Pioneer Industrialist. Founder of the Ford Motor Company. He was a Midwestern farm boy with a grammar school education who rose to become the world's largest auto manufacturer. In an era when automobiles were hand-crafted luxury items, he developed the mass-produced Model T, the first car the average person could afford. In the process he revolutionized industry and greatly changed the way of life in the United States. Ford was born in a rural area that is now part of Dearborn, Michigan. Mechanically inclined from boyhood, he left his father's farm at 16 to become an apprentice machinist in Detroit, and worked his way up to chief engineer at the city's Edison power plant. In his spare time he experimented with gasoline engines and completed his first automobile, the "Quadricycle", in 1896. His initial pioneering efforts were in auto racing. He set several land speed records and sponsored the career of legendary racer Barney Oldfield, who drove the Ford-built "999" in his early victories. In 1899 he left Edison to launch the Detroit Automobile Company (later reorganized as Cadillac), but was forced out by investors who felt he was more interested in developing cars than selling them. He then founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with a mere $28,000 in capital. At first, like his competitors, he made cars for the well-to-do, but later he came to believe that everyone, regardless of income, should be able to own one. Having enjoyed a healthy success with his paired-down 1906 Model N, Ford unveiled his "car for the great multitude", the Model T, in 1908. Nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie", this simple, inexpensive vehicle created a new broad-based market for the automobile. To meet (and initiate) growing demand, Ford created the franchise-dealership system and opened a state-of-the-art factory in Highland Park, Michigan, where from 1910 to 1914 he oversaw radical changes in mass manufacturing. He introduced subdivision of labor along constantly moving assembly lines so that a car could be built from start to finish in 93 minutes. Production gains were enormous and as the price of a Model T dropped from $850 to $280, sales skyrocketed. During its 19 years of existence over 15 million Model Ts were sold, more than half the cars in the United States at that time. In 1914 Ford caused another sensation when he announced he would cut his employees' workday from 9 to 8 hours, establish a profit-sharing plan, and set a minimum wage of $5 a day, twice the national average. This ran counter to standard business philosophy with its emphasis on maximizing profits by minimizing costs, but Ford argued that worker satisfaction translated to higher efficiency and ultimately saved money. He proved his point by guiding his enterprise through a period of unprecedented (and completely self-financed) growth. At his 1920s peak he had over 100,000 employees and business interests in 33 countries. In 1927 he replaced the aging Model T with the Model A, 4 million of which were sold through 1931. His last innovation was the V8 engine (1932), later adapted by other automakers. Ford was able to push through his technological and economic advances because of the monomaniacal power he wielded over his organization. Resentful of investor influence, he bought out all his shareholders in 1919 and for the next 36 years the Ford Motor Company was solely family-owned. Also in 1919 he appointed his only son, Edsel Ford, as company president, but he continued to dictate all corporate policy. This ranged from producing the raw materials that went into his cars to attempts at controlling the personal lives of the men who built them. He employed an army of investigators, which he called his "Sociology Department", to make sure that his employees' conduct outside the workplace met his Puritanical standards (drinking, smoking, health or financial problems, or owning a car by a rival company were all grounds for termination). He was fiercely opposed to trade unions and the late 1930s saw bloody clashes between his security forces and organizers from the United Auto Workers. Only when faced with a general strike did he finally sign a contract with the UAW in 1941, the last major automaker to do so. Ford was a visionary, and a genius, but he was also a poor manager who failed to make the most of his early success. After World War I he stubbornly refused to diversify his product or even update the Model T (he famously declared that customers could have his cars in any color they wanted, as long as it was black); this allowed General Motors and Chrysler to overtake him in the marketplace. When Edsel Ford died in 1943 and his father, at 79, resumed the presidency, Ford Motors was losing $10 million a month. He finally retired in 1945 and handed the reins over to his grandson, Henry Ford II, who reorganized the company and restored it to profitability. As a public figure Ford was always outspoken and controversial. He was against America's involvement in World Wars I and II, though once the country was at war he used his factories to manufacture war materials. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson asked him to run for the US Senate on the Democratic ticket because he favored the League of Nations, but he was defeated after a smear campaign by his opponent, which played up his lack of education. (Ford himself provided ammunition with such statements as "History is more or less bunk"). The following year he purchased a local newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as a mouthpiece for his increasingly bizarre political and social views, including his virulent anti-Semitism; the publication seriously damaged his reputation and he sold it in 1927. His last years were devoted to more benign pursuits. He established Greenfield Village, a group of historical buildings and landmarks, in Dearborn, as well as the Henry Ford Museum. In 1936 he and Edsel Ford created the Ford Foundation, today one of the wealthiest of philanthropic organizations. With author Samuel Crowther he wrote three volumes of autobiography, "My Life and Work", "Today and Tomorrow", and "Moving Forward". More than any single person, Henry Ford prompted the shift in the United States from a largely agrarian society to an urbanized one. Other industries made use of his manufacturing methods; agriculture was affected as farmers growing hay for horses had to switch to other crops. His vigorous lobbying for more and better roads, and the sheer influx of Ford cars, helped lead to the building of the largest interstate-highway system in the world. And by making the automobile a basic neccessity available to the general public - and the empowerment and mobility this offered - he paved the way for a new American middle class. In 1999 a Time magazine poll rated Ford among the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century, and historians are still weighing his impact. Will Rogers, writing in the 1920s, probably summed up Ford's legacy best: "It will take a hundred years to tell whether he helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn't leave us where he found us".
Bio by: Bobb Edwards