The People's Tycoon

Perhaps no invention has influenced American culture as profoundly and changed the landscape so much as the automobile. Henry Ford, in a few short decades, transformed this turn of the twentieth century mechanical curiosity into a necessity of modern living.

From an early age, Ford exhibited a remarkable mechanical ability. He was fascinated by machines, especially watches, and soon became an expert at repairing them. His interest in gasoline engines began with his experience working with farm machinery at his Michigan home. Ford became aware that the tremendous labor-saving potential of machinery could free the farmer of much drudgery and long hours of work in the fields.

It was Ford’s encounter with a crude, steam-powered wagon on a road between Dearborn and Detroit, Michigan, that fired his interest in automobiles. Leaving his father’s farm at age sixteen, he moved to Detroit to find work in a machine shop. Working as a machinist by day and repairing watches at night, Ford had already begun dreaming about mass productionof watches at first. His skills with machine tools would be of the greatest importance to his future, and he soon began to envision a revolution in transportation. His goal was to produce a gasoline engine that could be a true source of mobile power. For such a “horseless carriage” to become a reality, Ford would have to build, from scratch, an engine that was lightweight, safe, and reliable.

As his first vehicle, the “quadricycle,” became a familiar sight on the streets of Detroit, Ford attracted business investors. With a sizable cache of capital and the newly found fame which came from his building of race cars, Ford began assembling cars in 1903. His intent was to build a “car for the masses”affordable, reliable, light, and sturdy. Eventually the ideal car was designed: the Model T, which put even ordinary Americans on wheels in the early twentieth century and changed American culture forever.

The secret to Ford’s success was the use of the assembly line to build his cars. Although this manufacturing technique was already in use in many industries, it was Ford who perfected it. Carefully studying the motions of workers, Ford refined the assembly line, cutting costs, speeding up production, and increasing profits. As thousands of autos began to roll off the assembly lines, the Model T truly became the “universal car” that Ford had envisioned, making him a hero of the farming and working class, as well as one of the richest men in America. His folk hero status rose to a level of almost religious reverence, and Ford found himself a living symbol of American industrial power and prosperity. As a result, he began to see himself as not only an industrialist but a social reformer as well.

He saw work as a stabilizing force in civilization. To Ford, a steady job and a decent salary were the foundation of a stable family life and a moral society. To demonstrate this concept, he stunned the United States and the world by giving his assembly-line workers a salary of five dollars a daynearly twice the normal rate in such industries. It was Ford’s belief that money should be spent and not saved; it was the flow of money, not the mere accumulation of itthat would produce economic growth and happiness.

Observers noted that Ford, in his personal life, practiced what he preached. Slim, athletic, indulging in neither alcohol nor tobacco, and with a seemingly perfect family life, he was the epitome of the successful businessman. He extolled the virtues of hard work, distrusted college-educated engineers, dismissed academic subjects such as history as “bunk”merely the stories of the triumph of the rich and powerful at the expense of the common folk. Ford’s five-dollar day and his homespun populist attitude made him a hero among the working class and one of the most revered men in the United States. Soon there was talk of his running for the U.S. Senate or even the presidency. As his stature grew, however, his weaknesses began to show.

Ford’s autocratic management style, in which no decisions, even small ones, were to be made without his approval, led to dissent among his managers as the Ford Motor Company grew. His ignorance of politics quickly became apparent when he chartered a “peace ship” in 1915 to sail to Europe and negotiate an end to World War I....

(The entire section is 1788 words.)