Between 1934 and 1952 the second floor of the world-famous Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, housed the Edison Institute High School. I was lucky enough to go to school there.
Young people attending the Edison Institute participated in a program called “Learning by Doing.” Henry Ford encouraged students to select jobs from a variety of occupations. Whether it was tending a garden, homemaking, or applying textbook theory to real-life problems in a machine shop, Ford’s philosophy was that such an education would make the transition from homelife to the working world easier. One day, after spending the morning at the Edison Institute High School, I set off for my on-the-job training in the “engine build-up” department. Driving my Model A Ford along Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn, Michigan, I became painfully aware of the gas gauge ebbing toward the letter E . The year was 1945, and that meant gas rationing (among other things), reason enough for a seventeen-year-old-boy to worry about fuel. I arrived at the Ford Motor Company’s Engineering Laboratory, parked my car, and hurried inside.
The afternoon was going along fine until I looked out the window to check on my car. It was gone! Horrified, I ran outside and stared at the empty spot. Getting over my initial shock, I ran across the parking lot and burst into the security office.
“My car, someone stole my car! It’s a 1930 Model A Ford. I parked it right over there,” I yelled, pointing toward the parking lot. “And now it’s gone!”
The security guards started laughing. “Now settle down, son,” one of them said. “Your car’s not stolen; the old man took it.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” I said.
“You don’t understand,” said the guard. “It’s Mr. Ford that took your car. He’s got it out on the speed oval right now.”
I ran the short distance to the test track. Sure enough, there was my Model A with Henry Ford at the wheel racing around the oval. I watched him do two laps; then he stopped, turned, and started driving in the other direction. After completing two more laps, he pulled up by a group of men, while I thought with dismay about all the gas that had just been burned. Helpless, I went back inside to my engine buildup class.
After a while Ford returned the car to where he had found it and came inside the building. He asked Mr. Todd, the head instructor of the department, who owned the Model A. Mr. Todd smiled and pointed to a nervous teenager at the end of the hall.
Henry Ford walked down the hallway. “I guess you know that I borrowed your car,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Was that all right with you?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I’ve got a special place in my heart for the Model A, and when I saw your car in the parking lot, well, I just had to drive it. You’ve got it running pretty good.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“It ran sixty-eight miles per hour against the wind and seventy-three miles per hour with the wind,” said Mr. Ford. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
As he was speaking, Henry Ford was writing a note on a small card. “Do you know where the company gas pump is?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Take your car there and give them this.” He handed me the note. “This should take care of the gas I used.”
The attendant at the gas pump didn’t even ask for a ration coupon. Driving home that afternoon, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the gas gauge register full.