|In truth, the Ford family was not as poor as Edsel's letter and perhaps his childhood imagination would lead one to believe. Edsel's mother Clara, the real money manager for the family, ensured the family was clothed and fed before the balance of the assets went to her husband's obsession. And in 1901, Henry's obsession was, as it had been for more than five years, the automobile. In fact, any hard times for the family were probably the direct result of Henry's experiments, and clearly, it was putting a strain on some of life's comforts for young Edsel.
However, Henry's family of 1900 and 1901 was in trouble. It had been five
years since he built his first car, the Quadricycle, and in 1899 he had left his job at Edison Illuminating Company to begin work as chief engineer of the Detroit Automobile Company. The car he built, a delivery truck, was slow, heavy and scarcely ran. His second was better, but by that time the stockholders were impatient for a product and skeptical of their engineer. Henry ran through the funds without ever getting a car into production.
The company collapsed (its stockholders later revived the business into the Cadillac Automobile Company) and in January of 1901 the Fords sent all their furniture to William's, Henry's father, Dearborn farm and moved in with William and his sister Jane at 582 West Grand Boulevard. Jane was quite a cook and apparently specialized in candy, so Edsel had much to eat.`
However, some of Henry's original backers still felt he was onto something. Through 1901, Henry continued to experiment with the automobile in the Cass Avenue plant of the former Detroit Automobile Company. This period is probably the most cloudy in the Henry Ford history. Since Henry was not officially employed, it is unclear where he was receiving his money. William was most assuredly paying the rent. The answer could be in William C. Maybury, the Mayor of Detroit. Maybury was a friend of Ford's father and had assisted the younger Ford right along. In fact, it was Maybury and William H. Murphy, prominent in lumber and real estate, that staunchly backed Ford and paid many of the bills personally.
With more or a less a short reprieve, Henry assembled a team to build a proper automobile: Ed "Spider" Huff, something of an electrical wizard; C. H. Wills, draftsman and toolmaker; Oliver Barthel, a designer who had worked with Charles B. King; Ed Verlinden, a lathe hand; and Charlie Mitchell, a blacksmith. By April, Henry was working night and day at Cass Avenue, sleeping on a cot in the plant. He and his team worked all through the summer of 1901. They were building a race car.
With the success of the curved-dash Oldsmobile in 1900, automobile production graduated from the domain of backyard tinkers and fanciful inventors to a viable business venture. To attract the attention of prominent Detroit businessmen to back another company, Henry Ford turned to racing, and from 1900 to 1902 it became his obsession.
In 1901, the racetrack was the arena for home-made automobiles to prove themselves; speed and endurance the mark of a well-constructed automobile. In October, Ford entered his car in a ten-mile race in Grosse Pointe near Detroit. His opponent was America's premier race car driver, Alexander Winton. Winton had first made his name in the racing world in 1897 and soon became the man to beat. His experience clearly showed as he mastered the curves of the racetrack, but Ford made up lost ground on the straight-aways. When Winton began to have mechanical troubles on the seventh lap, Ford shot ahead of him and won the race.
The victory brought Ford the attention he needed. He appeared in newspapers throughout the nation and won financial backing for a new company. The Henry Ford Company, formed November 30, 1901, was short lived however. Perhaps because he saw greater profit in automobile racing, or perhaps because the race was now in his blood, Ford clashed with the company stockholders over his preoccupation and left after three months. A year after Ford's race with Winton, his new race car, the 999 with driver Barney Oldfield, would break the American record and the ensuing publicity and interest encouraged Ford to complete a prototype for a commercial vehicle.
In 1903, less than two years from the time Edsel wrote his letter to Santa, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated.
For more information about Henry Ford and Edsel Bryant Ford, please contact the Research Center.