Henry Ford, His Company,
and a Century of Progress
By Douglas Brinkley
Viking -- 858pp -- $34.95
Growing up in small-town Ohio, Douglas Brinkley was captivated by the Henry Ford lore that surrounded him. Then, in 1997, after writing biographies of Jimmy Carter, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others, Brinkley -- a professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans -- got the chance of a lifetime. William C. Ford Sr., the auto pioneer's grandson, invited him to explore Ford's vast trove of oral histories dating back to 1903. Brinkley declined to pen a sequel to an existing history. But he decided that a corporate history of Ford Motor Co. (F
) -- from the sweeping industrial influence of the first moving assembly line and $5-a-day wage to the transportation revolution ushered in by the Model T -- would "shed light on most major aspects of the twentieth century." That December, Bill Ford Jr., then a Ford board member and now CEO, gave him free access to the archives, urging Brinkley to write a "warts-and-all" book.
In Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, he has done just that. Brinkley has made good use of the oral histories as well as labor archives, news clippings, magazine stories, unpublished memoirs, and dozens of previously published biographies and histories. The author also brightens his work with snippets of popular songs, literature, and popular culture. He includes 1934 fan letters to Henry Ford from mobster John Dillinger and bank robber Clyde Barrow, both praising the speed of the Lincoln V-8. Wrote Barrow: "I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one." The result is a comprehensive and briskly paced account of the man, the machines, and the company that dramatically influenced the course of 20th century America.
Central to the company's tale is the enigma that is Henry Ford, to whom Brinkley devotes roughly 500 of his 858 pages. "There are in him lights so high and shadows so deep, that I cannot get the whole of him into focus at the same time," wrote the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, a longtime Ford associate, in 1923. To his credit, Brinkley deftly and evenhandedly captures many of the contradictions of the brilliant inventor, manufacturing genius, abysmal businessman, and stubborn iconoclast who nearly ran his company into the ground several times.
We see the man who treated African-American workers more fairly than most other employers, yet published horrendous ravings against Jews. The author shows us the beloved, paternalistic boss who treated his own son with appalling cruelty, even deriding Edsel Ford's pain from fatal stomach cancer as self-induced weakness.
Nowhere are Ford's contradictions more sharply etched than in his dealings with his workers during the 1930s. The pacifist who opposed both world wars and wrote admiringly to Mahatma Gandhi also terrorized his workforce with a private army of gun-toting thugs led by Harry Bennett, the former boxer who headed Ford's security force and eventually became his most trusted adviser. The enlightened industrialist who introduced the five-day workweek virulently opposed unionization, bizarrely claiming it to be a plot by warmongering financiers. During the 1932 Hunger March, the company's guards turned submachine guns on the company's own laid-off workers, killing four peaceful demonstrators. "Henry Ford, the man who abhorred war, was willing to wage one against his own workers," Brinkley writes.
Only occasionally does the author misstep. He recounts the final, unremarkable hours of Ford's life in loving detail but gives less space to recent investigations into the use of forced labor in the carmaker's German plant during World War II. The book does cover Hitler's presentation of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Henry Ford in 1938 and tells how Ford-Werke was cranking out trucks for the Nazi government by 1939, when it lost control of the operation for the rest of the war.
The saga continues into midcentury as a young Henry Ford II struggled to revive the moribund carmaker, often by copying General Motors (GM
) Corp. The new president lured financial manager Ernie Breech away from GM. He also recruited the "Whiz Kids," a cadre of former military planners who imposed sorely needed organizational order. Brinkley's account of "Hank the Deuce" coaxing dealers and labor leaders into cooperation and struggling to repair employee morale brings to mind the current efforts of Bill Ford Jr., the founder's great-grandson.
Then, as now, revival hinged on creating head-turning cars. Ford gained momentum with the hot-selling 1955 Thunderbird, though the Edsel in 1957 was an unlovely, defect-plagued flop. The flamboyant Lee Iacocca recaptured Ford's glory with the 1965 Mustang. And after painful cutbacks in the early 1980s, the carmaker battled back with the aerodynamic Taurus family sedan in 1985, followed by the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle in 1990.
Brinkley's talks with contemporary players, including Bill Ford, enliven the later chapters. (A conversation with Daniel Becker, the Sierra Club's director for global-warming and energy programs, in which Becker labels Bill Ford "a phony environmentalist," is sure to draw attention.) All in all, the author has created a meticulously annotated, highly readable, and engrossing work. Kerwin is Detroit bureau chief.