By Tish Wells
After watching PBS’ “American Experience” on Henry Ford you see what he was really about.
He controlled his company, he controlled his workers, and he controlled his “everyman” image as much as he could.
Like many controllers — and inventors — he changed the world.
As director Sarah Colt shows in her two-hour documentary, Ford, born in 1863, the oldest son of a farmer in rural Michigan, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He disliked farming immensely. His parents let him go to Detroit to pursue his engineering talents.
Ford became obsessed with the idea of building automobiles, then a rich man’s toy. He wanted to make them for everyone.
In 1896, he built a gas-powered car, called a “quadicycle.” It intrigued many people, but problems with his investors forced him to close his first company.
In 1903, he incorporated one of American’s greatest brands, the Ford Motor Co. He experimented with new versions until he found the one he considered to be perfect: the Model-T, in 1908.
Ford was quoted as saying that buyers could have the Model-T in any color as long as it was black. Colt’s documentary points out that the first Model-T was green. The initial price was $850, considerably cheaper than other automakers, and was “remarkably durable” — which was good considering the state of the roads at the time.
Consumers gobbled it up. Suddenly, everyone could travel, and travel they did.
Ford implemented the concept of a production line where a worker did the same job on each car, which then moved to the next worker, and the next.
“Under the old stationary system, the record time for assembling a car had been 12 hours, 13 minutes. Using the assembly-line process, it took one hour and 33 minutes,” said Bob Casey, curator of the Henry Ford Museum.
Workers balked. Forced to do the same job for hours, they quit in droves. Ford countered this in 1914 by giving everyone a raise from $2.34 a day to $5, “a share of the profits of the house” and an 8-hour work day.
He built a behemoth of a factory at River Rouge, Mich., which worked around the clock and employed 75,000 men in 8-hour shifts. “Its sole function was to have thousands of men working to churn out as efficiently as possible as many automobiles as they could,” says historian Steven Watts.
There also was a darker side to the Henry Ford success story. He invaded his workers’ privacy and home lives. He had anti-Semitic beliefs. He disparaged his only son, Edsel, to the point that when Edsel was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, he didn’t tell his father because he knew he wouldn’t gain any sympathy.
As the century went on, the Roaring Twenties made him uneasy, the Great Depression brought layoffs and, during World War II, unions arrived — which Ford hated “with a passion,” said historian Greg Grandlin.
It was his son Edsel, who had championed the Model-A, who also established the company’s contract with the unions. He died at 49 in 1943.
Henry Ford died in 1947 at 83 after making history.
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