Henry Ford, the great industrialist, was busy celebrating his 81st birthday on a very warm July 30, 1944. Allied troops had landed in Normandy the previous month and, though they faced stiff German resistance, they were clearly winning.
At the celebration, Ford visualized what he called ‘great days ahead,’ but only, as he put it, ‘if we apply what we have learned and mix it with plenty of hard work.’ It was Ford’s vision of mass production and its subsequent implementation that had harnessed the industrial might of the United States and had helped make staggering wartime production goals attainable. His mastery of manufacturing techniques has made Henry Ford’s name a household word.
Ford was born on a modest farm near Dearborn, Mich., in 1863. Although his father’s farm flourished, Henry was more interested in mechanics than farming. He attended a simple, one-room school and also tended to his farm chores. ‘There was too much hard hand labor on our own and all other farms of the time,’ he wrote in his biography, My Life and Work. ‘Even when I was very young I suspected that much might somehow be done in a better way. That is what took me into mechanics.’
Two events dramatically changed Henry Ford’s life. First, he received a watch for his 12th birthday. Second, he saw a horseless farm machine for the first time–a road engine used for driving threshing machines. One year later, using crude tools, he was able to put together a watch. Shortly thereafter, he built a working model of the road engine that had occupied his dreams.
At age 17, Ford hiked the nine miles to nearby Detroit to take his first job, earning $1.10 a day for making repairs with the Michigan Car Works. He came across a copy of an English magazine, World Of Science, which described the Otto internal combustion engine. It excited his interest in engines, and he went to work at the Dry Dock Engine Company. There he mastered the machinist’s trade within two years.
Young Ford had an ambition to produce watches so cheaply that he could sell them for a dollar a piece, but before he could pursue that plan he had to go home to help his father. In 1884, he attended a business school for three months and experimented with machinery while still helping on the family farm.
He married Clara Bryant, the daughter of a neighboring farmer, when he was 25. In the home he built for his wife on a 40-acre tract his father gave him, Ford drew his first diagram of a gasoline engine, which he was convinced was destined to replace the noisy steam engine. Ford soon realized that he could not build his engine on a farm, but needed the superior mechanical equipment that could be found in a city such as Detroit. So in 1891, the young couple moved to Detroit, where Henry found employment as a machinist. He worked a 12-hour day and earned only $45 a month. In his spare time, he continued to work on the gasoline engine.
Ford tested the engine in his kitchen, with the engine clamped to the sink, the spark plug connected to the ceiling light socket, and the oil cup tended by his wife. The engine, he later explained, consisted of ‘a length of one-inch gas pipe reamed out to serve as a cylinder, and in it rested a homemade piston fitted with rings. This was attached by a rod to the crankshaft, and had a five-inch stroke. A hand-wheel off an old lathe served as the flywheel. A gear arrangement operated a cam, opening the exhaust valve and timing the spark. A piece of fiber with a wire through the center did for a spark plug. It made contact with another wire at the end of the piston, and when this was broken a spark leaped across, exploding the gasoline.’
With his gasoline engine a success, Ford’s next ambition was to make his engine drive a four-wheel carriage. Motor vehicles were being produced by hand in Europe, but there was no commercial manufacturing of any motorcar. In 1896, when he was 33, Ford drove his first automobile out of his backyard shop. Within a few days he added a seat, and then he confidently drove his wife and 3-year-old son, Edsel, the nine miles to his father’s farm.
Soon Ford became chief engineer for the Detroit Edison Company, sold his first automobile for $200 and attracted the attention of several businessmen. He gathered $10,000 to start the Detroit Automobile Company, but soon left that venture. With another group of investors, he then organized the Henry Ford Company. When that organization also broke up, due to disagreements over his insistence on offering only a low-price car and his refusal to be hurried in his experiments, Ford returned to his own shop and began working on a four-cylinder motor. Intent on having one of his automobiles achieve the speed of a mile a minute, he began building racing cars. Famed racing driver Barney Oldfield won a race with Ford’s ‘999’ at the Grosse Point, Mich., track in 1902.
Meanwhile, companies like Oldsmobile and Cadillac were selling thousands of cars, which enabled Ford to locate new investors. With $28,000, he formed the Ford Motor Company. The Model A Fordmobile, a practical, utility auto, was produced in 1905 as a tough and simple car for a price of $850 (a second, much more sophisticated, Model A came out in 1928). Soon the business was prospering. The Model B was next in the line, and the Model C followed closely. Then came the Model T, Ford’s best-known auto, which, as he later recalled, ‘contained all that I was able to put into a motorcar, plus the material which for the first time I was able to obtain.’
The Model T was a noisy, uncomfortable, unattractive but efficient automobile. Within five years, half a million Model Ts were on the road. Strictly utilitarian, the car was the butt of many jokes. Taking the frequent needling about the Model T’s appearance in stride, Ford himself joked about the car’s color, saying, ‘Any customer can have any car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.’ The Model T’s popularity resulted in the employment of 4,000 people in Ford’s factory.
Increased demand called for increased speed of production. Ford achieved faster production by introducing the moving assembly belt, which he began to experiment with in 1913. He described it as ‘the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker, and the reduction of the movement to a minimum. He does as nearly as possible only one thing with only one movement….He must have every second necessary but not a single unnecessary second.’
Ford increased the minimum wage for his employees to $5 for an eight-hour day. In 1918, the River Rouge plant was built, and he increased wages to an unheard of $6 a day. By 1924, Ford had manufactured 10 million Model Ts. In 1928, Ford brought out his second Model A, and in 1932 the sturdy V-8 engine appeared.
The Great Depression struck the Ford Motor Company hard. Wages were lowered and there were layoffs, as well. Labor unions were established within the struggling work force. Strikes were rampant, and Ford fought the unions hard, but eventually the United Auto Workers became an effective collective bargaining force.
Ford, a known pacifist, opposed America’s entry into World War II. Nevertheless, he agreed to build airplane engines for the British government. In May 1940, he stated: ‘If it became necessary, the Ford Motor Company could, with the counsel of men like [Charles] Lindbergh and [Eddie] Rickenbacker, under our own supervision and without meddling by government agencies, swing into the production of a thousand airplanes of standard design a day.’
It was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that inspired Ford to begin a tremendous, all-out manufacturing effort. To the west of Dearborn, the giant Willow Run plant was built to produce B-24 Liberator bombers on an assembly line that was a mile long. The first bomber rolled off the line in May 1942, beginning the effective production of several hundred aircraft a month. Bombers were produced at the rate of one plane per hour, thereby confounding Ford’s critics, who had called the plant undertaking ‘Willit Run.’ By the end of the war, Ford had built 86,865 complete aircraft, plus 57,851 airplane engines, thousands of engine superchargers and generators, and 4,291 military gliders.
Ford also turned out tanks, armored cars, jeeps and engines for robot bombs. In the midst of the heaviest production during the war years, Ford returned to his post as chief executive of the Ford Motor Company when Edsel, who had taken over for his father, died in 1943.
Months earlier, Ford’s plants in Great Britain and Canada had joined the production efforts of the United States and poured forth everything from mobile canteens to four-wheel-drive trucks and autos, grenades, bombs and engine-powered landing craft. The U.S. plants were the prime movers in the development of the famous Willys-originated jeep.
By the end of the war, Ford plants had built 277,896 of the versatile vehicles. In all, the Allies were supplied with more than a million fighting vehicles by Ford operations in the United States, Canada, Britain, India, South Africa and New Zealand.
At the height of World War II, Ford managed to transport vitally important, precision jig-boring machinery, obtainable only from neutral Switzerland, to Manchester, England–right through German-occupied France and Spain. The Swiss, uncompromising in their commercial neutrality, insisted upon their right to trade with all parties. Since Germany was dependent on Swiss machine tools, it was forced to allow the export of war products through its occupied territories to its own enemies. As a result, Ford’s British plant turned out more than 30,000 complex supercharged V-12 engines–more than Rolls Royce built at its own plant in Derby, England. The engines were installed in British Mosquito and Lancaster bombers.
At the outset of the war, Ford’s plant in Cologne, Germany, had been commandeered by the Nazis to turn out trucks for their war effort, and actually continued under Nazi control with the supervision of one of Ford’s trained Danish managers. The manufacturing continued until constant Allied air raids made it virtually impossible for the plant to operate. Before the war was officially over, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) asked Ford for immediate help to start operating the newly liberated plant again. The only actual damage to the facility was done by German artillery when the German army fell back across the Rhine and Cologne was occupied by American forces. German employees had ignored instructions to destroy the plant to prevent it from falling into Allied hands. The plant’s first postwar truck, assembled from components on hand, rolled out on May 8, 1945, V-E Day.
Ford always loved visiting his factories, even when he was 81. His frequent motor outings with Harvey Firestone and his hero, Thomas Edison, were well-known around the world. In 1944, the American Legion awarded Ford its Distinguished Service Medal for his contribution to the rehabilitation of veterans of both the world wars.
Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947, at the age of 84. Most of his personal estate, valued at $205 million, was left to the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest public trusts. Today Ford still has his supporters and detractors, but the industrial genius’ significant contribution to the Allied effort in World War II is indisputable.
This article was written by Richard Grudens and originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of World War II.
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