Ford showed mechanical aptitude at an early age and left (1879) his father's farm to work as an apprentice in a Detroit machine shop. He soon returned to his home, but after considerable experimentation with power-driven vehicles, he went (1890) to Detroit again and worked as a machinist and engineer with the Edison Company. Ford continued working in his spare time as well, and in 1896 he completed his first automobile. Resigning (1899) from the Edison Company he launched the Detroit Automobile Company.
A disagreement with his associates led him to organize (1903), in partnership with James Couzens, the Dodge brothers, and others, the Ford Motor Company. In 1907 he purchased the stock of most of his associates, and thereafter the Ford family remained in control of the company. By cutting the costs of production, by adapting the conveyor belt and assembly line to automobile production, and by featuring an inexpensive, standardized car, Henry Ford was soon able to outdistance all his competitors and become the largest automobile producer in the world. He came to be regarded as the apostle of mass production. In 1908 he designed the Model T; over 15,000,000 cars were sold before the model was discontinued (1928) and a new design—the Model A—was created to meet growing competition. Highly publicized for paying wages considerably above the average, Ford began in 1914—the year he created a sensation by announcing that in future his workers would receive $5 for an 8-hr day—a profit-sharing plan that would distribute up to $30 million annually among his employees.
In 1915 in an effort to end World War I, he headed a privately sponsored peace expedition to Europe that failed dismally, but after the American entry into the war he was a leading producer of ambulances, airplanes, munitions, tanks, and submarine chasers. In 1918 he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. After weathering a severe financial crisis in 1921, he began producing high-priced motor cars along with other vehicles and founded branch firms in England and in other European countries. Strongly opposed to trade unionism, Ford—who incurred considerable antagonism because of his paternalistic attitude toward his employees and his statements on political and social questions—stubbornly resisted union organization in his factories by the United Automobile Workers until 1941. A staunch isolationist before World War II, Ford again converted his factories to the production of war material after 1941. In 1945 he retired.
Other Accomplishments and Controversies
His numerous philanthropies, in addition to the Ford Foundation, included $7.5 million for the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and $5 million for a museum in Dearborn, where in 1933 he established Greenfield Village—a reproduction of an early American village. Ford also wrote, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work (1923), Today and Tomorrow (1926), Moving Forward (1931), and Edison as I Knew Him (1930).
Ford's international reputation made him a natural target for journalists. His libel suit against the Chicago Tribune in 1919 led to an examination by the Tribune attorney, intended to show Ford's lack of education. Anti-Semitic articles in Ford's Dearborn Independent brought further legal controversy; he was forced to apologize for the articles. In the 1930s, Ford was widely attacked for employing Harry Bennett, a former boxer who established a squad of thugs to spy, beat up, and otherwise intimidate union organizers.
Ford was also a poor manager who failed to capitalize on his company's early success. In the 1920s he failed to respond to consumer tastes by introducing new models and the company fell far behind General Motors. By the time of his retirement, the company's accounting procedures were so primitive that Ford's managers were unable to accurately tell how much it cost to manufacture a car and the company was losing $9.5 million a month.
The Next Generations
His son, Edsel Bryant Ford, 1893–1943, b. Detroit, shared in the control of the vast Ford industrial interests. He was president of the Ford Motor Company from 1919 until his death, when his father once more became (1943) president of the company. The eldest Ford soon retired again when his grandson, Henry Ford II, 1917–87, b. Detroit, succeeded him in 1945. The younger Henry Ford moved quickly to restructure and modernize the company, which had slipped from the world's largest automobile manufacturer in 1920 to number three in the U.S. market in 1945. He removed a number of long-time Ford executives, such as Bennett, and for the first time in company history, recruited outsiders for positions of responsibility. In a remarkable turnaround, the company spent $1 billion between 1945 and 1955 to expand its operations, introduced successful new models, and raised $690 million in capital by offering stock to the public (1956). Although Ford modernized and revitalized the company, his tenure also saw the introduction of the Edsel, which lost the company $250 million, and Ford's autocratic management style forced a number of top executives, such as Lee Iacocca, to quit. In 1960 Ford became chief executive officer and chairman of the corporation, offices he held until retiring as CEO in 1979 and as chairman in 1980. Since then nonfamily members have headed the company but the family retains control of the company.
See biographies by Allan Nevins and F. E. Hill (3 vol., 1954–62), Booton Herndon (1969), and Robert Lacey (1986); R. M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (1970); Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Fords (1987).