- 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
Texas was providing the gas; Henry Ford was providing the cars. The only limits on him were those imposed by production, and he continued to be obsessed by it. He wanted to put as much of his money as he could back into the factory. He hated bankers and financial people anyway, and he did not want to waste the company’s money on stockholders. They were, to his mind, parasites, men who lived off other men’s labor. In 1917 the Dodge brothers, who had manufactured many of the early components for Ford and who had been rewarded with sizable amounts of stock, sued him for withholding stock dividends. Some $75 million was at stake. During the trial, Ford testified that putting money back into the plant was the real fun he got from being in business. Fun, the opposing attorney retorted, “at Ford Motor Company expense.” Retorted Ford, “There wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t try things people said we can’t do.”
That was the trial in which he referred to the profits he was making as “awful,” and when questioned about that by attorneys for the other side, he replied, with absolute sincerity, “We don’t seem to be able to keep the profits down.” Ford lost the suit, and the court ordered him to pay $19 million in dividends, $11 million of which went to him. The decision probably persuaded him to take as complete control of the company’s stock as he could, so that as little money would be wasted as possible. Money to stockholders was a waste, money gone idle; money for the factory was not.
Out of that suit came both the means and the determination to build the River Rouge plant, his great industrial masterpiece, a totally independent industrial city-state. Nothing in the period that followed was too good for the Rouge: it had the best blast furnaces, the best machine tools, the best metal labs, the best electrical systems, the most efficient efficiency experts. Dissatisfied with the supply and quality of the steel he was getting, Ford decided to find out how much it would cost to build a steel plant within the Rouge. About $35 million, Sorensen told him. “What are you waiting for?” asked Ford. Equally dissatisfied with both the availability and the quality of glass, he built a glass factory at the Rouge as well. The price of glass had been roughly thirty cents a square foot early in the life of the T; soon it had soared to $1.50 a foot. With the glass plant at the Rouge, the price came down to twenty cents a foot.
At the Rouge, barges carrying iron ore would steam into the inland docks, and even as they were tying up, huge cranes would be swinging out to start the unloading. Some sixty years later Toyota would be credited for its just-in-time theory of manufacturing, in which parts arrived from suppliers just in time to be part of the final assembly. But in any real sense that process had begun at the Rouge. As Eiji Toyoda, of the Toyota family said in toasting Philip Caldwell, the head of Ford, who in 1982 was visiting Japan: “There is no secret to how we learned to do what we do, Mr. Caldwell. We learned it at the Rouge.”
All of this, the creation of the Rouge as the ultimate modern plant, speeded up production even more. Before the opening of the Rouge as an auto plant in 1920 (it had produced submarine chasers for World War I in 1918), it had taken 21 days from the receipt of raw material to the production of the finished car. The Rouge cut that time to 14 days. With the opening of the Rouge steel plant in 1925, it took only 4 days.
The Rouge was Henry Ford’s greatest triumph, and with its completion he stood alone as the dominant figure in America and the entire developed world. He had brought the process of manufacture to its ultimate moment; he had given the world the first people’s car and by dint of his inventive genius had become America’s first billionaire. He was an immensely popular man as well, the man who had lived the American dream. But even then, forces he had helped set in motion would begin to summon forth the darkness in his character.
As he became one of the most popular men in America, the forces he had set in motion began to summon the darkness in his character.
Henry Ford’s strengths eventually became his weaknesses. One notorious example was staying with his basic car far too long, ignoring technological change in the cars themselves while obsessively pursuing technological change in their manufacture. From the very start he fought off every attempt to perfect the Model T. In 1912, while he was off on a trip to Europe, his top engineers made some changes intended to improve the car. Their version of the T was lower and some twelve inches longer. It was a better, smoother-riding vehicle, and his associates hoped to surprise and please him. When he returned, they showed it to him. He walked around it several times, finally approaching the left-hand door and ripping it off. Then he ripped off the other door. Then he smashed the windshield and bashed in the roof of the car with his shoe. During all this he said nothing. There was no doubt whose car the T was and no doubt who was the only man permitted to change it. For years anyone wanting to improve a Ford car ran into a stone wall.