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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
He went from Flower & Brothers to a company called Detroit Dry Dock, which specialized in building steamboats, barges, tugs, and ferries. His job was to work on the engines, and he gloried in it, staying there two years. There was, he later said, nothing to do every day but learn. In 1882, however, at the age of nineteen, he returned to the farm, and his father offered him eighty acres of land to stay there. William Ford did that to rescue his wayward son from the city and his damnable machines; Henry Ford took it because he momentarily needed security—he was about to marry Clara Bryant. Nothing convinced him more of his love of machines than the drudgery of the farm. Again he spent every spare minute tinkering and trying to invent and reading every technical magazine he could. He experimented with the sawmill on the farm; he tried to invent a steam engine for a plow. Crude stationary gasoline engines had been developed, and Ford was sure a new world of efficient gasoline-powered machines was about to arrive. He wanted to be part of it. In 1891, with all the timber on the farm cut, he asked Clara to go back to Detroit with him. “He just doesn’t seem to settle down,” his father said to friends. “I don’t know what will become of him.”
The last thing Henry Ford was interested in was settling down. He intended, he told his wife, to invent a horseless carriage. But first he needed to know a good deal more about electricity. So he took a job with Detroit Edison at fortyfive dollars a month. The city had grown dramatically in the few years since he had first arrived; its population was now more than 205,000. The railroads had begun to open up the country, and, except for Chicago, no town in America had grown as quickly. Detroit now had streetlights. There were more machine shops than ever before. In this city the age of coal and steam was about to end.
By 1896, at the age of thirty-two, Ford finally had his first car on the street. He was so excited by the prospect of his inaugural ride that he barely slept for the forty-eight hours before it. He had been so obsessed and preoccupied during the creation of the car that not until it was time for the test drive did he find that the door of the garage was too small for it to exit. So he simply took an ax and knocked down some of the brick wall to let the automobile out. A friend rode ahead on a bike to warn off traffic. A spring in the car broke during the ride, but they fixed it quickly. Then Henry Ford went home so he could sleep for a few hours before going to work. Later he drove the car out to his father’s farm, but William Ford refused to ride in it. Why, he asked, should he risk his life for a brief thrill?
Henry Ford sold that first car for $200 and used the money to start work immediately on his next. It was considerably heavier than the first, and he persuaded a lumber merchant named William Murphy to invest in the project by giving him a ride. “Well,” said Mur- phy when he reached home safely, “now we will organize a company.” In August 1899 Murphy brought together a consortium of men who put up $15,000 to finance Ford’s Detroit Automobile Company. Ford thereupon left Detroit Edison to work full time on his car.
The way to make cars, Ford said in 1903, is to make one like another, “just as one pin is like another pin, or one match like another match.”
In February 1900, at the threshold of the twentieth century, Ford was ready to take a reporter from the Detroit News-Tribune for a ride. The car, he said, would go twenty-five miles an hour. The reporter sensed that he was witness to the dawn of a new era. Steam, he later wrote, had been the “compelling power of civilization,” but now the shriek of the steam whistle was about to yield to a new noise, the noise of the auto. “What kind of a noise is it?” the reporter asked. “That is difficult to set down on paper. It is not like any other sound ever heard in this world. It was not like the puff! puff! of the exhaust of gasoline in a river launch; neither is it like the cry! cry! of a working steam engine; but a long, quick, mellow gurgling sound, not harsh, not unmusical, not distressing; a note that falls with pleasure on the ear. It must be heard to be appreciated. And the sooner you hear its newest chuck! chuck! the sooner you will be in touch with civilization’s latest lisp, its newest voice.” On the trip, Ford and the reporter passed a harness shop. “His trade is doomed,” Ford said.
Ford, however, was not satisfied. The cars he was making at the Detroit Automobile Company were not far behind the quality of the cars being made by Duryea or Olds, but they remained too expensive for his vision. Ford desperately wanted to make a cheaper car. His stockholders were unenthusiastic. By November 1900 the company had died. But Ford was as determined as ever to make his basic car, and he decided that the way to call attention to himself and pull ahead of the more than fifty competing auto makers was to go into racing. In 1901 he entered a race to be held in Grosse Pointe. He won and became, in that small, new mechanical world, something of a celebrity. That propelled him ahead of his competitors.