A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

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A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by Jugster » Sat Aug 03, 2019 6:26 pm

I wrote this for the newsletter of my local horseless carriage club and most of you know the story by heart, but for the newer forum attendees, I figured it may be amusing. So, what the heck...

a complicated man f.jpg

On the surface, Henry Ford appears a difficult man to understand. Those who invested in his vision did, for the most part, come out ahead in terms of dollars and cents, but when he parted company with the likes of Alexander Y. Malcomson, John and Horace Dodge and several others, it was not on good terms. Likewise, his business relationships with men like James Couzens who proved indispensable during the early days of Ford Motor Company, and to whom he owed his success, almost always ended on a sour note. One of the very rare exceptions was Charles E. Sorensen, who worked closely with Ford for forty years. The basic recipe for his success was to stay out of the public eye and avoid taking credit for any work he did for the egotistical Mr. Ford. It must have worked because Sorensen's explosive temper never got him into any real trouble with the boss. Henry demanded undeviating obedience, resolute dedication and a Sisyphal work ethic. He rewarded blind loyalty and tolerated not one split second of independent initiative. Ford seemed to have a strong belief in survival of the fittest and so, provoked power struggles among his lieutenants, keeping the survivors and discarding the losers.

From the outset, his goal was simplicity. That meant designing a lightweight, no-frills automobile which would be as functional as a can-opener, simple to mass-produce, simple to drive, simple to maintain—and simply the most affordable car in the world. Every schoolboy knows this was the Model T. Produced in greater numbers than any American car ever made even to this very day, this was the car that put the world on wheels. It changed American society from agriculture to manufacture. It caused a great migration from rural to urban areas. It created a need for, and the unprecedented building of, paved roads from coast to coast. It made the United States into an industrial titan such as had never before existed. And it made Henry Ford a billionaire.

Mr. Ford stubbornly clung to his beloved Model T long after the car was hopelessly obsolete and made no contingency plans for follow-up projects until it was almost too late. The longish interval between the discontinuation of the Model T in May of 1927—with the accompanying devastating layoff of some 60,000 workers—and start-up production of the Model A at least six months later, seemed to be the antithesis of Henry's revolutionary five-dollar day and sociology department policies. And what of the experimental X-engine? Well, obviously, it didn't work out, but that's beside the point that the X-engine was a very risky investment; an unconventional, radical prototype envisioned by a man who is almost always thought of as obstinately conventional with a blazing hatred of change. Trying to follow Henry Ford's line of reasoning was like trying to follow a marble across a warped floor.

Anyway, the 1928 Ford Model A did make its debut with a great, big international splash, but it was really little more than a stop-gap car which fought a four-year holding action while Ford's V-8 powered Model 18 was in development. Though out-sold by the competition, there survive, nevertheless, a whole lot more Model A Fords than just about anything else of the same vintage. Go figure. The subsequent V-8 powered Ford was the favorite get-away car of Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, Clyde was so impressed, he wrote Henry Ford the following letter:

Dear Sir:
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusivly when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.
Yours truly,
Clyde Champion Barrow

And how did Mr. Ford feel about his car being used to perpetrate crimes by the world's most famous team of mass-murdering bank robbers? Well, he preserved the letter and today it is on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Hey, a good consumer report is a good consumer report.

Now, reading five or ten books on the subject doesn't make me an automotive historian. Still, it's hard not to pick up on a consistent thread running through all the accounts. I suspect there's less mystery surrounding Henry Ford's behavior, especially in his later years, than most experts acknowledge. It's my personal belief that as he aged, he mistook dumb, doo-dah luck for destiny, became an unshakable believer in his own infallibility while, at the same time, simply becoming senile.

In any case, because of Henry's erratic behavior, Ford Motor Company was very much at a tipping point in 1943, when, at the behest of the U.S. government, Ford's grandson, Henry II, was sent home from the Navy to stabilize the situation with the company so heavily involved in the war effort as to produce more B-24 Liberator bombers than the airplane's own designer and manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft Corp. (thanks to Charles Sorensen who managed to hold things together in the meanwhile). Henry II won a power struggle with Harry Bennett, a union-busting mobster whose ability to intimidate was very useful to and much admired by Henry Ford, Sr. Bennett, who at the prompting of Henry Ford, Sr., had made Edsel Ford's life a living hell, was in line to inherit the presidency of the company and may well have done so if not for direct intervention by Henry Ford, Sr's. wife, Clara (she being the only person in the whole, wide world for whom her husband held genuine fear). Henry Ford II took over the presidency of the company in September of 1945, fired Bennett and Henry Ford, Sr. died in April 1947—his hearse, a Packard.

If one were to write a cold, objective obituary to sum up the life of Henry Ford Sr., what might it say? Well, Henry Ford was basically a funnel. He gathered together exactly the right type of investors, like the Dodge Brothers, Alexander Malcolmson, and Charles Bennett; engineering geniuses like Josef Galamb, C. Harold Wills, Spider Huff and William Knudsen; production men like Charles Sorensen, Ernest Kanzler and Peter Martin; and sharp businessmen like James Couzens. They all went into the wide end of the funnel and Ford Motor Company came out the other end. Then, with few exceptions, those who believed in Henry Ford and invested in him, be it with money or blood, sweat, tears and loyalty, were simply discarded—frequently in a most heartless and undignified manner.

Without these people, Henry Ford was little more than a superbly gifted and intuitive mechanic—and if you can stretch the definition of "engineer" to include someone who cannot read blueprints or working drawings, I guess you could call him that—but in no way was he in the same class as authentic engineering geniuses like Nikola Tesla (whose intellect and creativity would have put Leonardo Da Vinci to shame). Whatever his reliance on associates and investors, Henry Ford himself was audacious enough to take enormous risks such as the famous Selden Patent court battle, which might have ruined him and Ford Motor Company, had the coin happened to land on the other side.

As a human being, Ford, though uneducated in the academic sense, was
a visionary with a great knack for organizing. Having achieved unprecedented success, he became a megalomaniacal dictator, growing worse and worse as his success increased. He ruled through the intimidation of underworld thugs who had no compunctions about beating assembly line workers into submission. Anti-Semitic enough to have been the only American to receive complimentary mention in Hitler's memoir, "Mein Kampf," he had also received from Nazi officials, a medal, the "Grand Cross of the German Eagle," on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. Ford's personal relations were a horror story and to cement that point, one need only mention the names of his two sons; John Dahlinger, borne to him by his mistress of some thirty years, Evangeline Cote Dahlinger, and Edsel Ford, whom he tormented and humiliated to the point where many automotive historians have posed the question of whether Henry literally drove Edsel into an early grave.

Yes, Henry Ford was a visionary, but his vision was built squarely on the shoulders of other people, and whether personally or in business, when you shook hands with Henry Ford, you counted your fingers immediately afterward.

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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by Wayne Sheldon » Sat Aug 03, 2019 6:53 pm

As always Bob C, very well written. Engaging, interesting, and concise. One of the better "snapshots" I have ever seen about our Henry. Truly, any in-depth study of the man would require a few volumes, but this gives a wonderful short insight to the man, and his miracle, without losing him in his personal "down-sides".
Very well done. Thank you.

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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by aDave » Sat Aug 03, 2019 7:19 pm

For more "interesting" reading, this is on the 'net:
https://www.nailhed.com/2014/01/henry-f ... r-son.html

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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by Henry K. Lee » Sat Aug 03, 2019 7:44 pm

Thank You Bob for posting truth in history!

All the Best,


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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by John Warren » Sun Aug 04, 2019 8:49 am

Good job 👏 thanks.
24-28 TA race car, 26 Canadian touring, 25 Roadster pickup, 14 Roadster, and 11AB Maxwell runabout
Keep it simple and keep a good junk pile if you want to invent something :P

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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by GEmering » Sun Aug 04, 2019 9:15 am


As I've mentioned to you previously, you have a wonderful gift for writing.
This piece, as well as the piece you wrote recently for the Horseless Carriage Club on the dangers of driving a Model T were both great reads!
I would give you an A+ but I am out of my element having taught high school mathematics for 27 years.

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Re: A Complicated Man with a Simple Idea

Post by BobD » Sun Aug 04, 2019 3:09 pm

Well written and a good read. Thanks.

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