Citizen Ford

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Part One The Creator

Late in the life of the first Henry Ford, a boy named John Dahlinger, who more than likely was Ford’s illegitimate son,* had a discussion with the old man about education and found himself frustrated by Ford’s very narrow view of what schooling should be. “But, sir,” Dahlinger told Ford, “these are different times, this is the modern age and—” Ford cut him off. “Young man,” he said, “I invented the modern aee.” Dahlinger, who died in 1984, was baptized in the Ford christening gown and slept as an infant in the crib Henry had used as a baby. His mother was a secretary at the Ford company.— Ed.

The American century had indeed begun in Detroit, created by a man of simple agrarian principles. He had started with scarcely a dollar in his pocket. When he died, in 1947, his worth was placed at $600 million. Of his most famous car, the Model T, he sold 15,456,868. Mass production, he once said, was the “new messiah,” and indeed it was almost God to him. When he began producing the Model T, it took twelve and a half hours to make one car. His dream was to make one car every minute. I{ took him only twelve years to achieve that goal, and five years after that, in 1925, he was making one every ten seconds. His name was attached not just to cars but to a way of life, and it became a verb—to fordize meant to standardize a product and manufacture it by mass means at a price so low that the common man could afford to buy it.

When Ford entered the scene, automobiles were for the rich. But he wanted none of that; he was interested in transportation for men like himself, especially for farmers. The secret lay in mass production. “Every time I reduce the charge for our car by one dollar,” he said early in the production of the T, “I get a thousand new buyers,” and he ruthlessly brought the price down, seeking—as the Japanese would some sixty years later—size of market rather than maximum profit per piece. He also knew in a shrewd, intuitive way what few others did in that era, that as a manufacturer and employer he was part of a critical cycle that expanded the buying power of the common man. One year his advertising people brought him a new slogan that said, “Buy a Ford—save the difference,” and he quickly changed it to “Buy a Ford— SPEND the difference,” for though he was innately thrifty himself, he believed that the key to prosperity lay not in saving but in spending and turning money over. When one of the children of his friend Harvey Firestone boasted that he had some savings, Ford lectured the child. Money in banks was idle money. What he should do, Ford said, was spend it on tools. “Make something,” he admonished, “create something.”

For better or worse Ford’s values were absolutely the values of the common man of his day. Yet, though he shared the principles, yearnings, and prejudices of his countrymen, he vastly altered their world. What he wrought reconstituted the nature of work and began a profound change in the relationship of man to his job. Near the end of this century it was clear that he had played a major part in creating a new kind of society in which man thought as much about leisure time as about his work. Ironically, the idea of leisure itself, or even worse, a leisure culture, was anathema to him. He was never entirely comfortable with the fruits of his success, even though he lived in a magnificent fifty-six-room house. “I still like boiled potatoes with the skins on,” he said, “and I do not want a man standing back of my chair at table laughing up his sleeve at me while I am taking the potatoes’ jackets off.” Of pleasure and material things he was wary: “I have never known what to do with money after my expenses were paid,” he said, “I can’t squander it on myself without hurting myself, and nobody wants to do that.”

Only work gave purpose: “Thinking men know that work is the salvation of the race, morally, physically, socially. Work does more than get us our living; it gets us our life.”

As a good farm boy should, he hated alcohol and tobacco, and he once said that alcohol was the real cause of World War I—the beer-drinking German taking after the wine-drinking Frenchman. His strength, in his early years—which were also his good years—was in the purity of his technical instincts. “We go forward without facts, and we learn the facts as we go along,” he once said. Having helped create an urbanized world where millions of God-fearing young men left the farm and went to the cities, he was profoundly uneasy with his own handiwork, preferring the simpler, slower America he had aided in diminishing. For all his romanticizing of farm life, however, the truth was that he had always been bored by farm work and could not wait to leave the farm and play with machines. They were his real love.