Eric_W's Reviews > The Fords: An American Epic

The Fords by Peter Collier
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's review
Dec 28, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: biography-memoir

According to his mother, Henry Ford was a "born mechanic." His father, brothers, and sisters were less charitable, for Henry would have every clock or toy with a wind-up mechanism in pieces, which he would then attempt to reassemble. He was an inveterate experimenter. Once, dissatisfied with his father's explanation of what would happen if he plugged up the hole on the teakettle when boiling water, Henry did so. The kettle blew up spewing boiling water and shrapnel into his cheek.

Peter Collier and David Horowitz retell these and other stories in The Fords: An American Epic. I had heard Collier interviewed about his new family history of the Roosevelts on Brian Lamb's Booknotes. I was intrigued so I ordered all of Collier's previous histories.

Ford was constantly tinkering with cars, and it is ironic that he made his name racing cars that broke all the existing speed records, though driving them scared him to death, convincing him, perhaps, that small, reliable, efficient, and safe cars were what he wanted to build. He was also a visionary who realized the enormous effect a cheap vehicle would have on the society. "The proper system, as I have it in mind, is to get the car to the people... just as one pin is like another pin when it comes from the pin factory."

Ford was not the inventor of the assembly line. It was actually the conception of several others, but he was the first to realize its potential. More significant was his early attitude toward his employees. Much to the consternation of his competitors, he doubled his workers' salaries at a time of labor unrest. The idea was not his, but that of James Couzens, his business manager. Ford had to be persuaded as to the amount ($2.50 to $5.00), but immediately Ford realized its benefits, for it turned his workers into immediate allies and part of the middle class, making them able to buy his product, which kept dropping in price. The reaction was mixed among the business community. The Wall Street Journal, in a classic statement of rapacity disguised as religion, editorialized that Ford's raises were "blatantly immoral, a misapplication of Biblical principles in a field where 'they don't belong."'

Another Ford innovation was his Sociological Department. Ford believed that he could renovate humans. He would hire ex-cons and other social misfits, believing that a good job could resurrect any soul. His "social workers" would visit the homes of his workers to paternalistically verify they were using their money wisely, investing, saving, educating themselves, and becoming better citizens. "I do not believe in charity, but! do believe in the regenerating power of work in men's lives."

The Ford family story reflects some of the benefits of a single-owner business: better focus, ability to plow more money into the company. That single-minded focus can also become an albatross, and so it was in Henry Ford's case. He refused to see the changes in American culture that no longer regarded the car as a mechanism to get from one place to another - a role the Model T fulfilled very nicely - but as emblems of status and comfort. Henry's son Edsel saw these changes, and as president of the company, tried to implement some of them, but a power struggle (not much of a struggle really with Henry holding all the cards) resulted. Henry fired Edsel's allies, and the result was bad feeling (and loss of market share to General Motors) that injured the company and family for years.

Ford had accomplished something no other major industrialist had he gained complete control over his company. He should have been on top of the world, but his sunny optimism disappeared following a libel suit he brought against Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune. McCormick hadn't liked Ford's forays into peace activism - McCormick has been described as the greatest mind of the fourteenth century. During the trial, Ford was humiliated by the Tribune's attorneys who ridiculed his homespun manners. Ford never forgave the legal profession after that experience, and he withdrew even more from the public eye, now despising notoriety he had previously relished.

His myth continued to swell. "Henry Ford had become a representative American. He was a man of limited formal education, yet he had inspired something like mass hypnosis in the American heartland. lie stood for the populist values that grassroots Americans believed in, values which were increasingly under assault in the modern world."

The collapse of the Edsel is told in humorous detail. The Ford brothers were barely speaking to one another by that time, yet pictures were taken by the image-makers, showing them smiling and ostensibly happy. Another public relations wizard purchased 5,000 handcrafted fireworks from Japan that exploded and released a nine-foot scale model that floated to earth on a parachute. Evidently the front grill was considered by some critics to resemble female genitalia, so there were the inevitable jokes about the tail-fin bedecked Cadillac backing into an Edsel and producing an Edsellac.

The internal machinations, the battle between Henry Ford (the grandson) and Lee Iaccoca are spectacular, each building a power-base, with Iacocca, in particular, doing anything to wrest control of the company away from the Ford family. It is sad, however, to read of such flagrant disrespect for customers and the company's long-term future, while preserving and building one's own empire. Given the implosion of General Motors, one has to wonder how much worse they are than Ford.

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