Henry Ford was the pivotal manufacturing genius of the 20th century. His mass production of the automobile changed the world. But his populist obsession with simple people who wanted simple machines for a rural lifestyle anchored him to outmoded ideas that debilitated Ford Motor Co. What if Henry had retired and turned over control to his son in 1926?
Edsel Ford, the forgotten Ford, was an able car guy who could have remedied the years of mismanagement by his father. He was nothing like his self-centered and autocratic father. He suffered years of bullying by Henry, and he died young. Many of Edsel's decisions were either overruled or nullified by his father. He was president of Ford in name only.
Yet Edsel helped rescue Lincoln and created one of the industry's most stylish automobiles. He approved a new generation of cars for the postwar market. He was a visionary.
Could Edsel have rewritten the history of Ford Motor? His father never gave him the chance. But what if Henry had stepped aside; what if Edsel had responded quickly and forcefully to the competition from General Motors and Chrysler Corp. during the 1920s?
Come with us now and share this vision of what might have been.
By the mid-1920s, Edsel Ford knew Ford Motor Co. was dying.
His father, founder Henry Ford, steadily lost touch with the industry. By 1926, sales were 30 percent below the
2 million units sold just three years earlier. Henry Ford remained wedded to the utilitarian Model T. Ford's preoccupation with the "Tin Lizzie's" ability to carry milk cans and "booshel baskets" froze innovation and planning at the world's largest auto manufacturer.
Edsel watched as General Motors posed an increasing threat with its strategy of building a variety of models for "every purse and every purpose." Innovations such as hydraulic brakes, a six-cylinder engine, electric starter and others found their way onto GM cars quickly - but took years to be offered in Ford models.
Edsel's chance came in 1926 when Henry stepped down. Henry was 63 and deserved a rest. His wife, Clara, and Edsel's wife, Eleanor, demanded change. Edsel had been president for seven years and was ready to take over.
Edsel, Henry told the press, was a capable and accomplished executive.
Modern observers say there is no way an entrepreneur of Henry Ford's accomplishment and temperament would have stepped out of the way for his son. David Cole, director for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., says Henry Ford was too strong a personality to give up control of the company he founded in 1903.
Still, historians assert that Edsel was a capable, professional manager. He displayed the intelligence, ability and mastery of detail to respond to key issues. It is doubtful that Ford would have survived without the energy, vision and devotion of Edsel Ford.
Here is what might have happened had he had the chance to run the show.
Edsel at the helm
Days after Edsel became chairman of Ford Motor in January 1926, he received a report that confirmed his worst fears. Ernest Kanzler, a Ford vice president and Edsel's brother-in-law, warned that the Model T was so dated that Ford's future financial health was in jeopardy. Edsel ordered the planned Model A put into production that year - with a six-cylinder engine and hydraulic brakes, innovations long resisted by his father.
Edsel's orderly process of designing and building the Model A minimized what could have been a lengthy assembly line shutdown because of the model changeover from the Model T. Ford and its dealers probably avoided massive losses for want of a new product from the shutdown. Detroit was spared a recession from thousands of idled workers. And archrival Chevrolet missed a golden opportunity to gain market share.
Edsel's rapid restructuring of Ford surprised the industry, but not his colleagues. Edsel's skills had been honed from years of operating the business side of the business, including sales, marketing and keeping the books. But he was particularly gifted in design.
Years earlier, Edsel had pushed his father to buy the assets of Lincoln Motor Co. The January 1922 acquisition of Lincoln became the seed of Edsel's grand plans. The upscale Lincoln would become a unit of Ford Motor Co.
The combination of Edsel's styling and Ford mechanics made the Lincoln superior to the vehicle built under its previous owners, Henry and Wilfred Leland. Even Henry Ford had to admit that his son knew something about autos.
The popular response to the new Model A in 1927 and critical acclaim for the Lincoln did little to ease Edsel's worries. He knew that even surging Model A sales were not enough to rescue Ford - not with Alfred P. Sloan running GM.
The Alfred P. Sloan threat
Henry Ford's strategy of depending on a single, affordable car to the exclusion of everything else was his greatest failure. He didn't respond to the developing medium-priced, mass automotive market that began after World War I.
Henry's contempt for "gadgets" put the company in the slow lane. Chevrolet had hydraulic brakes in 1924; Ford added them 14 years later.
"He (Henry) knew his customers, knew that they were simple, God-fearing people who would not want these corrupting luxuries and would not desert him. But it proved that he no longer knew his customers," wrote David Halberstam in The Reckoning.
Henry's blind arrogance played into the hands of GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan, who knew as early as 1921 that success in the mass market favored expansion in the medium-priced field. Chrysler Corp. quickly had expanded the number of its offerings and became the No. 2 automaker by 1936.
At the start of the 1930s, GM had five model lines, and Ford had two. In 1922, GM's market share stood at 18.5 percent. By 1927, it reached 42.5 percent.
Ford dropped from 48 percent of the market in 1922 to 18 percent in 1927.
The tables had turned on Ford. Could Edsel have minimized the massive market share loss?
What follows is an alternate history that allowed Edsel a free hand at Ford.
The middle market
Henry Ford didn't see the middle market coming. Edsel did.
Henry failed to see that low-cost automobiles such as the Model T were saturating the auto market by the early 1920s. The rising affluence in the United States gave people greater disposable income for big-ticket items. They wanted more than the bare bones automobiles Ford offered.
Henry Ford disliked "gadgets" such as hydraulic brakes and was reluctant to diversify his model lineup. That put his company at a disadvantage, which might have been avoided had Edsel been given more power. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co.
Edsel knew that Sloan's middle-market strategy threatened Ford.
Henry had ignored Edsel's pleas for change. Henry was obsessive about keeping the Model T unchanged from year to year. Besides, Ford controlled the automotive market through the 1920s.
Henry's exit from Ford allowed Edsel to move the company out of his father's one-size-fits-all strategy in 1926, just after Sloan began enacting his price-step plan with Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oakland (later Pontiac), Oldsmobile car and GMC truck.
Edsel launched the Lincoln Zephyr in late 1926 to buttress the Lincoln line. He priced it with the most expensive Buicks and Chrysler. It sold well.
Managing numerous car lines so car buyers could move up or down required great organizational skills - skills Edsel had long demonstrated.
Ford had yet to receive the cost savings that GM and Chrysler enjoyed from standardized bodies. But Edsel was preoccupied speeding up plans for a crucial move: an entrant for the high-volume middle-market.
It was the Mercury. Edsel aimed it directly in the high-volume Pontiac-Dodge segment and launched Mercury in 1935, three years earlier than his managers said was possible.
Ford was catching up - and just in time. Mercury was established just before World War II brought civilian car production to a halt with the announcement of the 1942 models. Ford and Mercury were ready for the postwar period.
But Edsel did not live to see the results. He died in 1943 at age 49.
Edsel's success with Mercury eliminated a need to fill the gap between Mercury and Lincoln. There was no need for a fourth car line. There was no need for the Edsel.
The Edsel line
Ford Motor, in fact, launched the Mercury in October 1938 - too late to establish it in the market. The result was the introduction in September 1957 of the Edsel.
Had Edsel Ford lived into the 1950s, it is unlikely that his legacy and Ford Motor's reputation would have been tarnished by the Edsel debacle. The Edsel was a car Edsel Ford biographer Henry Dominguez, author of Edsel: The Story of Henry Ford's Forgotten Son, called "glitzy, gaudy, and overly dramatic - the antithesis of the designs Edsel loved."
Henry Ford II, Edsel's son, said he would always regret approving the Edsel name for his newest car line. The company lost $350 million on it.