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The winding road that leads to Ford

The winding road that leads to Ford image

Text: James Deakin / Photos: Brent Co, Ford Motor Company | posted October 15, 2003 11:00

100 years of Ford

A century after his great grandfather popped the cork to celebrate his incorporation of a dream that he called Ford Motor co., Bill Ford stood proudly surveying one of his smallest properties wearing the biggest smile he's had in years. "I don't think there is another company in the world that's had a greater impact on people's lives than Ford," the young chairman said to a record crowd that had gathered at the state-of-the-art Ford Sta. Rosa plant, that currently produces the only Philippine-made vehicles for export. Despite the security and logistical nightmares that plagued the up coming visit of U.S. President, George Bush, Bill had a hundred reasons to smile that day.

It's not everyday a company hits the big century, and although the centennial celebrations have oft been covered since the kick off party in Detroit last June, for my effort, I chose to pay tribute to the journey rather than the destination.

Contrary to popular perception, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile or even the moving assembly; he simply goes down in history as the man who had the impudence to put the world on wheels. An eccentric visionary, Ford didn't just want to make cars. He wanted to make a difference. And just like the cars that he built, his mind was always in motion...

Henry Ford was the kind of man you had to admire, even if you couldn't stand him. After drawing international attention in 1914 with the announcement of the $5 a day wage, he became a folk hero. He captivated the press and became the most celebrated personality during the 1920s - and to this day has probably has received more media attention for himself and his family than even the royals of Buckingham. There are over 210 books in print today that deal specifically with Ford Motor Co., and the Ford family.

In 1903, after reeling in from a failed venture with the Detroit motor Co., Henry was jobless, sharing his father's home with his wife and only son Edsel. Immersing himself in motor racing, trophies and races were not the only thing Henry was trying to win, but more importantly, the hearts of some fresh investors as well, led by coal merchant, Alexander Malcomson. The result was Ford Motor Company, incorporated on June 16, 1903 with 68 workers and total cash paid in of only $28,000, with parts supplied by the Dodge Brothers.

After the hand-built assembly of the first two-cylinder Model A, Ford went through half the alphabet of models - B, C, F, K, N, R, S - ultimately tuning the concept of a universal car, the Model T, which was introduced in October 1908. The public lapped it up and assembly and profits kicked into overdrive, overtaking Cadillac and Buick to gain first place - and without parting with an initial dime, a very clever Henry became the majority stockholder and president of the company in 1906.

So staggering was its success, that Ford discontinued its other models as production growth became astronomical, churning out 182,000 units in 1912 - even before the introduction of the moving assembly line. In 1915, the One Millionth Ford was built and a 52-year old Henry was being dubbed the First Billionaire.

In just over ten years, Henry had achieved his dream of putting the world on wheels. During the 1920s, output exceeded two million a year as the cost of a new "T" was now just a third of the introductory price of fifteen years prior. The company then expanded into trucks and tractors, and after acquiring Lincoln, commenced construction of the Rouge plant, making it the world's largest industrial complex.

In 1927, after almost 20 of the most successful years of motoring history, the model T's life cycle grinded to a halt with production of the 15 Millionth unit. It was most likely then that Ford first realized he had created a company which had 'no boundaries'.

Ironically, it was also at this point that Henry, as CEO and President, would take his first wrong turn. In a priceless piece of stubbornness, Henry shut down Ford assembly lines worldwide for six months to re-tool for the 1928 Model A. Despite having factories around the world, and a bulging product line which now included V-8s, Mercury, Lincoln-Zephyr, classic Lincoln and the Continental, as well as unique small cars in England, Germany and France - the effect was disastrous and the road just seemed to get worse for poor old Henry, and Ford fell to third place in 1933.

Though often ridiculed for it, Henry's deep abhorrence of banks was the single biggest factor in surviving the great depression as the company was completely debt free. The real crisis, however, struck when Edsel Ford died suddenly at age 49 in May 1943.

Through the years, Henry had eventually lost touch with the 'everyman' and sadly, with reality as well. To top it off, his company was now in shambles.

Due to America's dependency on Ford plants to produce war machinery, the Federal Government had intervened and a 25-year old Henry Ford II was released from Navy duty to restore some stability in the ailing company. It was time to change drivers. But Henry refused to budge and, after the war was over, he held on to the ridiculous notion of going back to the Model T days of one car and one engine. Though his spirit was strong, his mind had been corrupted by senility. In September of 1945, the old man was overthrown and a promising Henry II was installed as President. What was to follow would be heralded as one of the greatest business stories of our time.

A college drop out and a notorious playboy, Henry II matured quickly and took less than two years to repair the corporate carnage left behind. After developing a totally new chassis that abandoned the old man's tried and proven - yet antiquated - transverse-leaf spring arrangement, Henry II also scrapped Lincoln�s cumbersome V-12 in favor of a new flathead V-8, which would later claim credit for powering Ford Motor Co. out from filing chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Totally oblivious to the company's complete turn around, and the success of his grandson, Henry Ford passed away uneventfully on April 7, 1947, at the age of 83.

Henry II continued to steer the company away from trouble with the introduction of the first F-150 in 1948, overtaking Chrysler for second place and positioning itself to challenge GM for the top spot, when along came the Edsel fiasco. Thankfully, with the introduction of new models, it softened the blow of the failed model and Ford bounced back with a new strategy, and a secret weapon. After going public in 1956, the classic Mustang debuted in 1964, and on the first weekend alone, took an incredible 22,542 orders; multiplying to 70,000 Mustangs in the first month, putting a sock in the mouths of its competition.

After one of the most brilliant automotive careers in modern history, and arguably, even more colorful than that of his grandfather's, Henry Ford II died September 29, 1987. And even despite record losses of $1.5 billion in 1980, $1 billion in 1981 and $658 million in 1982, Henry II, like his grandfather, still carries a legacy today that most would say is priceless.

Henry II continued to steer the company away from trouble with the introduction of the first F-150 in 1948, overtaking Chrysler for second place and positioning itself to challenge GM for the top spot, when along came the Edsel fiasco. Thankfully, with the introduction of new models, it softened the blow of the failed model and Ford bounced back with a new strategy, and a secret weapon. After going public in 1956, the classic Mustang debuted in 1964, and on the first weekend alone, took an incredible 22,542 orders; multiplying to 70,000 Mustangs in the first month, putting a sock in the mouths of its competition.

After one of the most brilliant automotive careers in modern history, and arguably, even more colorful than that of his grandfather's, Henry Ford II died September 29, 1987. And even despite record losses of $1.5 billion in 1980, $1 billion in 1981 and $658 million in 1982, Henry II, like his grandfather, still carries a legacy today that most would say is priceless.

Today, Ford employs over 350,000 people worldwide. And although the road ahead is long, with more blind curves and sharp crests to come, one thing you have to admit is that it is one hell of a ride. If anything, history has taught the Fords that it doesn't measure one's worth by medals, degrees, or diplomas, but for scars; something of which the company has plenty. And I�m sure that if Old Henry could give his great grandson just one piece of advice, he would most likely say what he has said throughout his life; "Chop your own wood, kid, it'll warm you twice."