Brief History of the FORD Motor Company

Many people when asked who invented the automobile will give the credit to Henry Ford. Actually there were many different experimenters working on the automobile in the late 1800's. But it was Henry Ford that was able to mass-produce an affordable automobile. Henry's idea and refinement of the automobile assembly line would change the world. The story of The Ford Motor Company represents more than the history of an automobile manufacture but instead actually represents the last 100 years of the United States. Henry Ford was born on July 30th 1863 to William and Mary Ford. Henry was the oldest of six children and grew up on the family farm near Dearborn Michigan. Henry's childhood was spent attending the typical one-room schoolhouse and helping on the family farm.

As Henry grew up, he spent most of his free time tinkering and finding out exactly how things work. But Henry had little spare time because there were always chores to be done. By the age of 12, Henry was repairing not only equipment for the family farm but also for neighboring farms.

Around 1876 Henry saw something that would change his life; he saw a self-propelled horseless vehicle. He dreamed that one day he would build a smaller engine that would power a vehicle that could do the job that horses were currently used for. Shortly after his 13th birthday his mother died. Henry was not happy living on the farm but stayed until he turned sixteen, and had finished school. In 1879, against his fathers wishes, Henry moved to Detroit and got a job as a machinist's apprentice at the 'James Flower & Brothers' machine shop for $2.50 a week. Henry also got a night job at Magill's Jewelry shop for $2 a week. At first he was only responsible for cleaning and winding the shop's stock of clocks but soon he was also repairing them.

After constant persuasion from his father, at the age of 19, Henry moved back to the family farm. While attending a dance on New Year's Eve in 1885, Henry met Clara Bryant and they were married in 1888. Henry's father gave them forty acres of wooded land as a wedding gift. Henry built a small cottage and Henry's father thought that Henry was content and had settled down. In 1891 Henry saw an internal-combustion gas engine. He decided that this would be the engine he could use to build a horseless carriage around.

Thomas Edison began building electric plants to power the electric light that he had invented in 1879. Henry moved back to Detroit in 1891 and got a job as a steam engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company. Henry worked nights, from 6 pm till 6 am for two years and earned $45 a month.

In 1893 Henry was promoted to Chief Engineer, during this time, Henry read an article in the World of Science, how Nicholas Otto had built an internal combustion engine. The recent promotion gave him time, and money to devote his attention to building a gas engine.

In November of 1893, Clara and Henry had their only son and named him Edsel. A few weeks before that Christmas Henry had completed his first single piston gas engine. Encouraged by the success of the single cylinder engine, Henry started work on a new engine with two cylinders.

In a little brick shed in his garden, Henry proceeded to build what he called a Quadricycle. It was basically a platform with a bicycle on each side. It used a tiller to steer the front wheels, much like a boat. The engine was a two cylinder four stroke that was mounted under the seat and used a chain to drive the back axle. It was started by spinning a flywheel. It did not have brakes or a reverse gear.

On a rainy night in June of 1896 the 500-pound vehicle was ready for a test drive. The Quadricycle would not fit through the door of the shed so Henry simply knocked out a portion of the wall. Named "Thin Lizzie" because of the thin bicycle tires, someone had to ride ahead to warn people with horses that the car was coming. It reached an impressive speed of 20 mph. The first test was a success.

On August 15, 1899, Henry quit his job at the Edison illuminating Company. Henry had raised enough money to start his own company. He was to head the new Detroit Automobile Company. Instead of producing cars, Henry spent most of his time and money on improving his design. The first group of investors would eventually withdraw after Ford had spent $86,000 without producing a car to sale. After a little more than a year, the Detroit Automobile Company had failed.

In 1901, motorized vehicles of the day were a hobby for the rich. Henry believed that speed was the best way of getting attention and investors. He built a 70 horsepower car and entered a race at the Grosse Pointe Blue Ribbon track at Detroit. Henry won the race averaging 55 mph. With a single race victory, Henry Ford had become famous as a racecar builder and acquiring backers was not a problem. He sold 6,000 shares at $10 each in his new company. In November of 1901, the Henry Ford Company was formed. This new company fared no better than the Detroit Automobile Company had.

On June 16, 1903, Henry Ford and 11 associates filed incorporation papers in Lansing Michigan. With only $28,000 in cash, tools, appliances, machinery, plans, specifications, blueprints, patents and a few models, the 12 men started what would become one of the world's largest corporations.

Ford was small operation housed in a converted Detroit wagon factory with 10 employees. Teams of two or three men worked on each car and assembled it using components made to order by other companies. Production out of the Mack Avenue factory was only a few cars per day.

Up until 1908 the Ford Motor Company used the first 19 letters of the alphabet to designate the car models. Some of the cars were experimental and would never reach the public. The most successful of the early production cars was the N Model. It was a small light four-cylinder vehicle that sold on the market for $500. A previous K Model that sold for $2500 was not near as successful as the N model. Henry believed that the future lay in producing an inexpensive car that would be available to a broader market. However Alexander Malcomson, the Detroit coal dealer, believed the more expensive Model-K car was the best choice of cars to produce. This difference of opinion caused increasing friction between Henry Ford and Alexander Malcomson. Malcomson left the company and Henry acquired enough of his stock to increase his own holdings to 58 ?? percent. In 1906 John S. Gray died and Henry Ford succeeded him as president of the Ford Motor Company.

The largest obstacle that the new Ford Motor Company had to overcome had actually started years earlier. In 1876 a lawyer named George Selden saw a stationary Brayton engine and recognized its ability to power a vehicle and applied for a patent. Because self-powered vehicles were slow to develop and the patent is only good for 17 years, Selden used various tactics to delay the issue of his patent until 1895.

The Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers bought the rights to the Selden patent and required all automobile manufactures to become members and pay royalty fees. Ford claimed the patent was too broad and refused to pay. The ALAM sued and even ran newspaper notices saying that any one buying a Ford car would be buying a lawsuit. Although Ford lost the first round of litigation he would finally get the case closed by the Circuit Appeals Court in New York in 1911. It was ruled that the Selden patent was valid only for cars with the Brayton engines. Gasoline cars were using Otto engines.

Meanwhile, despite harassment from Selden's syndicate, the little company flourished. Up to this time, the automobile had been a toy for the wealthy. But it was Henry Ford's dream to build a rugged car at a price low enough for anyone to afford.

Model T

Henry Ford, Charles Sorensen and a dedicated group of engineers began working on a "universal car." In October of 1908 the Model-T had been constructed.

Henry Ford's "Universal car" became the symbol of low cost and reliable transportation. So well received was the Model T that millions of Americans affectionately dubbed it "Lizzie". At the end of the first year they had produced 10,660.

In 1910, to meet the demand for the Model-T, Ford Motor Company opened a large factory at Highland Park, Michigan. It was at Highland Park that Henry was able to standardize and use interchangeable parts to increase production and quality. In 1913, Ford Motor Company was producing half of all the automobiles in the United States. Henry's new challenge would now be to keep up with the demand.

Sorensen and Ford came up with the idea of an assembly line. Rather than have the workers go back and forth between work areas, the work would now be brought to the workers via pulleys, chains and conveyor belts overhead. The delivery of the parts to the workers was carefully timed to a make sure the assembly line moved smoothly and efficiently. The moving assembly line revolutionized automobile production because it reduced assembly time per vehicle. This lowered cost and allowed Ford to sell even more cars.

A problem that came to light when using the assembly line was that assembly work was monotonous and uninteresting. The factory had a great deal of employee turnover and time was wasted training new men. The minimum wage in 1913 was $2 a day. Henry would shock the world on January 5, 1914, by announcing that Ford Motor Company's minimum wage would be $5 a day, more than double the minimum rate. Besides saving time and money by training new employees, the workers new wage actually enabled many of them to be able to afford a Model-T themselves. Years later Henry would consider the $5 a day wage and the new eight-hour work day one of the finest cost cutting ideas he ever had

A common misconception of the Model-T's were that they were only available in Black. Actually green, red, blue and black had been available up until 1915. Why were all Model-T's black after 1914? Pigmented colors of the day took longer to dry than black. To keep production times down, Ford kept with the black only color until in the late 1920's when better faster drying colors came out.

In 1917 Henry began construction of the world's largest industrial complex along the banks of the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan. This massive Rouge Plant would include all the elements needed for automobile production: a steel mill, glass factory, and automobile assembly line. Iron ore and coal were brought in on Great Lakes steamers and by rail. Rolling mills, forges, and assembly shops transformed the steel into springs, axles, and car bodies. Foundries converted iron into engine blocks and cylinder heads.

By the late 1920s the company had become completely self-sufficient. Ford controlled rubber plantations in Brazil, a fleet of ships, a railroad, 16 coal mines, and thousands of acres of timberland and iron-ore mines in Michigan and Minnesota. By September 1927, all steps in the manufacturing process from refining raw materials to final assembly of the automobile took place at the vast Rouge Plant. The River Rouge plant had become a sprawling city where more than 100,000 men worked.

The U.S. was about to be brought into World War I and in an attempt to end WWI, Henry Ford headed a privately sponsored peace expedition to Europe. His attempt would fail dismally. Once America entered the war, Ford was the leading producer of ambulances, airplanes, munitions, tanks and submarine chasers. In 1918 he would run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the Democrat ticket.

In 1919 Henry Ford and his son Edsel owned the Ford Motor Company outright and Edsel would succeed his father as president.

In 1922 they bought the Lincoln Motor Company.

Henry Ford was considered as a major presidential candidate in 1924. He used radio to promote his causes a decade before President Roosevelt used the fireside radio chats. By 1925 Ford was making 10,000 cars every 24 hours. This was 60% of the total number of cars being produced in America.

Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh at the Ford Airport in 1927.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh visited Henry Ford after his solo flight across the Atlantic and gave Ford his first and only airplane ride, in the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh later became the nation's first chief commercial pilot for Ford Motor Company.

Airplanes of the period were dangerous because of the unreliable engines. Not to mention the structural failures and a lack of airfields and number of experienced pilots. Ford knew that safety would have to be a priority and reliable engines were a must. In 1925 Henry produced the first Ford Tri-Motor airplanes, which was used by America's first commercial airlines. The engines were a 225-hp, air-cooled radial Wright Whirlwind design. Ford would produce a total of 196 Airplanes. Charles Lindberg during a flying tour of the 48 states, flew into Ford Field in Dearborn. Henry had no personal passion for flight and his only airborne experience was a flight with Lindberg during his visit to Michigan. Lindberg would select Henry's Tri-Motor engine for his 1927 flight from New York to Paris.

Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh look at Ford Flivver at Ford Airport in August 1927.

Henry's decision not to expand on the Model T's success earlier allowed other companies to challenge Ford's earlier dominance in the market place. Finally Henry decided the Model T would be replaced with a newer and better model. Not just a new model with a few cosmetic changes but an entirely new design. The last Model T was made on May 26th, 1927, it was number 15,000,000.

To prepare for the new model that would replace the model T, Henry spent 100 million dollars on the new design and for the retooling of the Rouge plant. Ford closed his plants across the country for six months while retooling for the new model "A" The Model A would prove to be a vastly improved car. More than 4,500,000 would be produced between 1927 and 1931.

The model A would finally be pushed aside by the consumers demand for more luxury and power. In April 1, 1932, the Ford Motor Company introduced the public to the first cast one piece V-8 block. It would take years before Ford's competitors would learn how to mass produce a V-8 that was reliable. During this time the Ford car and the new V-8 would become a favorite of Americans seeking performance.

In the mid 1930's, workers were looking to unionize. Henry was violently opposed to labor organizers which he saw as the worst thing that ever struck the earth," and that they were unnecessary. Only when faced with a general strike in 1941 did Henry finally let the United Auto Workers organize.

Auto production came to a screeching halt in 1942 when it was necessary for the company to put all of its resources into the war effort. Edsel Ford initiated the wartime program and produced 8,600 B-24 "Liberator" bombers, 57,000 aircraft engines and more than 250,000 tanks and other pieces of machinery in less than three years.

In 1943 as his program was reaching its maximum efficiency, Edsel Ford died. Henry Ford would resume the presidency until the end of WWII when he would resign for the second time. He would hand the company over to his oldest grandson, Henry Ford II on September 24, 1945.

After WWII ended, Henry Ford II was making plans to reorganize and decentralize the company. The Ford Motor Company was loosing several million dollars per month and was in poor condition to resume their prewar position in the marketplace. Henry Ford II would face many of the same problems that Henry Ford I had faced in building the company all over again. When Henry Ford II would retire from chairman of the board in 1980, it would mark the first time in the history of the Ford Motor Company that a Ford was not at the helm. He would remain chairman of the Finance Committee until he died in 1987.

After finally leaving the Ford Motor Company to Henry Ford II, Henry Ford I lived with his wife Clara, at their "Fair Lane" estate in Dearborn until his death on April 7, 1947 at the age of 83.

©2021 BULLITT Archive: Mustang and Mustang Bullitt are registered trademarks of the Ford Motor Company. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners