In 1978, when Ford Motor Co. celebrated its 75th anniversary, CEO Henry Ford II was near the end of his career. In an interview to mark the anniversary, he discussed the company's history and his own role. He also talked about the future and how he thought the industry would look today, on the company's 100th anniversary.
What follows is an excerpt from an article by Robert W. Irvin, editor-at-large of Automotive News, published June 16, 1978, in our special Ford 75th Anniversary Issue.
Henry Ford II believes there will still be some fun cars left in production when it is all over. "There will always be sporty cars," he said. "There is a big market for those two-door cars, and I also think there's a big market for an American-made four-door sports sedan with bucket seats like the ones BMW makes."
Ford also looked ahead at what to expect at the start of the 21st century, when the company will be 100 years old. He said personal transportation is here to stay.
"The ideal transportation system is simply a continuation - a perfection - of the system we have in this country right now," he said. "The ideal is highly efficient, pollution-free, exceedingly safe personal transportation. Whether or not we call the vehicle a car a century from now is not important. It will be a system of personal transportation."
Asked what Ford Motor Co. might be making in 2003, on its centennial, he said, "I guess the change would be similar to what happened between 1953, when we were 50 years old, and 1978. That is all assuming fuel will be available; I am making that assumption.
"But there will be differences in the products. You are going to see smaller, lighter, more efficient cars, made of different materials, and with much more electronics - but still similar to today's cars.
"However, find a 1953 and park it next to a 1978 and you will get some idea of the kind of change to expect. The big change will be in the mechanicals, underneath. There wasn't as much of a change in this area in the last 25 years.
"Twenty-five years ago, electronics didn't mean much of anything to us in the auto industry. But there are going to be tremendous advances in electronics in the next 25 years. The electronics age is still in its infancy in the auto industry."
"We are just beginning to see what computers and other advanced electronic devices can mean to the automobile," he said. "By 2003, many more controls and maintenance functions will be handled by computers in the car.
"As far as engines go, I do not think the familiar piston engine will have been displaced in 25 years. But the pace of our development of other engines may be necessarily quickened by government mandates.
"We will still have an internal combustion engine, but we may be producing some small electrically powered urban cars and some limousines, too, in relatively small numbers.
"I'd say that three types of vehicles will probably dominate the marketplace in 2003: small two- and three-passenger cars of up to 2,000 pounds for urban and neighborhood use; efficient five- and six-passenger freeway cars smaller than comparable U.S. autos of the 1970s; and functional and recreational vehicles that are descendants of today's pickup trucks, vans and minibuses."
He is not sure what impact all this downsizing will have on employment in the auto industry. The theoretical answer would be that it should mean you could build more of the smaller cars with the same number of people now used to build the larger ones, he said.
In any case, he expects the American auto market to grow at a modest rate of 2 percent to 2.5 percent a year. He said a 3 percent figure "is too high."
He wasn't sure whether other foreign auto firms would follow the lead of Volkswagen, which opened an American assembly plant in New Stanton, Pa., this spring (1978). "That will depend on the value of the yen and other currencies," he said. The Japanese auto industry hasn't made much overseas investment, he noted.
He doesn't look for further consolidation of the U.S. auto industry, now down to the Big 3 plus American Motors. (AMC has reached an agreement with Renault, the French automaker, under which it will market the European cars in the United States. But AMC will preserve its identity.)
Ford said additional consolidation "would hardly be possible. There is no way the federal government would allow that to happen."
However, he added, the federal government itself is contributing to the problem "because of the demands it is making on the firms with emission and other rules."
He noted that the government already has established the precedent of federal aid to troubled companies, such as Lockheed and the railroads.