(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The year 1986 has witnessed a surge of interest in the American automobile industry in general and in the Ford Motor Company in particular. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam has produced The Reckoning (1986; reviewed in this volume), which, while dealing in general with the Japanese challenge to the American automobile industry, focuses on Ford and Nissan, primarily in the post-World War II period. At the same time, Robert Lacey’s massive study of Ford has appeared, and the autobiography of flamboyant Chrysler head and former Ford president Lee Iacocca has been issued in paperback. All three books have enjoyed considerable popularity, as is evidenced by their high standing on best-seller lists. This popularity can be explained by numerous factors. Each book is well written, and each author concentrates on colorful personalities in telling his tale. Each also deals with the automobile industry in general and Ford in particular, the only one of the Big Three whose family leadership has remained prominent until very recently. Ford, currently, is also the most successful of the Big Three in meeting the Asian (Japanese and Korean) challenge. By continuing to concentrate on its profitable international operations and by successfully responding to perceived Japanese-European superiority in quality and innovation with its introduction of the Taurus and Sable models for the Ford and Mercury divisions, Ford has sparked a positive response from car buyers and investors that accounts in part for current popular interest in it and its history.

British writer Robert Lacey, on the basis of his previous interests, would appear an unlikely chronicler of this distinctly American business, which had its roots in the rural America of the late nineteenth century. Lacey has devoted his talents in the past primarily to British aristocracy and royalty. In addition to biographies of Robert, Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Henry VIII, Lacey authored the popular Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor (1977). Perhaps he was attracted to the Ford family because it became America’s closest approximation to an aristocracy, albeit one of wealth rather than birth. Indeed, the author consistently focuses on the family throughout the book, although he does not neglect others who have played significant roles in the company’s history.

Once Lacey had decided on the Ford project, he made a firm commitment to research seldom exercised by even the most serious scholar. He relocated himself and his family from their home in England to Detroit for two years. There he had access to extensive collections of Ford documents as well as to members of the Ford family and present and former employees of the company. Lacey was admittedly aided in his research by members of the Ford family, including Henry Ford II (although he consented to only one interview by Lacey), and by the fact that Ford Motor Company has traditionally been unusually cooperative in making its records, which it has carefully preserved and organized, available to historians and researchers in the Ford Archives of the Edison Institute (the collective name for Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, and related research and educational facilities in Dearborn, Michigan) and in the Ford Industrial Archives. Not only did Lacey utilize the traditional sources of information about Ford, but also he conducted approximately two hundred interviews and consulted several collections of documents secured by application under the Freedom of Information Act. Most important of the latter are those which concern the activities of the shadowy Harry Bennett, the malevolent figure who monopolized access to Henry Ford in the latter’s last years and thus exercised a high degree of unofficial control over the company—to its detriment and to that of Ford’s son, Edsel. Finally, Lacey worked on an assembly line for several days in May, 1985. Lacey’s major regret was the unavailablity of the personal papers of Edsel Ford. Although they were filed in the Ford archives when that invaluable collection was established in the early 1950’s, they were removed from their boxes and taken away on the instructions of the company when the archives were transferred from the company to the Edison Institute in 1964. As a result, knowledge of the most compassionate and artistically sensitive member of the Ford dynasty is severely limited and must be pieced out primarily from company papers, interviews with family members, friends, and business associates, and from the FBI documents dealing with Harry Bennett, who successfully alienated the father from his son. As a result, the greatest disappointment of Lacey’s book is its comparatively, but unavoidably, brief treatment of Edsel.

Not surprisingly, the dominant and most fascinating figure in Lacey’s account is Henry Ford, the Michigan farm boy who founded Ford Motor Company, who became one of America’s most admired and wealthiest citizens, who put the world on wheels and, in so doing, transformed it socially, economically, and culturally. Henry Ford was an authentic American folk hero who attempted to preserve the rural American values of the nineteenth century in an urbanized twentieth century, a new world which he had done more than anyone, with the possible exception of his idol Thomas Edison, to create. Unlike Edison and other creative geniuses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ford was not an inventor. Automobiles were built and sold long before Ford entered the field, and a century earlier, Eli Whitney had introduced the use of standardized, interchangeable parts. Ford’s genius was as a manufacturer and marketer. His application of Whitney’s ideas to his knowledge of automobile construction fostered his development of the moving assembly line of mass production, which enabled Ford to produce a rapidly increasing number of cars at an accelerated speed and at a steadily declining price. Ford expressed his vision in remarks made in 1903 and 1907. To attorney John W. Anderson, Ford had first stated: “The way to make automobiles is to make one automobile like another automobile, to...

(The entire section is 2509 words.)