Henry Ford, the Man Who Changed America

American Icons, Made in America, People, Traditions
on June 8, 2003
Ford T
Ford's Model T

Henry Ford’s ingenuity and acumen left a legacy that reaches far beyond the Model T’s driver’s seat. In pioneering a car affordable to nearly everyone, Ford increased the minimum daily wage of his time, essentially creating a middle class, and changed forever the way the automotive industry produced and distributed cars. His stunning success didn’t occur because of a masterful business sense; he was more of an entrepreneur—an idea man. But his unconventional ways took his company to the top.

In the Beginning
Ford was born into a farm family in 1863 near Dearborn, Mich., and showed an early interest in mechanics. He fixed neighbors’ watches and built his first steam engine at 15.

He tinkered constantly, and as America’s first automobiles emerged, Ford focused on internal combustion engines. John W. Lambert invented the nation’s first gasoline-powered automobile in 1891; just five years later, Ford unveiled his own “horseless carriage,” which he named the “Quadricycle,” because it ran on four bicycle tires. The Quadricycle, which steered with a tiller much like a boat, had just two speeds with no reverse.

Ford at the time was chief engineer at Thomas Edison’s thriving Edison Illuminating Company, but his venturesome spirit led him to strike out on his own to try his hand at automotive engineering. Ford left with the encouragement of Edison, who later became one of his closest friends.

“He was always willing to take risks,” says Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

“In 1901, when his first company went belly up, he built this race car and literally risked his life in a race to raise the public perception of him that (he) knew how to build these newfangled machines,” Casey says. “It was a pretty gutsy thing to do.”

With 11 other investors and $28,000 in capital, Ford founded the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. A little more than a month later, the company sold its first car, to a Detroit doctor.

But Ford, unlike his competitors, began to envision automobiles as affordable to anyone, not just playthings for the rich.

Cars for the Common Man
“Ford’s great stroke of genius was recognizing that with the right techniques, cars could be made affordable for the general public—and that the general public would want them,” according to Ford Motor Company’s published history. In determining what sort of car America needed, Ford went to his roots.

“He had been a farmer and thought, ‘What would farmers buy? Something cheap, reliable, easy to maintain, with high ground clearance.’ And that’s a Model T,” Casey says.

Ford didn’t invent the assembly line; when he started out, he didn’t even have the assembly line in mind. “The (question) was how to make an automobile more rapidly at a lower cost, and they stumbled across the assembly line idea,” Casey says. “Of course, they leaped on it and rode it.”

Ford priced his first Model Ts at $850, a far cry from the $2,000 cost of most early cars. “It was one of the first cars aimed at the common man,” says John Anderson of Temple, Maine, (pop. 572), who presides over the Model T Club of America. By the early 1920s, that price came down to just under $300.

Such affordability caused an explosion in sales, and by 1918 half of all cars in America were Model Ts, and Ford’s company was the largest automobile maker in the world. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford Motor Company built 15 million Model Ts

“The Model T,” Anderson declares, “was his masterpiece.”

One of Ford’s most astonishing moves, to combat high turnover and absenteeism caused by assembly line monotony, was to double the minimum daily wage to $5 and cut daily working hours from nine to eight. His employees rejoiced, and the high turnover disappeared almost overnight. The industrial world was shocked, and other car makers condemned Ford’s move as cutting into profits—but followed suit.

Lasting Legacy
Ford’s unprecedented production system, based on low skills and high wages, allowed for a huge expansion of the middle class, which could readily afford the cars the company was building. The Model T fostered a movement from farms to urban manufacturing jobs, and ultimately into the suburbs. It also allowed for faster delivery of goods and services because doctors, mail carriers, and small businesses owners could afford these horseless carriages, Anderson says.

Henry Ford’s triumph indirectly helped win World War II, Casey says. “Given the fact that the production methods Ford pioneered spread throughout the industry, by World War II, all industries were using those methods to turn out massive amounts of material,” he says. “The U.S. could crank out everything from shell casings to combat boots at rates that neither the Germans nor the Japanese thought would ever be possible … we could build ships faster than they could be sunk.”

The same notion of an “everyman’s car” led to the Ford Mustang’s explosive popularity after it debuted in 1964, propelled the Ford Falcon into so many drivers’ hands, and today helps make the Ford Focus one of the most popular cars in the world.

Reliability was central to Ford’s dream right from the start, and Joyce Shierlow of Manchaca, Texas (pop. 1,200), can tell you all about that. She and her husband, Charles, took their 1923 Model T touring car on the trip of a lifetime.

“In 1995, he and I drove out of our driveway in central Texas and drove to the Arctic Circle,” she says. Towing a small trailer to hold their clothing, the Shierlows drove their Model T more than 10,000 miles on that trip.

The Shierlows often join members of their Model T club on 800-mile treks around the country, where the classic cars draw attention wherever they stop.

“People love us,” Shierlow says. “They come up and ask questions and want to know if they can take pictures of the cars.”

And with good reason, she adds. “These cars are 80 and 90 years old, and they’re still running.”

Ford’s Model T may have had worldwide impact, but some, such as Anderson, simply appreciate the little car’s craftsmanship and connection to their family.

“Everybody owned one,” Anderson says. “Most have some history of it in their family somewhere. Everybody’s grandfather or great-grandfather owned them.”

The Model T is favored by Anderson and other collectors today because, as in its heyday, the car easily can be repaired, Anderson says. “If we break down on (auto) tours, we can fix it beside the road,” he says.

Just like his grandfather did.

Descendants of the Model T
The Model T was just the first of many Ford accomplishments—cars and trucks that became household names and fixtures on the American landscape. The first Ford truck came in 1917, the Model A 10 years later.

Other classics and innovations followed—the first single-cast V-8 engine in 1932; the Lincoln Continental in 1939, which architect Frank Lloyd Wright called “the most beautiful car ever made;” the first F series pickup trucks in 1948. And the two-seater Thunderbird in 1955—sleek and classy, it redefined America’s notion of what a sports car could be.

One of Ford’s most famous cars—and certainly one of its most popular—was the Mustang, introduced in 1964. Quick, fun, and affordable, it won America’s heart and still enthralls collectors, as well as new car drivers.

But there were others: the Falcon in 1959; the family-oriented Fairlane in 1961; the 1986 Taurus, which became one of the most popular models in U.S. automotive history; the “Ford Tough” trucks; and, in 1990, the Ford Explorer—the best-selling SUV in the world.

Through it all, Henry Ford’s spirit and readiness to innovate prevailed—leading the company in October 1996 to its 250 millionth vehicle. It may be that Henry Ford’s greatest masterpiece was the Model T, the car that revolutionized a nation. But ever since the last one rolled off the line in 1927, the company that bears his name has demonstrated that it still can build cars and trucks in a way that alters the American scene.