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  • Writer's pictureTim Jackson

The Legendary Henry Ford

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Throughout modern history, Henry Ford has largely been credited with launching the US auto industry as we know it and as it operates today. Born in 1863 in Springwells Township, Michigan, Ford grew up on a farm and demonstrated early interest in mechanics and technology. In 1879, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit, first with James F. Flower & Bros., and later with the Detroit Dry Dock Co. In 1882, he returned to Dearborn to work on the family farm, where he became adept at operating the Westinghouse portable steam engine.

Ford worked as an apprentice machinist and then as an engineer for several companies, including the Henry Leland Company, which later became the Cadillac Motor Company. Ford was later asked by investors to run the Henry Leland Company which he did for a short time, though he was not happy with its direction and left to start his own auto manufacturing company.

Henry Ford started Ford Motor Company in 1903. Within just a few years, Ford was producing cars that were both affordable for the average American and easy to operate, thanks to his innovative manufacturing techniques and emphasis on efficiency.

Ford’s decision to focus on gas-powered cars rather than electric ones, was what became a crucial factor in the success of his company in the broader auto industry. At the turn of the 20th century, both gas and electric cars were being developed and marketed. Electric cars were popular among wealthy city dwellers and appreciated by their quiet operation and lack of pollution. However, they were expensive, and had limited range, which made them impractical for most people. In essence, the same challenges existed for electric vehicles when Henry Ford was starting out in the early 1900s that still exist today. More than a century after Henry Ford chose gas-powered cars over battery electric, the country and the world is still trying to overcome problems with the rollout of electric vehicles.

Gas-powered cars on the other hand, were cheaper to produce and could travel longer distances. They were also louder and emitted more pollution, but those drawbacks were outweighed by the other two important advantages, practicality and affordability. Henry Ford recognized that the key to creating a successful automobile industry was to produce cars the average person could more easily afford to purchase and gas-powered cars were the way to do that.

Ford‘s decision to focus on gas-powered cars was not without controversy, however. His close personal friend, Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb and many other devices was a strong advocate for electric cars. Thomas Edison believed that electric cars were cleaner and more efficient than gas-powered cars and Edison even designed a battery he claimed would allow electric cars to travel long distances. Edison and his second wife, Mina, were close friends with Henry Ford and his wife, Clara, and they often tried to persuade Ford to switch to electric cars.

Despite their friendship and Edison‘s persuasive argument, Ford remained committed to gas-powered cars. Ford believed that they were the best choice for the average person, and he was unwilling to compromise on his vision for mass-produced affordable automobiles. That decision proved to be the right one at the time, as gas-powered cars quickly became the dominant form of transportation in the United States and around the world.

Ford’s tremendous success was due in large part to his innovative manufacturing techniques, which allowed him to produce cars quickly and efficiently. Ford was an early developer of the assembly line process and a method of production in which each worker performs a specific task along a moving conveyor belt. This greatly increased production speeds and reduced costs making it possible to produce cars on a much larger, more efficient scale. Ford also introduced the concept of interchangeable parts, which allowed parts to be mass produced and then assembled into different cars as needed. This made repairs and maintenance easier and less expensive, further increasing the appeal of his cars to the average consumer.

It is important to note that though Henry Ford gets much credit for the assembly line process, Ransom Eli Olds was actually utilizing an earlier version of the assembly line concept a full 10 years before Henry Ford when he produced the Curved-dash Oldsmobile in Lansing, Michigan. The primary difference between Olds’ version of the assembly line process and that of Henry Ford, was that Olds’ assembly line was configured where the car remained in one place and autoworker assemblers moved down the assembly line. Henry Ford’s version was the opposite. In Ford’s version of assembly line, the workers remained stationary, and the cars advanced down the assembly line. Henry Ford’s version won out over time. Today, virtually all major automakers around the world utilize Henry Ford’s version of the assembly line and do so very successfully. The Ford version of the assembly line won the day and the industry.

In addition to the generations in manufacturing, Ford was also a pioneer in marketing and advertising. He recognized the importance of creating a brand image and promoting his cars as symbols of American ingenuity and progress. Ford sponsored race cars and other events to demonstrate the speed and durability of his cars and he used slogans like “Ford, the universal car,” to emphasize their appeal to people of all classes and backgrounds.

Like Ransom Eli Olds before him, Henry Ford knew he had his hands full designing and building cars, figuring out the power source technology to propel and accessing the materials and parts to build them. Both Olds and Ford knew they needed to offload the distribution processes for their rolling machines, so both were early pioneers in development of the franchised dealer network. While Ransom Eli Olds had franchised dealers as early as 1898, the first contracted franchised dealer with Ford dates to 1908., the same year as the rollout of the Model T.

Ford’s success was not without controversary. He was known for his staunch opposition to labor unions, and his use of somewhat violent tactics to suppress worker protest. He also faced criticism due to his antisemitic views and his admiration for Nazi Germany. Despite those personal flaws, however, Ford‘s impact on the auto industry and therefore on American society, as a whole, cannot be denied.

Ford Motor Company has been important to auto industry through the ages having experienced significant growth and success from the World War II time period to present day. .During the 1950s and 1960s, Ford became a dominant force in the automotive industry with the introduction of iconic models such as the Ford Thunderbird and the Ford Mustang. These models were popular among consumers due to their sleek design and high-performance capabilities.

In the 1970s, Ford continued to innovate with the introduction of the Ford Pinto, which was the first meaningful American-made subcompact car. However, the company faced significant challenges during this time period due to the oil crisis. That led to a decline in the sales of large cars and an increase in demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Ford continued to expand its product line with the introduction of the Ford Taurus and the Ford Explorer, which became two of the company's most successful models. The Taurus was popular among consumers due to its innovative design and safety features, while the Explorer became a popular choice for families due to its spacious interior and off-road capabilities.

In the 2000s, Ford faced significant challenges due to the global financial crisis, which led to a decline in sales and profits. However, the company was able to recover by focusing on innovation and technology, with the introduction of models such as the Ford Fusion and the Ford Escape. Ford was the only major US based automaker that was able to survive the recession of 2008-09 without taking bridge loans as a governmental handout. The others needed those and accessed them. That distinction has set Ford apart from the other major domestic automakers.

Today, Ford continues to be a leader in the automotive industry with a wide range of popular models, including the Ford F-150, the Ford Mustang and the Ford Explorer. The F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States and has been a staple of the company's product line for over 40 years.

Overall, Ford Motor Company's growth and success over the years can be attributed to its ability to innovate and adapt to changing consumer demands. The company has produced many popular cars over time, including the Ford Thunderbird, Mustang, Pinto, Taurus, Explorer, Fusion, Escape, F-150, and more. The Ford F-150 has held the Number One position for sales of any model for over 45 years. And Ford was one of first traditional automakers in the world to move toward mass-produced electrification with the rollout in 2021 of the all-electric Ford Mustang Mach E and in 2022 with the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning.


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