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Henry Ford: The People’s Tycoon

“Ford was able to demonstrate the superiority of an economy of abundance over one of scarcity and he elevated standards of living to a height never before dreamed of….”  —Charles Sorenson

Steven Watts excellent biography of Henry Ford, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century is a comprehensive account of the life of a business legend. The book is painstakingly researched and masterfully written. The 650-page tome is a window into the ups and downs of Henry Ford’s life. Most American’s think of Henry Ford as the father of the Model T and the inventor of the assembly line. However, his impact went far beyond the automobile itself—Henry Ford transformed the social, political, and economic fabric of America and the world. Henry Ford was an extraordinary man with ordinary taste. He had a strong moral compass but also held flawed and ignorant views. He was married for 59 years and often gave his wife Clara credit for his success. He was a populist that lived simply—wealth had little impact on the way Henry Ford lived his everyday life. His private life was boring and simple. In the early 1900’s, Henry Ford (and the meteoric rise of his Company) represented all that was right with America—he was a bootstrap success story and set an example and precedent for The American Dream.

The entrenched stodgy conservative Victorian values of the late 1800’s were shattered by the arrival of the Model T. Massive social change was unleashed by Henry Ford’s mass-produced automobile. Henry Ford created a cultural revolution based on consumption and enjoyment. Through the Model T, Henry Ford created a consumer society. Millions of Americans found themselves released from the drudgery of work. The Model T was the spark that ushered in a new era of materialism, leisure, and consumerism in America. The economic impact of the Model T cannot be understated—the popularity of the car sparked the creation of countless other industries and businesses. The Model T was the engine behind America’s prosperity in the early 20th century, and it played an instrumental role in moving America’s fledgling economy from scarcity to abundance.

Watt’s book is brimming with little-known facts. For example, the flamboyant F in the Ford logo (still in use today) has its genesis in a set of old type-set tools that C. Harold Wills found in his shop (Wills was one of Ford’s first employees and at the turn of the century helped build the famous 999 and Arrow race cars). Like Wozniak during the early years at Apple Computer, Wills helped transform Henry Ford’s dreams into reality. He was a major contributor to the design and development of Henry Ford’s early race cars and the Model T itself. Wills innovated several breakthroughs including functional transmissions and the use of new materials like Vanadium steel.  While there were many contributors and factors related to the success of Ford Motor Company, it appears that Wills played an instrumental role during the early years.

Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized industrial labor by reducing the need for skilled workers. By 1912, one man could do what four did only a few years before. The assembly line was a culmination of a decade of evolution, but it was a difficult place to work. While it proved hard to remove the monotony of assembly line work, the upside was higher wages. Over the years, Ford’s employees ultimately became his customers. Paradoxically, the assembly line gave Ford employees the ability to consume and gave them more leisure time. Ford once said, “mass production allows workers to earn more and thus have more. Mass production leads to mass consumption! Workers can then participate.”

Over seventy percent of the workers at Ford Motor Company were immigrants. Language barriers and workers with rural backgrounds proved very hard to manage. As profits poured in, a sense of guilt overcame Henry Ford—the Company was raking in cash. As a result of these supernormal profits, Henry Ford (and his management team) implemented the $5 day. This generous and unprecedented benefit came with a catch— only people with dependents could qualify for Ford’s $5 work day. This revolutionary wage scheme had far-reaching implications. The decision was highly controversial, and other auto manufactures lashed out and revolted.

Henry Ford had strong opinions on many subjects—many of them misguided and ignorant. He was obsessed with how his employees lived their private lives. At Ford Motor Company, he created a sociological department that conducted organized investigations on employees. People from this department would go to the homes of Ford employees and inspect living conditions. The values the Company encouraged were a mirror image of his own—thrift and clean living. Henry Ford espoused virtues such as no debt, no drinking, good health, cleanliness in the home, and no in-home borders. As their employer, Henry Ford was trying to shape the character of his workers. He was vehemently against cigarettes and publicly opposed tobacco. He would not allow salesman at dealerships to smoke—all dealers had a no smoking policy. While Henry Ford’s priority was manufacturing cars, he was also trying to produce and reform men. Ultimately, attempts at controlling the private lives of employees faded as Ford Motor Company grew and high staff turnover became the norm.

Henry Ford had a distinct talent for publicity and marketing. As a result, he got write-ins for president. He did not trust experts and instead preferred the opinions of less educated amateurs. In 1927, the Model A was announced just as the 15 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line. Henry Ford leaked info about the new car slowly and carefully. He learned that saying nothing gained more publicity and generated valuable intrigue. Over time, the development of the Model A slowly trickled out of Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford would deny the information, but stories persisted. The Model A became such a big deal that cartoons were made and published in newspapers across America. Henry Ford created a publicity bubble, and the result was a remarkable exhibition of salesmanship. He created drama and expectancy. Ford Motor Company owned America’s imagination from June to December 1927. While Henry Ford resisted the advent of the Model A, the public perception was otherwise. Ironically, Henry Ford was a man who did not want to change, but his company’s campaign became, “Nothing is more permanent than change.” Ford ran full-page ads in over 2,000 magazines. On Dec 2nd, 1927, the Model A was introduced at the Waldorf in New York City. The response was overwhelming. The car lived up to the hype. It had a four-cylinder 40 hp motor that reached 65 mph, and it was available in several attractive color combinations. It had safety glass, windshield wipers, locks, and Ford priced it at $385-570. All this innovation cost no more than the outgoing Model T.

Henry Ford’s life was a paradox. Was he a farmer or industrialist? Ironically, he hated horses and left the farm to become the biggest industrialist in history—yet he remained in love with rural life. He was a Midwest farm boy and avoided the complicated life of Detroit’s social circles. He promoted rural life and agriculture and a love of the land. He was both a country boy and an industrial magnate. He received early mentoring and advice from Thomas Edison and they became close friends. Throughout his life, Henry yearned to be with nature and used to go on rural camping retreats with three famous men: Edison, Firestone, and Burroughs.

One of the most interesting (and sad) parts of the book deals with Henry’ Ford’s acrimonious, abusive, and strained relationship with his son Edsel. For reasons not fully understood, Henry Ford had a lifelong need to dominate his son. He felt Edsel was not bold and tough enough. Henry also was critical of Edsel’s friends. Because Henry preferred a rural and simple life, he resented the “Gross Point set” that Edsel moved within. Henry’s class resentment extended to his son and as a result, he disapproved of Edsel’s comfortable lifestyle. Henry publicly dismissed his son’s ideas of improvements at the Company and was outwardly abusive towards Edsel.

In the mid-1920’s, when Henry finally reluctantly approved the production of the Model A (a long overdue replacement to the Model T) another confrontation with Edsel ensued. The reality was that Edsel added unique value to Ford Motor Company and his ideas on innovation and style were way ahead of their time. Unlike his father, Edsel was educated and valued culture and history. He was an avid collector of fine art and antiques and even commissioned the famed Mexican communist artist Diego Rivera to paint murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (they remain installed to this day). Edsel’s home was full of works by Van Gogh, Matisse, and other landmark artists.

Unlike his father, Edsel was a patient and inclusive person. He listened to fellow executives. He was reserved and solemn and serious. He had an awkward professional situation with his father who overruled his every move. Edsel became passionate about design in the 1930’s and was responsible for the creation of a stand-alone design department at Ford Motor Company in 1935. He was instrumental in the design of the groundbreaking Lincoln Zephyr. He wanted to create a range of automobiles at various prices to compete with GM. But ultimately his position of authority within the company was a sham—his father was the final arbiter and kept decision-making power firmly away from Edsel. Any action by the younger Ford was always subject to approval (and often reversal) by Henry Ford—overall he did not trust Edsel’s judgment. Edsel was publicly humiliated by his father on many occasions, and the result was mutual frustration.

Henry and Edsel were very different people. Edsel believed in organization and teamwork. Henry wanted to call the shots and not study facts—he made snap decisions based on intuition. Edsel was much more analytical. Henry hated complexity and would decide things on a hunch. Edsel was all about courtesy and inclusion. Henry wanted him to be more aggressive. Henry saw his son as “too artistic for the automobile business.” Ford ultimately felt that the “Grosse Point crowd” had polluted his son and somehow made him soft. He hated Edsel’s “high living.” Henry would spy on Edsel’s parties and his private affairs. Edsel was resigned to his father’s behavior, but his feelings toward his father ultimately turned to contempt. They vehemently disagreed on the policies of President Roosevelt and union labor policy.

In the late 1920’s, Henry Ford’s bigotry toward Jewish people accelerated. His antisemitism was grounded in ignorance, and his unattractive views were broadcast via powerful and respected media channels. He regularly printed opinionated negative essays in the Dearborn Independent. From a public perspective, his reputation never really recovered from these ugly remarks. Henry Ford’s opinions and outspoken views on Judaism negatively impacted Ford Motor Company. The 1929 stock market crash further compounded problems at Ford. During this period, the Company’s sales fell, and GM and Chrysler exceeded Ford’s production.

Henry Ford held narrow opinions of what it meant to be a company that produced value. He had negative views of bankers, Wall Street, or any business that did not build something of tangible worth. For Henry, creating useful products for consumers was not only mandatory, but it was also the answer to all societal ills. He believed that production eradicated poverty. Ford was highly skeptical of banking and finance. To Henry, efficient mass manufacturing, low prices, and high wages is what real business was all about.

Henry Ford opposed unions but finally caved under mounting pressure. During this period Ford Motor Company was losing market share and was under pressure to follow the lead of Chrysler and GM by adopting union labor. Ford workers could choose a union or not, but most voted for the United Auto Workers (with only 3% choosing for no union). By 1936, Ford ultimately agreed to all terms and settled on a favorable deal for workers. While Henry Ford was initially a pacifist and was against the War, he took pride in supporting the military. Ford ultimately built B24’s for the war effort, and he hired Charles Lindbergh to consult for Ford.

Henry Ford became an avid collector of antiques. True to form, he was not into collecting rare or expensive pieces. Henry preferred hoarding regular everyday items. He built an enormous museum focused on the development of America and its story of progress. Henry saw beauty in ordinary objects like fiddles. He ultimately amassed the biggest violin collection in the world. Some have suggested that Henry put more work and effort into the museum than he did into Ford Motor Company itself.

Henry Ford was also a passionate dancer and spent countless hours practicing his dance steps with Clara. In old age, Henry and Clara enjoyed the good life. They took trips aboard their yachts on the Great Lakes. They kept a small circle of local Dearborn friends, and they socialized only within a small circle. Henry and Clara loved the woods of northern Michigan and had a cabin in the Upper Peninsula. They even bought a local rural town. The Fords also spent time in Maine and New York City. They often went south for the winter to Fort Myers where Henry’s close friend Thomas Edison had a home. The Fords traveled in a private 82-foot rail car called the Fairlane. Henry also bought 70,000 acres south of Savannah Georgia and enjoyed months in the deep south. Despite his strained relationship with Edsel, Henry enjoyed spending time with his grandkids.

In these later years, Henry stayed very connected to everything going on at the Ford Motor Company. Although he named Edsel President, Henry refused to create a formal succession plan that put his son in control. On issues of future leadership, Henry kept everyone at Ford Motor Company in the dark—and on their toes. Late in life Henry adopted multiple personalities. In 1938 (and in again in 1941), Henry had two severe strokes. As a result, he evolved into a suspicious old man with a fading memory. The strokes lead to a spiral of decline for aging Henry Ford.

By the 1940’s, Henry could not recall names, and he was often confused and dull. He could no longer process information. But towards the end of his life, Henry spent most of his time working on Greenfield Village and adding treasures to the Henry Ford Museum. He also spent time on philanthropic activities. His educational and agricultural projects worked to benefit the lives of others. Henry became devoted to education in the 1930’s. His efforts focused on children—he launched several education projects to benefit African American kids. Henry also used the platform of Ford Motor Company to revive farming during the depths of the depression. He created the Ford-Ferguson tractor and gained 20% of the tractor market and competed against industry behemoth International Harvester.

In 1943, Edsel died of stomach cancer at the tender age of 49. Henry Ford had stymied his career all along the way. Henry criticized his son openly, and he discounted the pioneering work Edsel had performed during his years at the Company. Edsel was forward thinking and pushed the development of new brands like Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental. Henry Ford never acknowledged the value of Edsel’s many activities and achievements.

Upon Edsel’s death, Henry was in shock and disbelief. In a strange twist of Ford family history, a very feeble Henry stepped back into the role of President of Ford Motor Company following the death of Edsel. This lead to a short chaotic period of leadership where a declining Henry managed Ford Motor Company from a place of weakness and confusion. Henry lost his grip on reality, and his memory began to fail seriously. During this period he mostly spent his time living in the past. During the last two years of his life, Henry Ford was removed from the company he founded.  Edsel’s death contributed to Henry’s decline–he died on April 7th, 1947.

Today, Henry’s anti-semitic bigotry is overshadowed by praise for his other titanic accomplishments. History seems to admire his achievements and forgive his faults. Henry Ford has become an American icon. He irrevocably changed the lives of Americans. Rural life ended, and suburban development surged. The highway system evolved. The car became the keystone of the burgeoning American economy. The impact of Henry Ford was enormous—on so many levels. He even changed courtship and mating patterns. He took Americans out of the horse and buggy era of the 19th century. He shaped how Americans lead their lives in the modern era. He brought about a new age of recreation and prosperity. Material abundance became a sign of fulfillment. Ford shaped and defined the pursuit of happiness in the modern era, and the automobile was the symbol of American leadership and lifestyle. He brought people a comfortable and abundant life.

Henry Ford became American’s first celebrity businessman. His populist style completed the image, and he cherished his ties to common people. He was a defender of ordinary citizens his whole life. He was suspicious of elite urban financiers and was skeptical of Wall Street.

His ignorant views on Judaism, his inability to delegate power to his son, his stubborn narrow-mindedness, and his wrongheaded labor policies are not attributes that Henry Ford is known for today. Most of history focuses on his earlier years, his interests, his tastes, and his overall positive impact and many achievements. Henry Ford created the social and economic vehicle of consumerism and helped define the modern world as we know it today. Ford created the assembly line, introduced high wages, and pioneered vertical integration.  He built the foundation of consumer capitalism. Later in life, he sought to counteract the industrial age by enshrining the past with the Ford Museum, Greenfield Village and with his passion for dancing. His revolutionary ideas have become so widely adopted that many do not realize how enormous they were in the early 20th century.

Henry Ford remade the United States. His overall achievement was breathtaking.

(Sources: Steven Watts, Wikipedia. Photos: Getty Images, Steven Watts)

The Ford 999 race car.

Henry and Edsel Ford with the 1896 Quadracycle and the 15 millionth Ford vehicle.

Ford Assembly Line

Ford driving the 15 millionth Model T.

Ford with his mentor and friend Thomas Edison

Henry Ford in the Quadracycle

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison on a camping trip

Henry Ford with a Model T

A “modern” Ford assembly line producing the iconic Mustang sports coupe

The new Ford GT


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2 Responses to Henry Ford: The People’s Tycoon

  1. Arthur Einstein May 15, 2018 at 12:08 pm #

    HF was a giant. No doubt of that. But advertising/promotion genius? I don’t know. We have to remember that Edsel was made president of the Ford Motor Company in 1919 and took Lincoln under his wing when it was acquired in 1922. It’s said he was an active agitator for replacing the Model T. And when it arrived in 1927 many called it a “baby Lincoln” – The resemblance was obvious. The advertising that introduced the car is still stunning today. And very Lincolneque in look and feel. Edsel is unappreciated IMHO.

    As far as Henry’s anti-semitism – I have a family story. My cousin’s grand-father, Rabbi Leo Franklin, lived next door to Henry before World War I. They were friends, and every year Henry gave him a new Model T. Eventually, as the Dearborn Independent published ramped up its bigotry, Rabbi Franklin could no longer accept a car. Henry was puzzled. He never made a connection between the Rabbi and the newspaper’s reporting. Very strange fellow

    • Philip Richter May 22, 2018 at 8:30 am #

      Thanks for the comment! There is no question Edsel is underappreciated. The book details the difficult relationship with his father. The story about Franklin is very revealing and strange. It illustrates just how ignorant he was on this topic. What a fascinating story of an American legend.