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The Greatest Comeback
After one Ford changed America, another accomplished something almost as amazing
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
By the late 1930s the Ford Motor Company was in chaos. Edsel and his faction kept trying to bring the company into the present, while his father, aided and abetted by Bennett, did his considerable best to thwart him. Long-term planning was impossible, financial controls nearly nonexistent. Only the avalanche of government orders after Pearl Harbor prevented utter disaster.
Then, in 1943, the long-suffering Edsel died of stomach cancer at the age of only 49. Now there was no countervailing force to Henry Ford’s growing senility or Bennett’s machinations. Henry Ford began to hint that he wanted Bennett to succeed Edsel as president, and when Edsel’s widow, now owner of his large block of stock, objected strenuously, Ford took over the office himself. He promptly fired most of Edsel’s supporters and told one employee, “We’ve got to build only one car. There won’t be any Mercury, no Lincoln, no other car.” Henry Ford wanted to go back to 1903.
Even the federal government was concerned about what was happening, and there was talk of putting Ford under the direction of Studebaker or even nationalizing the company so as not to threaten the war effort. Then Ernest Kanzler, an Edsel loyalist who was serving in Washington on the War Production Board, went to see Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and asked him to release Henry Ford’s grandson from the Navy so that he could take over the company.
Henry Ford II spent weeks reading his father’s files, trying to get a grip on the company, deciding what needed to be done, and making allies among the remaining executives who had sided with Edsel. But as long as Harry Bennett held the real reins of power, nothing much could be done, and Bennett would hold them as long as Henry Ford I was president. Finally it was the Ford wives, Eleanor, Edsel’s widow, and Clara, Henry I’s wife, who brought matters to a climax.
Clara, the one person on the planet who could sometimes boss Henry Ford around, told him that if Henry II wasn’t given the power he needed to run the company, she would sell her interest in it and Eleanor said she would do the same. Finally Henry offered his grandson the presidency of Ford. Henry II told him, “I’ll take it only if I have a completely free hand to make any change I want to make.” The old man bristled at this, but one glance from Clara and he accepted.
Henry II returned to the office and had his grandfather’s secretary—a Bennett man, of course—draw up a letter of resignation. Henry knew the secretary would immediately call Bennett, who soon phoned Henry to say, with matchless effrontery, “I’ve got wonderful news. I’ve talked your grandfather into making you president of the company!”
The board of directors met on September 21, 1945, and put Henry II in charge of the Ford Motor Company. He sent John S. Bugas, an executive he knew he could trust, to fire Harry Bennett. When Bugas walked into Bennett’s office, Harry screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and took a .45 out of his desk. Bugas was prepared. He pulled a .38 out of his waistband and said calmly, “Don’t make the mistake of pulling the trigger, because I’ll kill you. I won’t miss. I’ll put one right through your heart, Harry.”
By the time the elder Henry died, in 1947, Henry Ford II, a very gifted executive as it turned out, had ended the chaos of his grandfather’s sad final years and begun to make the Ford Motor Company once again a formidable engine of the American economy. Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is one of the largest corporations in the world.