- Historic Sites
He invented modern mass production. He gave the world the first people’s car, and his countrymen loved him for it. But at the moment of his greatest triumph, he turned on the empire he had built—and on the son who would inherit it.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Edsel was not a mechanical linkerer himself, but he had spent his life in the auto business, and he knew who in the company was good and who was not; he was comfortable with the engineers and the designers. Edsel knew times were changing and that the Ford Motor Company was dying. During his father’s worst years, Edsel became a magnet for the most talented men in the company, who came to regard his defeats as their defeats. He was a capable executive, and an exceptionally well-trained one: his apprenticeship was full and thorough—and it lasted thirty years. Absolutely confident in his own judgment about both people and cars, Edsel Ford was beloved by his friends and yet respected in the automobile business for his obvious good judgment. “Henry,” John Dodge, Henry Ford’s early partner and later his rival, once said, “I don’t envy you a damn thing except that boy of yours.”
Edsel was the first scion of the automotive world. He married Eleanor Clay, a member of the Hudson family that ran Detroit’s most famous department store. They were society, and the marriage was a great event, the two worlds of Detroit merging, the old and the new, a Ford and a Clay. Henry Ford hated the fact that Edsel had married into the Detroit elite and had moved to Grosse Pointe. He knew that Edsel went to parties and on occasion took a drink with his friends, not all of whom were manufacturing people and some of whom were upper class —worse, upper-class citified people- and was sure all this had corrupted him. It was as if Edsel, by marrying Eleanor, had confuted one of Henry Ford’s favorite sayings: “A Ford will take you anywhere except into society.”
On top of all his other burdens, it was Edsel’s unfortunate duty to represent the future to a father now absolutely locked in a dying past. Genuinely loyal to his father, Edsel patiently and lovingly tried to talk Henry Ford into modernizing the company, but the old man regarded his son’s loyalty as weakness and spurned him and his advice.
When everyone else in the company agreed that a particular issue had to be brought before the old man, Edsel became the designated spokesman. With Knudsen now gone, he usually stood alone. He was probably the only person who told the truth to his father. Others, such as Sorensen, were supposed to come to Edsel’s defense during meetings with Henry, but they never did. Sorensen, brutal with everyone else in the company but the complete toady with the founder, always turned tail in the face of Henry Ford’s opposition.
All the while the competition was getting better faster. Chevy had hydraulic brakes in 1924; Ford added them fourteen years later. Because Chevy had already gone to a six-cylinder car, Edsel pleaded even more passionately with his father to modernize the Ford engine. A six, his father retorted, could never be a balanced car. “I’ve no use for an engine,” he said, “that has more spark plugs than a cow has teats.” After all, he had built one back in 1909, and he had not liked it.
The six-cylinder engine, more than any other issue, stood between the two Fords. The quintessential story about Henry Ford and the six-cylinder engine —for it reflects not just his hatred of the new but his contempt for his son as well—concerns a project that Edsel and Laurence Sheldrick, the company’s chief engineer, had been working on. It was a new engine, a six, and Edsel believed he had gotten paternal permission to start experimenting with it. He and Sheldrick labored for about six months, and they were delighted with the prototype. One day when they were just about ready to test it, Sheldrick got a call from Henry Ford.
“Sheldrick,” he said, “I’ve got a new scrap conveyor that I’m very proud of. It goes right to the cupola at the top of the plant. I’d like you to come and take a look at it. I’m really proud of it.”
Sheldrick joined Ford for the demonstration at the top of the cupola, where they could watch the conveyor work. To Sheldrick’s surprise, Edsel was there too. Soon the conveyor started. The first thing riding up in it, on its way to becoming junk, was Edsel Ford’s and Larry Sheldrick’s engine.
“Now,” said the old man, “don’t you try anything like that again. Don’t you ever, do you hear?”
In 1936, his company under mounting pressure, Henry Ford reluctantly built a six-cylinder engine. It went into production a year later. But moves like this were too late. By 1933, Fortune , reflecting the growing scorn and indeed the contempt of the business community that Henry Ford had once dazzled, called him “the world’s worst salesman.”