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January 15, 2013 9:03 AM

Ford display has more than just product

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Ford Chairman Bill Ford recently bought the 1903 Model A at auction. It was the third car built by his great grandfather, Henry.

The Ford Motor Co. display at the Detroit auto show is a theatrical production.

Literally.

Ford hired eight actors to portray company founder Henry Ford for the duration of the show, actor Jordan Whalen says.

It's part of the automaker's celebration of the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford's birth.

There are young Henrys, like Whalen and David O'Donnell, and there are older Henrys. The actors are in costumes similar to what Henry Ford would have worn in the early 1900s. They are stationed in front of Ford's oldest surviving production car, a 1903 Model A, near the front of the Ford stand at Detroit's Cobo Center.

Chairman Bill Ford recently bought the 1903 car at auction. It's the third car Henry Ford built; the first two can't be located and are believed to have been scrapped, a company spokeswoman says.

The spokeswoman says Henry Ford actually worked on this vehicle, and its sale in 1903 was critical to his company. Ford only had $250 left in the bank then, and if he hadn't sold these three cars there wouldn't be a Ford Motor Co. today, the spokeswoman says.

To educate the public about the company's history, the actors will walk visitors around the Ford display retelling key parts of the company's history in first-person narrative.

"I'll talk about the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine today and how that differs from the 1.6-liter engine I built in the 1903 Model A, which was a two-cylinder engine with 8 horsepower. Today's EcoBoost has 178 horsepower," Whalen says, while keeping in character.

Whalen grew up in Michigan. He has played historical parts at The Henry Ford museum, including Orville Wright. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, are credited with building the world's first successful airplane.

Whalen's fellow actor O'Donnell is from California and is new to Ford's historical theater.

Whalen estimates about 25 to 40 other actors auditioned for the job. The actors had to read a two-paragraph script, then answer questions such as: How would you respond if people ask product questions?

Says Whalen: "We direct them to a product specialist."

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