Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.
Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.
Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man
Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920
Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.
By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633
Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success
Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760
Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.
To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551
The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem
As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438
Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.
Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501
It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.
One Innovation Leads to Another
Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987
The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.
In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.
When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969
Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”
The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450
Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.
He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.
But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597
One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.
But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039
By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”
One of the most dramatic displays in Henry Ford Museum is the “exploded” Model T—a 1924 Model T touring car with its constituent parts suspended by wires. Located at the entrance to the Made in America exhibition, it invites visitors to take a different look at an iconic American product.
Henry Ford’s Model T automobile is one of the most significant technological devices of the 20th century. Its clever engineering and low price allowed it to do what could only be done once—make the automobile widely popular. The Model T spawned mass automobility, altering our living patterns, our leisure activities, our landscape, even our atmosphere. The Model T’s influence is so pervasive and lasting that even people who know little about old cars or automotive history know the name “Model T.”
But the way the Model T was produced is as iconic as the car itself. When Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T in October 1908, firearms, watches, and sewing machines were already being assembled from interchangeable parts made on specialized machines. Ford successfully adapted these techniques to the much more complex automobile, and then crowned this achievement with the development of the moving assembly line in late 1913.
When Ford Motor Company introduced its new Model T automobile on October 1, 1908, the car was the culmination of Henry Ford’s quest to develop an inexpensive, efficient and reliable vehicle that would put automobile ownership within the reach of far more people.
Yet even an inveterate optimist like Henry Ford could not predict the vast success and the far-reaching changes that this rather homely new vehicle would produce.
By the end of the 19th century technological miracles were commonplace. Railroad trains routinely traveled a-mile-a-minute. Electric lights could turn night into day. Voices traveled over wires. Pictures could be set into motion. Lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles even offered access to the sky. But the age-old dream of flying with wings like birds still seemed like a fantasy. In a simple bicycle shop now located in Greenfield Village, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, turned the fantasy of heavier-than-air flight into reality.
1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester Land Speed Race Car / THF90122
What do you get when you mix a war surplus fuel tank, an Oldsmobile engine, and a boatload of ingenuity? You get The Henry Ford’s latest automotive acquisition, the Lakester.
During World War II aircraft designers looking for ways to extend the range of fighter planes came up with the idea of hanging expendable auxiliary fuel tanks under the wings or fuselages of aircraft. These teardrop-shaped tanks could be jettisoned when they were empty. When Bill Burke, a California hot rodder serving in the Navy, saw some of these tanks on Guadalcanal, he thought they would make nifty bodies for streamlined racing cars. After the war, Burke put his idea into action.
Surplus drop tanks (also called wing tanks or belly tanks) were available for as little as $35. Burke squeezed an engine, driver’s seat, and running gear inside the tank, leaving the wheels and axles exposed. Burke raced the slick little car at El Mirage, a large, flat dry lake bed north of Los Angeles where hot rodders ran their vehicles in straight-away top speed runs against the clock. Other hot rodders soon copied Burke’s idea and over time the new cars came to be called “lakesters” because they were built to run at the dry lakes.
Cockpit of the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90112
I have long wanted to add a lakester to The Henry Ford’s collection of race cars, because lakesters embody ingenuity and resourcefulness, and because they are peculiarly American. For years I have had my eye on one of the most successful and famous lakesters, a car built and driven by another California hot rodder, Tom Beatty. In 2009 the car came up for auction and we were finally able to acquire it.
Techno Talk Warning: The following paragraph is a technical description of Tom Beatty’s car for the benefit of “car geeks” (like the writer). If you are bored by discussions of chrome-moly tubing and swing axles, skip to the last paragraph.
Part of the attraction of Tom Beatty’s car is its sheer technical virtuosity. It looks like lots of other belly tank lakesters, but underneath the aluminum teardrop it is very different. Most lakester builders used a simple parallel rail frame, but Beatty welded up a complex space frame from chrome-moly steel tubing. It was stiffer and safer in an accident. Most lakesters ran without a rear suspension, but Beatty devised a swing axle independent rear suspension that helped the car maintain traction over the sometimes rough dry lake surface, or at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Engine and Drivetrain on the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90115
Beatty was also one of the first hot rodders to experiment with supercharging, adapting GMC blowers to his flathead Ford engines. The car first ran at the 1951 Bonneville Speed Week, turning a top speed of 188.284 mph. Over the years Beatty kept improving the car, moving to supercharged Oldsmobile engines in 1959. By the time Beatty retired from racing after 1965 season, the lakester had gone 243.438 mph, and was the oldest car running at Bonneville.
As it sits on the floor of Henry Ford Museum, Tom Beatty’s car looks a little rough. The paint is chipped and the body is dinged. But it looks today much as it did the last time it ran in anger at Bonneville, and we will not restore it. We will do only what is necessary to preserve it. After all, you don’t mess with an American original.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in March 2021.
Bob Casey, automotive historian and former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”
Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.
Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?
Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.
How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?
In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.
On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.