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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
Bennett and Sorensen immediately began belittling him, Bennett by undoing what Henry was attempting to do each day and Sorensen by demeaning him in front of other people and by always calling him “young man.” “He might just as well have called me Sonny,” Henry later told friends. Henry Ford II might have titular power—he was named vice president in December 1943—and the power of blood, but unless his grandfather moved aside and Bennett left the company, he would never be able to take control. Even Sorensen was in the process of being destroyed by Bennett, and young Henry seemed very vulnerable. Again Eleanor Clay Ford put her foot down and forced an issue. Widowhood had stirred in her the kind of indigna- tion her husband had always lacked. He had been too loyal to challenge his father, but now Edsel’s company stock was hers to vote. She threatened to sell it unless old Henry moved aside in favor of his grandson. Her son would not be destroyed as her husband had been. Clara Bryant Ford backed her completely. They fought off the old man’s excuses and his delaying ploys. With that threat, and a sense that these women were intensely serious, Henry Ford finally, furiously, gave up, and Henry Ford II took control.
The young man—he was just twentyeight—had not served the long apprenticeship his father had, and he had only the scantest knowledge of the vast and complicated world he inherited. But it soon became clear that he was shrewd and tough. Through the most unsparing work he mastered the business; and he got rid of Harry Bennett. “You’re taking over a billion-dollar organization here that you haven’t contributed a thing to!” Bennett yelled. But, having no other recourse, he left.
In the end Henry Ford II broke all of Bennett’s cronies and put an end to the bad old era. But there was no way to escape the complex legacy of the founder.
Once a popular figure with the average man, Henry Ford had become known as one of the nation’s leading labor baiters. He had helped usher in a new age of economic dignity for the common man, but he could not deal with the consequences. His public statements during the Depression were perhaps the most pitiless ever uttered by any capitalist. He repeatedly said that the Depression was good for the country and the only problem was that it might not last long enough, in which case people might not learn enough from it. “If there is unemployment in America,” he said, “it is because the unemployed do not want to work.” His workers, embittered by his labor policies, marched against him and were put down by Bennett’s truncheons and guns. His security people were so vicious that when Ford’s workers marched against the company, the workers wore masks over their faces to hide their identities—something rare in America. Nothing could have spoken more eloquently of tyrannical employment practices.
In business Henry Ford was overtaken by General Motors, which relentlessly modernized its design, its production, and its marketing. GM fed the appetites Ford had helped create. In addition, GM inaugurated a dynamic that haunted the Ford company for the next fifty years; buyers started out driving Fords when they were young and had little money, but slowly, as their earnings rose, they graduated to more expensive GM cars. As a workingman’s hero, Ford was replaced by FDR. What had once been charming about his eccentricity now became contemptible.
Nothing reflected his failures more tellingly than the fate of the River Rouge manufacturing complex. It was an industrial masterpiece, and it should have stood long after his death as a beacon to the genius of its founder. But the treatment of human beings there had been so mean and violent, the reputation of the Rouge so scurrilous, that in the postwar era it stood as an embarrassment to the new men running Ford, a reputation that had to be undone.
The bequeathment had other unfortunate aspects. By fighting the unions so unalterably for so long, Ford and the other Detroit industrialists had ensured that, when the unions finally won power, they would be as strong as the companies themselves, and that there would be a carry-over of distrust and hatred. There were other, more concrete, burdens as well. Because he had been locked in the past and had frozen his technology, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy.