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Documentary Review - American Experience: Henry Ford (2013)

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The story of Henry Ford is a rags to riches story.  Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, near Dearborn, Michigan.  He was a child genius.  His parents wanted the children to work with them on their farm but Henry disliked the idea, so they allowed him to neglect his chores.  He wanted to learn all about machinery; he studied every machine he saw. 


Henry Ford

                                                             Henry Ford - Wikimedia


Henry’s father found him a job in Detroit where he reinvented himself.  He became an expert machinist and rose to Chief Engineer in a plant which provided electricity to the city, but his passion lay elsewhere.

In the 1890’s, transportation was terrible, especially for people who worked a farm.  Henry had an idea for a horseless carriage that everybody could own.  It would not be just a luxury item for the wealthy.  He worked late nights and long weekends perfecting his idea.  In 1896, he drove his horseless carriage through the streets of Detroit for the first time.  He called it a quadricycle.  People wanted to invest in his machine.  Henry quit his engineering job and brought together 13 men to form what he called the Ford Automobile Company.

The Horseless Carriage

The first model was near perfect.  It had high sides; it was heavy and rarely ran for more than a few minutes.  He wanted to work out design problems before he introduced it to the public.  Henry’s constant goal was to “make the thing better.”  His investors increased.  He used a lot of capital to keep testing.  The investors pulled the plug.  Henry Ford did not like people telling him what to do.

A Race Car

His secret project was to build a race car, make a name for himself and start a new car company.  He initiated the first automobile race.  Hundreds of people came to watch it.  He had faith in the superiority of his engine.  He trailed in the race at first but on the sixth lap, he overtook his opponent and won the race by more than a mile.  The Detroit News lauded his effort.  He was convinced that he should plunge ahead.  He had confidence in his own vision.

The Ford Motor Company

The incident attracted new investors.  He called his company the Ford Motor Company.  Orders kept coming in.  The company made 25 vehicles a day and sold more than 1000 cars.  He experimented with new designs, new types of lighter steel.

It was his policy to promote people who had drive, who shared his vision.  Every few months, he introduced a new model.  He wanted to help people, and his employees noticed that and liked it.  They felt that they were part of something new in American history.

The Model T

In 1908, Henry introduced the Model T, which had a four-cylinder, twenty horsepower engine.  It also had a generator to power the lights.  It came in one color, green, but later it came in black also.  It weighed 1200 pounds and drove twenty miles an hour.  It was simple to repair.  The world never imagined it could be possible.  The Model T sold for $850.  The sales began to take off.  Henry knew he had gotten where he wanted to go.


Ford Model T

                                                Ford Model T Automobile - Wikimedia

Marriage and Family

When he was 21 years old, Henry met Clara Bryant at a country dance.  They married in 1888.  They had one child, a boy named Edsel who always tagged after his father.

Henry had barely completed the eighth grade.  He was not high on an intellectual  life.  He wanted his son to start working on the factory floor as a start.  Edsel lived up to his father’s expectations.  Henry was proud of him.

Highland Park, Michigan

In 1910, he moved his production line to Highland Park to produce 1000 Model T’s a day. Assembling the parts was what bogged down the process.  Henry wanted to make it better and cheaper.  He thought about how the meat cutters worked, walking along a line of hides to cut each one.  He therefore invented the assembly line for auto workers.  A supervisor broke down the individual tasks.  Productivity went up; the time needed to produce a car went down.  They knew they were on to something.  The old method took 12 hours and 13 minutes to assemble a car.  The new method took one hour and 30 minutes.

The Assembly Line

The worker stood in one place all day long and did the same repetitive task over and over again.  Skill was engineered out of it; the job did not require skill.  It was a jungle of wheels and belts, men, machinery, and movement, with every sound you could imagine.  The workers found it monotonous and tedious and boring.  Henry had to hire 1000 men in order to keep 100 men who would not quit.

Efficiency became a religion to Ford.  He was the creator of the industrial age.  He liberated the human spirit and was a hero to many Americans.  He liked to think of himself as a heroic individual.

Henry Increased the Workers’ Benefits

In 1914, Henry had a top secret meeting with his managers.  The profits for the year had been $26 million.  The men on the assembly line were paid $2.40 a day.  Henry insisted on giving them $5 a day.  He said that raising wages would allow the workers to be consumers.  A car held the promise of leisure, abundance, and prosperity.  He reduced the working hours from 9 to 8 hours a day, and shared the profits with the workers.  It was an unprecedented strategy which some predicted would be the ruin of the company.

The next morning, 10,000 men showed up wanting a job.  They never dreamed they could make that much money.  It solved the company’s turnover problem.  Henry Ford became a national sensation.  Newspapers and magazines wrote stories about him.  He had revolutionized the industry.

People were fascinated with Henry Ford.  He liked being in the public spotlight.  He produced a film about his cars which promoted himself.  It was shown in theaters throughout the country.  He was a millionaire who had simple tastes despite his success.  He was a hard-working mechanical genius.  Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, and Thomas Edison sought his company.

Henry Ford is in Charge

Henry was basically a farm boy from Dearborn, Michigan, but he had a growing ego.  While he and Clara went off to Europe, his workers built a successor to the Model T.  When he returned, he ripped the doors off and demolished the car by hand.  Henry Ford, and no one else, was in charge.

The impression that people had was that Ford was in the automobile business.  His business was actually the making of men.  He insisted that his foreign workers had to go to school.  He was determined to change how his workers lived.  He sent inspectors from the company’s Sociological Department to determine if a worker’s house was clean, if there was a drinking problem, if he was married, or kept boarders.  If a worker’s house failed inspection twice, he was fired.  He insisted that those peasants had got to become Americans.  “We will Americanize them.” He was determined to force his ways on his workers.  He had the insight to teach other people how to live.


Edsel Ford

                                                                 Edsel Ford - Wikimedia

A New Home Called Fair Lane

Henry built for himself and Clara a new mansion he called Fair Lane.  It was really an island and a protected one.  It was situated in the farm community where they grew up rather than in Grosse Pointe, where most of his workers lived.  He liked people who could talk machinery with him.  He never wanted to become part of the social elite.  He was really an outsider in some very fundamental ways.  He thought of himself as a virtuous producer.

However, Henry could never control his son.  He was never home.  He preferred to be on the other side of the city with the more aristocratic people.  He was dating a girl named Eleanor Clay.  Edsel was a genteel, quiet man, but Henry wanted to make Edsel into a carbon copy of himself.   

Plans for a New Factory

In 1915, Henry bought acres of farmland with a bold plan in mind.  He would build a factory, the likes of which had never been seen before.  He had plenty of cash but ran into trouble with his investors who forbade him to use company money to build the new factory.  They claimed that he should have paid out dividends to the investors.  They wanted to use their dividends to build a rival car company.  Henry called the investors “parasites.”  He was forced by the courts to pay a fine of $20 million to each investor.

In 1918, he announced that he was quitting the company and that Edsel would be in charge of Highland Park.  He said he would start a rival company which would produce a $300 car, and would hire thousands of employees to work for the new company.  It was a ploy to gain the stock of the original company, and it worked.  The investors sold their stock, and Henry bought it for $106 million.  He and Clara and Edsel controlled every chair in his company.

Henry directed every one of Edsel’s moves and the company’s moves.  Edsel was left at Highland Park.  He decided to construct a new wing but Henry objected to it.  He insisted that Edsel leave the hole there, to walk by each day.  Again, it was Henry’s way of showing that he was running the show.  He also fired several high-level employees who had been critical of the Model T, or rather, he let others do the firing; he did not do it himself.  He had a massive ego.  He liked to grab center stage, and gave no one else credit.  He accumulated power, he embraced it, and he exercised it.

Henry vs. The Chicago Tribune

In 1919, Henry sued the Chicago Tribune for libel.  They called him inarticulate and uninformed.  When asked on the stand about the Revolution, he said it occurred in 1812, not 1776.  They asked him to read and he gave several excuses not to comply.  He was out of his depth in the eight days of questioning he had to undergo.  The jury agreed that he had been libeled by the Chicago Tribune, but he was deeply wounded by the experience.  Reporters wrote that he was a rural rube who had stumbled upon his success.  The New York papers said “The man in a joke.”

When the libel trial ended, Henry took a trip to get away.  Letters poured in from ordinary people who rushed to his defense.  The trial made him more of a folk hero than he had been before.  He stood exactly where he wanted to stan

Henry’s Problem with the Jews

Henry had a lot of ideas.  He had some personal ideas about Jews.  The Dearborn Independent newspaper, which Henry owned, published articles against the Jews.  He linked Jews with Wall Street.  He blamed the Jews for all the problems in the modern world.  He claimed that they were profiteers who cheated others in business.  His 7000 car dealerships got stacks of the Dearborn Independent to give to customers.  President Woodrow Wilson and many other prominent people condemned his attacks.  He had to shut the Dearborn Independent down.  However, he continued to maintain that the Jews were responsible for the decline of American society.


Ford Motor Company

                                                   Ford Plant, Highland Park, Michigan                                                                                                                               Wikimedia

Ford Motor Company Faces Competition

Oil, rubber, and steel industries boomed with the advent of the auto.  The automobile changed American dress, vacations, and leisure time.  People were demanding improvements in headlights, upholstery, and fixtures in the Model T.  Henry was uncomfortable in this new consumer world which he himself had created.

General Motors saw opportunity here.  They urged people to get rid of an old car and get a new car.  Ford faced competition for the first time from Chevrolet, Buick, Chrysler, and Dodge.  Ford’s market share dipped below 50% while General Motors more than tripled.

In 1926, a trusted employee, Ernest Kanzler, sent Henry a letter telling him that Ford’s customers were switching to their competitors.  Kanzler was forced out of the company.

Edsel did not like conflict.  He knew that times had changed and he needed to put a new model out there.  He kept bringing in plans for a new car.  Henry sent him to California on a mission to get him out of the way.

Fordlandia in the Amazon Jungle

It was 1927.  Henry wanted his own supply of rubber, and he decided to get it by creating a plantation and a miniature factory town in the Amazon jungle.  He called it "Fordlandia."  The vast tract of Jungle was the size of Connecticut and cost Henry $125,000.  It was a modern Utopia.

The Model A

In 1927, the 15 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line.  Henry announced that they would stop making the Model T and would introduce a new car.  The retooling took six months.  There were 100 orders even before it was unveiled.  It was called the Model A.  It was fast, reliable, safe, and a customer could buy it on a finance plan.  In the first year, 700,000 cars were sold.  Henry never forgave his son.  The Model T was central to Henry’s identity.  The design was now obsolete.

River Rouge

The plant at River Rouge was a huge industrial empire.  Cars rolled off a moving assembly line at the rate of 10,000 per day.  It was under Henry’s control and leadership.  It was a city in itself with 75,000 people working there.

Ford was now the competitor to beat.  Rouge’s function was to put out as many automobiles as possible.  Henry began to hate this monster, so big, so heartless, so removed from what he experienced before.  He spent very little time there. 

Manufacturing was surpassing agriculture as the industrial driver. More Americans now lived in cities rather than on farms. Henry condemned large cities, but he had been responsible for their unleashing.

Greenfield Village

Henry got away from the Rouge at a place he created, named Greenfield Village, a monument to the American past and his own past, which he believed River Rouge had destroyed.  He no longer had to live in the world that was around him.  He hated River Rouge; he loved Greenfield Village.  He even banned the telephone there.

The Depression

The Depression which followed the crash of 1929 saw the bottoming out of the consumer community.  As an antidote, Henry raised wages to $7 a day, but found that he had to fire workers.  One third of people in bread lines had been laid off from Ford’s factory.

Henry Hires Harry Bennett

Henry hired a man named Harry Bennett as a Security Office to enforce factory rules.  Harry was a street-wise character who befriended gangsters.  He enforced discipline and demanded extreme conformity.  It was, in effect, a police force in the factory. 

Tension Between Henry and Edsel

Tension grew between Henry and Edsel.  Henry did not like Edsel’s management of the company.  He wasn’t strict enough.  He provided a mild, soft management.   His father did not like Edsel’s lifestyle, his extravagant parties, his use of alcohol, and his mansion.  He ordered Bennett to spy on his son.  Bennett broke into Edsel’s house when the family was away.  

Union Organizers Target the Auto Industry

The company’s fortunes started to decline when union organizers set their sights on the auto industry.  A six-week strike ensued.  General Motors and Chrysler capitulated, but Ford decided to fight.  Henry decreed that no one should meet with union officials except Harry Bennett.

It was 1938.  Henry spent more time at Greenfield Village.  He was now 75 years old.  He had slowed down; he had also suffered a mild stroke.  He became more controlling and paranoid.  There was only one man he could trust - “my Harry.”  Harry was the surrogate son which Edsel could never be.

Government Contracts

In 1941, war raged in Europe.  Ford received a $480 million dollar contract with the government.  Unions called for higher pay.  Thousands walked out and went on strike.

Edsel stepped in without his father’s permission.  Henry had refused to sign a contract with the union but he realized that he had lost.  Even Harry Bennett disagreed with him.  The company got a union shop.  Henry had agreed to it because Clara had threatened to leave him if he didn’t sign.  It was at this time that Edsel checked into the hospital with ulcers.  Henry insisted that Edsel needed to mend his ways.  He did not know that his son had terminal stomach cancer.  Edsel died on May 26, 1943 at the age of 49.

Henry’s Health Suffers

After Edsel’s death, Henry took over the company, but was unable to continue.  The U. S. government worried that Ford could not fulfill their war contracts.  Henry had another stroke and passed away on April 7, 1947 at age 83.

Henry Changed American Life

One thousand people came the next day to pay their respects.  He had been the most influential entrepreneur of the time. Yet, he had the soul of a common man, and people understood that.  He truly changed American life.  Ford is still one of the three dominant automobile companies in the country.  Edsel’s oldest son was in charge when the company was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  The company sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government for a fraction of what Henry had paid for it.

The archival footage in this documentary was awesome.  It retained its clarity in shots from the early days of Henry Ford up until his last years with the company before he died.  The documentary is the most complete record of a man’s life that I have ever experienced.

An Autobiography of Henry Ford
Amazon Price: $8.99 $6.52 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 12, 2016)


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