BRADFORD WERNLE

Looking at Henry Ford's legacy after 150 years

Automotive News | February 3, 2013 - 12:01 am EST

If you hang around Ford Motor Co. much, you’ll know it is Henry Ford’s 150th birthday this year. The story of the Dearborn farm boy who put America on wheels has been told countless times, but seldom more rivetingly than the "American Experience" documentary that aired on the Public Broadcasting Service last month.

The two-hour show served as a reminder of Ford’s vision, brilliance, his massive contradictions, his singleness of purpose and his boundless sense of self belief. Those who got in his way paid a steep price, most notably his only son, Edsel.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the horseless carriage, but he brought the automobile to the masses. His creation helped transform America from an agrarian to an industrial society. But the documentary shows Ford came to abhor the very changes he unleashed, longing for a return to a simpler past.

It's easy to forget just how revolutionary his achievements were. As one historian puts it, these efforts "generated the same kind of excitement as the man on the moon mission."

Modern car companies debate the value of participating in motor sports but when Henry Ford, a novice high speed driver, took on Alexander Winton, owner of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, in a famous a two-car contest in 1901, his thrilling come-from-behind victory catapulted him into the national limelight.

In his relentless pursuit of perfection, Ford kept introducing new models until he came up with a keeper: the Model T, which the company sold pretty much unchanged for two decades. A customer wrote to Ford that: "Your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy to our lives."

Henry Ford's endless tinkering didn't stop with mechanical devices; he wanted to improve humanity. His $5-a-day wage helped launch the American middle class. But Ford’s gigantic River Rouge plant, designed by the founder himself, dehumanized workers and became a metaphor for the dark side of industry. When union men tried to organize the workers to rise up against the harsh conditions there, thugs hired by Ford's tough-guy lieutenant Harry Bennett ruthlessly suppressed them.

Ford came to hate the very investors who had helped him get started and he railed against an imagined cabal of Jewish financiers. Ford used his Dearborn Independent newspaper, distributed to Ford dealerships across the country, as a platform for anti-Semitic tirades.

Ultimately the Shakespearian tragedy of his relationship with his son Edsel defined his final years. The younger Ford was a sensitive, creative man with designer’s flair and a taste for the finer things in life. Edsel wanted to bring customers more contemporary, stylish automobiles in colors other than black. The elder Ford bullied his son and thwarted his efforts to modernize Ford's vehicles and its corporate culture. After Edsel's death from stomach cancer in 1943, the old man was never the same, wandering Greenfield Village alone at night.

At his funeral in 1947, 100,000 people showed up to mourn him. For all his foibles, the documentary says, they realized "Henry Ford had the soul of a common man.”

Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.

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