Q&A from beyond the grave: Henry Ford

Now we know you're all about the motorcar, and we'll come onto that in a second - but why don't you take us right back to your early years. How did things all begin?

Well, I was born in 1863, so not all that long ago, and my family was all into farming.

But you weren't?

I always liked mechanical things - what made a clock tick, a lightbulb switch on. I remember when I was, my, 14? 15? My pop gives me this pocket watch - a fine old specimen. And I just had to take it right apart. I mean, gee, I put it right back together again, I didn't want my pop to get all snarky. And that was the start of things really - all my neighbourhood thought of me as, well, some kinda watch repairman I guess, and they would bring their watches round for me to take a look at. They paid me, course - I made a good few bucks for my age.

And it was way better than working on the farm (though I still had to do a fair bit of that). Far as I was concerned then, farm work was for goops.

How did you get from the farm to Ford the company?

I left home at 16 to work as an apprentice machinist for a couple of years, then spent the next few years repairing steam engines, doing bits and bobs of factory work and in-between times fixing up my pop's farm machinery. Then in my late twenties (after marrying my doll of a wife Clara) I joined the Edison Illuminating Company as an engineer. That was my lightbulb moment (all puns intended!) - I knew I wanted to spend my life creating great machines.

How did you go about creating the car?

I made it to chief engineer at Edison within two years, so I ploughed a heap of dough into fooling around with internal combustion engines. By 1896, I'd created the self-propelled Quadricycle [a four-wheeled heavy bicycle that used an engine], which, yessir, I drove my very self for the first time on June 4. I'll never forget that day.

So you had the invention up and running - how did you then turn it into a business?

My boss, Thomas Edison - you may have met him round these parts - got on board and encouraged me to design a second motorised vehicle. That got picked up by this local lumber baron, who helped me found the Detroit Automobile Company (DAC). But, gee, we were turning around these cheap shorts [streetcars ] and I just didn't like it.

So you started the Henry Ford Company instead?

Sure. The DAC was dissolved, and by this time I had a 26-horsepower motorised vehicle to my name. Then an 80-horsepower one. Then various investors came in and we built up a coupla' different companies, and it all got a little messy, but long and short is my good friend the coal dealer Alexander Malcolmson helped me get the Henry Ford Company properly up and running.

How did you PR the business?

In 1904 I broke the land speed record with my Ford 999 Racer, coming in at 91 miles per hour. Then this racing driver decides he's going to drive my 999 all round the country - and that little bit of razzmatazz got the whole of America talkin'. I wasn't the first guy to build a motor vehicle, but I was suddenly the best known - and it spurred the business on.

The Henry Ford Company was famous in its day for treating its workers well, wasn't it?

Yessir. It's like I've said before: a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business. And an idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous. So I doubled the rate workers were usually getting in 1914, giving them $5 a day.

Didn't that damage your bottom line?

Whoever told you that is talking baloney! It brought in the best mechanics to our business in Detroit, raising productivity, lowering training costs - and ultimately bringing profits right up. Other firms were battling with really high staff turnover - not so for us.

You did other things to improve the lives of your workers too, didn't you?

I was and am a big believer in what you might call 'welfare capitalism'. So I reduced the hours my guys had to work too, to just 40 hours a week - much to the pooh-poohing of other industries and Wall Street! And I offered employees who'd stayed with us more than six months profit shares.

Though they also had to avoid drinking too much or gambling. My Social Department kept them in check. I later picked up some flack from going overboard on that one, so I toned it down soon enough - and now I stand by what I wrote in my memoirs in 1922: "Paternalism has no place in industry. Welfare work that consists in prying into employees' private concerns is out of date. [...] The broad workable plan of investment and participation will do more to solidify industry and strengthen organization than will any social work on the outside."

What else did you do to make Ford such a success?

I knew I needed to give the people a car that was reliable, easy to operate and reasonably priced. In 1908, my Model T ticked all those boxes. By 1918, half of all the cars in the US were Model Ts.

How did you cope with the demand and carry on growing?

I'd opened a big old factory in Michigan in 1910, and by 1913 I'd perfected the art of the continuous moving assembly line. We used conveyer belts so the workers could just stay put all day, which hugely reduced assembly times and costs. (Some of the younger folks here say you guys down there are kindly saying that revolutionised automobile production.)

Throughout the late 1910s and early 1920s I built up the world's largest industrial complex. It included everything we needed to build cars: a steel mill, assembly line, glass factory - and we brought in coal and iron ore to make steel and iron from the railroads.

By 1927, I had everything within that plant that I needed for workers to complete the full process of building the Model T, from scratch to completion.

What influence do you think that had on the world?

Well, looking back from the vantage point I have now, it was really the beginning of mass production - even if I do say so myself.

Wow! With that social bombshell, we'll leave you to get back to your day. Anything nice planned?

I'm hooking up with Brunel - we're working on a monorail that'll hopefully take us all the way back into limbo for a bit of an explore.

Bye for now!

 

 

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