the war expanded although Wallace made it clear that companies in Germany were not required by the Nazi authorities to use slave laborers.
When Rolls-Royce sought a U.S. manufacturer as an alternative source for the Merlin engine (as fitted to Spitfire and Hurricane fighters), Ford first agreed to do so and then reneged. He "lined up behind the war effort" when the U.S. entered in late 1941. His support of the American war effort, however, was problematic.
Once the U.S. entered the war, Ford directed the Ford Motor Company to construct a vast new purpose-built factory at Willow Run near Detroit, Michigan. Ford broke ground on Willow Run in the spring of 1941, and the first B-24 came off the line in October 1942. At 3,500,000 sq ft (330,000 m2), it was the largest assembly line in the world at the time. At its peak in 1944, the Willow Run plant produced 650 B-24s per month, and by 1945 Ford was completing each B-24 in eighteen hours, with one rolling off the assembly line every 58 minutes. Ford produced 9,000 B-24s at Willow Run, half of the 18,000 total B-24s produced during the war.
When Edsel Ford died prematurely in 1943, Henry Ford nominally resumed control of the company, but a series of strokes in the late 1930s had left him increasingly debilitated, and his mental ability was fading. Ford was increasingly sidelined, and others made decisions in his name. The company was in fact controlled by a handful of senior executives led by Charles Sorensen, an important engineer and production executive at Ford; and Harry Bennett, the chief of Ford's Service Unit, Ford's paramilitary force that spied on, and enforced discipline upon, Ford employees. Ford grew jealous of the publicity Sorensen received and forced Sorensen out in 1944. Ford's incompetence led to discussions in Washington about how to restore the company, whether by wartime government fiat, or by instigating some sort of coup among executives and directors. Nothing happened until 1945 when, with bankruptcy a serious risk, Edsel's widow led an ouster and installed her son, Henry Ford II, as president. The young man took full control, and forced out Harry Bennett in a purge of the old guard in 1947.
The Dearborn Independent and anti-Semitism
In the early 1920s, Ford sponsored a weekly newspaper that published strongly anti-Semitic views. At the same time, Ford had a reputation as one of the few major corporations actively hiring black workers, and was not accused of discrimination against Jewish workers or suppliers. He also hired women and handicapped men at a time when doing so was uncommon.
In 1918, Ford's closest aide and private secretary, Ernest G. Liebold, purchased an obscure weekly newspaper for Ford, The Dearborn Independent. The Independent ran for eight years, from 1920 until 1927, with Liebold as editor. Every Ford franchise nation-wide had to carry the paper and distribute it to its customers.
The newspaper published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was discredited by The Times of London as a forgery during the Independent's publishing run. The American Jewish Historical Society described the ideas presented in the magazine as "anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and anti-Semitic." In February 1921, the New York World published an interview with Ford, in which he said: "The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on." During this period, Ford emerged as "a respected spokesman for right-wing extremism and religious prejudice," reaching around 700,000 readers through his newspaper. The 2010 documentary film Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (written by Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow) states that Ford wrote on May 22, 1920: "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words—too much Jew."
In Germany, Ford's anti-Semitic articles from The Dearborn Independent were issued in four volumes, cumulatively titled The International Jew, the World's Foremost Problem published by Theodor Fritsch, founder of several anti-Semitic parties and a member of the Reichstag. In a letter written in 1924, Heinrich Himmler described Ford as "one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters." Ford is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. Adolf Hitler wrote, "only a single great man, Ford, [who], to [the Jews'] fury, still maintains full independence...[from] the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions." Speaking in 1931 to a Detroit News reporter, Hitler said he regarded Ford as his "inspiration," explaining his reason for keeping Ford's life-size portrait next to his desk. Steven Watts wrote that Hitler "revered" Ford, proclaiming that "I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany," and modeling the Volkswagen, the people's car, on the Model T.
On February 1, 1924, Ford received Kurt Ludecke, a representative of Hitler, at home. Ludecke was introduced to Ford by Siegfried Wagner (son of the composer Richard Wagner) and his wife Winifred, both Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Ludecke asked Ford for a contribution to the Nazi cause, but was apparently refused.
While Ford's articles were denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter 80), but blamed the Jews for provoking incidents of mass violence. None of this work was written by Ford, but he allowed his name to be used as author. According to trial testimony, he wrote almost nothing. Friends and business associates have said they warned Ford about the contents of the Independent and that he probably never read the articles. (He claimed he only read the headlines.) However, court testimony in a libel suit, brought by one of the targets of the newspaper, alleged that Ford did know about the contents of the Independent in advance of publication.
A libel lawsuit was brought by San Francisco lawyer and Jewish farm cooperative organizer Aaron Sapiro in response to the anti-Semitic remarks, and led Ford to close the Independent in December 1927. News reports at the time quoted him as saying he was shocked by the content and unaware of its nature. During the trial, the editor of Ford's "Own Page," William Cameron, testified that Ford had nothing to do with the editorials even though they were under his byline. Cameron testified at the libel trial that he never discussed the content of the pages or sent them to Ford for his approval. Investigative journalist Max Wallace noted that "whatever credibility this absurd claim may have had was soon undermined when James M. Miller, a former Dearborn Independent employee, swore under oath that Ford had told him he intended to expose Sapiro."
Michael Barkun observed, That Cameron would have continued to publish such anti-Semitic material without Ford's explicit instructions seemed unthinkable to those who knew both men. Mrs. Stanley Ruddiman, a Ford family intimate, remarked that 'I don't think Mr. Cameron ever wrote anything for publication without Mr. Ford's approval.'
According to Spencer Blakeslee, The ADL mobilized prominent Jews and non-Jews to publicly oppose Ford's message. They formed a coalition of Jewish groups for the same purpose and raised constant objections in the Detroit press. Before leaving his presidency early in 1921, Woodrow Wilson joined other leading Americans in a statement that rebuked Ford and others for their anti-Semitic campaign. A boycott against Ford products by Jews and liberal Christians also had an impact, and Ford shut down the paper in 1927, recanting his views in a public letter to Sigmund Livingston, ADL.
Wallace also found that Ford's apology was likely, at least partly, motivated by a business that was slumping as result of his anti-Semitism repelling potential buyers of Ford cars. Up until the apology, a considerable number of dealers, who had been required to make sure that buyers of Ford cars received the Independent, bought up and destroyed copies of the newspaper rather than alienate customers.
Ford's 1927 apology was well received. "Four-Fifths of the hundreds of letters addressed to Ford in July 1927 were from Jews, and almost without exception they praised the Industrialist." In January 1937, a Ford statement to the Detroit Jewish Chronicle disavowed "any connection whatsoever with the publication in Germany of a book known as the International Jew."
According to Pool and Pool (1978), Ford's retraction and apology (which were written by others) were not even truly signed by him (rather, his signature was forged by Harry Bennett), and Ford never privately recanted his anti-Semitic views, stating in 1940, "I hope to republish The International Jew again some time."
In July 1938, before the outbreak of war, the German consul at Cleveland gave Ford, on his 75th birthday, the award of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner. James D. Mooney, vice-president of overseas operations for General Motors, received a similar medal, the Merit Cross of the German Eagle, First Class.
Distribution of International Jew was halted in 1942 through legal action by Ford, despite complications from a lack of copyright. It is still banned in Germany. Extremist groups often recycle the material; it still appears on antisemitic and neo-Nazi websites.
Testifying at Nuremberg, convicted Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach who, in his role as military governor of Vienna deported 65,000 Jews to camps in Poland, stated, The decisive anti-Semitic book I was reading and the book that influenced my comrades was ... that book by Henry Ford, "The International Jew." I read it and became anti-Semitic. The book made a great influence on myself and my friends because we saw in Henry Ford the representative of success and also the representative of a progressive social policy.
Robert Lacey wrote in Ford: The Men and the Machines that a close Willow Run associate of Ford reported that when he was shown newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps, he "was confronted with the atrocities which finally and unanswerably laid bare the bestiality of the prejudice to which he had contributed, he collapsed with a stroke – his last and most serious.”
• Bak, Richard (2003). Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire. Wiley ISBN 0-471-23487-7
• Brinkley, Douglas G. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (2003)