The Rise and Fall of the Infamous Automobile Tycoon, Henry Ford

While working as the Edison Illuminating Company’s chief engineer, Henry Ford, had a little side project. In the shed behind his home, Ford was busy building a gasoline-powered horseless carriage, which he dubbed the “Quadricycle.” This invention led to the establishment of the Ford Motor Company, which rolled out the Model T five years later.

A portrait of Henry Ford / Henry Ford sitting in his Quadricycle
Photo by Universal History Archive, UIG, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock

Sales skyrocketed, and soon more than half of American drivers owned one. Ford dominated the automobile market as well as the headlines, but not in the best way. From creating fake companies to being an outspoken “pacifist” during World War I and II, Henry Ford was no stranger to controversy.

So, what exactly inspired Henry Ford to invent the Model T? And what led to his eventual demise? We answer all those questions and more.

A Special Gift

Henry Ford was born in July 1863, on a farm just outside of what is now known as Dearborn, Michigan. His father, William, was an Irish immigrant who moved to the United States when he was 20 years old. His mother, Mary, on the other hand, was born and raised in Michigan. Unfortunately, Mary’s Belgian-born parents passed away when she was young, and she was subsequently adopted by her neighbors, the O’Herns.

Henry Ford at the age of 18 wearing a cap
Henry Ford at the age of 18 during his apprenticeship in a machine shop circa 1881. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Ford had said that two significant events occurred when he was 12 years old. The first was when his father gifted him a pocket watch. This gift not only intrigued Ford but ignited a desire in him to understand how things worked.

Wheels Begin to Turn

Ford had to understand how the watch worked. So what do you do when you want to know how a piece of machinery works? You take it apart and put it back together again, and that’s exactly what Ford did. By the age of 15, the future car company owner was disassembling and reassembling watches for his neighbors and friends.

Henry Ford sitting on the steps of his winter house
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Before long, Ford was known as the watch repairman around town. The second significant event in Ford’s life as a 12-year-old was when he saw a live Nichols and Shepard road engine. This was the first time Ford had seen a vehicle that was not pulled by horses. After seeing this farm machine, the wheels in his head began to turn.

Leaving the Farm

The next year, however, was a turning point for Ford. His mother passed away from complications related to childbirth, just a few months before Ford’s 13th birthday. Ford was devastated. As the eldest of six children, Ford was very close to his mother. As Ford got older, his father expected him to take over the family’s farm.

Henry Ford sitting in a field
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Ford tried to work on the farm for a few years, but he soon grew to despise the work. The inventor later wrote, “I never had any particular love for the farm. It was the mother on the farm I loved.” In 1879, Ford was finally presented with an opportunity to leave the farm. The 16-year-old left home to work as an apprentice machinist with James F. Flower & Bros. in Detroit, where he earned $2.50 a week.

The Ford Steam Engine?

After moving his apprenticeship to the Detroit Dry Dock Co., Ford eventually returned home to work on his family’s farm in 1882. While he did help his family out, Ford spent much of his time studying bookkeeping at Detroit’s Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College, and building engines for smaller vehicles.

Henry Ford playing with a steam threshing machine
Henry Ford playing with a steam threshing machine on the Michigan farm where he worked in his youth. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Taking what he learned at his apprenticeship, Ford first built a steam wagon, but then came to a conclusion that “steam was not suitable for light vehicles” because of how dangerous the boiler could be. He also knew that he didn’t want to start experimenting with electricity because of how expensive trolley wires were. Ford also said that there wasn’t such a thing as a storage battery that could fit inside a small vehicle.

Moving On Up

After working on the steam engine, he was eventually hired by Westinghouse. Then in 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, who had grown up on a nearby farm. In the first three years of their marriage, Ford supported his new wife by running and operating a sawmill. But then in 1891, Ford decided that it was time that he start working somewhere where he could put his engineering talents to good use.

Henry Ford and Clara Bryant Ford wearing decorative hats at Henry’s 83rd birthday celebration
Henry Ford and Clara Bryant Ford. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

So, he and his wife packed up their belongings and moved to the city of Detroit, where the Edison Illuminating Company hired him as an engineer. Unsurprisingly, Ford moved fairly quickly through the ranks. After working for Edison for only two years, Ford was promoted to chief engineer.

A Gasoline-Powered Engine

It was around this time that his wife Clara gave birth to the couple’s only son, Edsel Ford. Ford, who was on call 24 hours a day, was working irregular and long hours. But after his promotion, he finally had enough free time to work on his new project: a gasoline-powered horseless carriage, also known as an automobile.

Edsel and Henry Ford posing with his Quadricycle
Edsel and Henry Ford sitting in the Quadricycle. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

Then in 1896, the engineer completed what he called the “Quadricycle,” which had a light metal frame that was fitted with four bicycle wheels and a motor. The motor was powered by a two-cylinder four horsepower gasoline motor and, according to Ford, could travel at 10 to 20 miles an hour. This was a huge achievement, and Ford was determined to improve on his prototype.

Befriending Thomas Edison

That same year, Ford met with Edison executives and was even introduced to Thomas Edison himself. Ford told Edison all about his dream of creating a gasoline-powered motor and how he wished to improve his “Quadricycle.” Edison not only approved of Ford’s inventions but encouraged him to design and build a second vehicle.

Henry Ford whispering something to Thomas Edison while they smile
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

After completing his second vehicle in 1898, Ford realized that he was onto something. He left his job as the chief engineer at Edison and founded the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899. Although he had received money from various investors, the automobiles that Ford’s new company produced were not to his liking. They were too expensive and too low quality for the engineer’s taste.

Ford’s High Standards

Ford’s partners grew agitated over his need to constantly fix and improve his designs. They didn’t have the same standards as Ford and just wanted to put an automobile on the market as soon as possible. The Detroit Automobile Company was ultimately unsuccessful, and Ford closed the company down in January 1901.

Orville Wright, Charles Taylor, and Henry Ford looking over blueprints
Orville Wright, Charles Taylor, and Henry Ford. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

Then in October, Ford not only designed but built and successfully raced a 26 horsepower automobile. But Ford didn’t do this alone. He had the help of C. Harold Wills, an up and coming engineer in the city. Investors again became very interested in what Ford had to offer. The following month, the Henry Ford Company was formed, with Ford as head engineer.

The Ford Motor Company Is Born

While everything on the outside seemed to be going well, there was trouble in paradise. One of Ford’s top investors, lumber baron William Murphy, brought on Henry Leland as a consultant. This rubbed Ford the wrong way, and, in response, he left the company. Now that Ford was gone, Murphy changed the company’s name to the Cadillac Automobile Company.

Henry Ford signing a check on a small table with a large lamp
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

But Ford didn’t worry, he knew that he would get the backing of yet another investor, and that’s exactly what happened. In June 1903, he eventually formed what we now know as the Ford Motor Company. The engineer got straight to work. He had a new design that he wanted to show off, and this design made his company the most well-known brand in the United States.

Introducing the Model T

Ford demonstrated his newly designed automobile on the frozen Lake St. Clair. He drove one mile in a record-setting 39.4 seconds. This high-speed vehicle caught the eye of race driver Barney Oldfield, who named this new model the “999” after the fastest locomotive at the time. Oldfield traveled around the country with this new model, making Ford the most well-known automobile brand in the country.

Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford with the 999 race car
Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford with the race car 999. Photo by Underwood Archives / Shutterstock

Ford then began working on his next project: the Model T. This car, which made its debut on October 1, 1908, was a game-changer. The Model T had the steering wheel on the left-hand side (which every other company eventually copied), and the entire transmission and engine were covered. The car was not only easy to drive but cheap and easy to repair.

An Expert Marketer

The first Model-T cost $825, which is $25,480 today. But Ford was dedicated to producing an automobile that could be afforded by everyone. Each year, the price of the car dropped, and by the 1920s, most Americans had learned to drive on the Model T. Not only was Ford, a great engineer, but he was a good marketer as well.

Henry Ford standing next to one of his Model T automobiles
Henry Ford and one of his Model T automobiles circa 1920. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

He created a massive publicity machine in his home city of Detroit to make sure that every newspaper across the country wrote stories and published ads about the Ford Motor Company. Ford also had an extensive network of car dealers, who made sure that his car was in every city in America.

Keeping Up with Demand

As Ford’s company grew, so did the concept of automobiles. Motor clubs began popping up left and right to help new drivers and encourage them to explore the countryside. This helped Ford sell to farmers, who looked at the Model T, or “Tin Lizzies” as they were known, as a way to commercialize their farms.

The Ford tractor being driven on a farm
The Fordson Model F Tractor. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Sales shot through the roof, and for several years the Ford Motor Company reported 100% gains on the previous year. Ford needed a new and efficient way to produce his vehicles to keep up with the demand. So in 1913, he implemented a new concept at his factories: assembly lines. While Ford is often credited with this invention, some sources say that the concept actually came from a group of Ford employees.

Major Price Reductions

Regardless, the assembly line completely changed the way his factories were run. The assembly belt and the use of standardized, interchangeable parts made production much more efficient. They enabled a huge increase in production, and, by 1914, sales passed 250,000. Since production was so efficient, Ford could also charge less per car.

Ford automobiles lined up on an assembly line
Ford assembly line. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

So, by 1916, the Model T cost $360, which was less than half the original price eight years earlier. Within two years of this major price reduction, half of all cars in the US were Model Ts. Ford also increased his employees’ daily wage from $2.34 for nine hours to $5 for eight, setting the standard for the car industry.

“As Long as it’s Black.”

All of Ford’s new Model Ts were painted black. In his autobiography, Ford even famously wrote, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” But why only black, you ask? The Model T was originally available in several colors, including red.

Henry Ford inside of his first Ford automobile oiled over in color
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

However, when Ford introduced the assembly line, production increased, and black was the only color that dried fast enough. The design and color were passionately promoted and defended by Ford, and the Model T was produced as late as 1927. During the 19 years of production, over 15 million Model Ts were built. This production record stood for the next 45 years.

A Plan in Place

In December 1918, Ford turned the presidency of his company over to his son, Edsel. But while his son was now president, Ford still had the final say and was known to reverse some of Edsel’s design and business decisions. Then, the following year, Ford had a plan to gain complete ownership of his company.

Henry Ford with Edsel Ford standing by the Quadricycle and the 15th millionth Ford Model T.
Henry and Edsel Ford. Photo by Underwood Archives / Shutterstock

He announced that he was starting a new, rival car company that was going to produce a cheaper version of the Model T. While this announcement excited the public, it alarmed his company’s stockholders. They didn’t want to lose money if the Ford Motor Company sales began to decline, so they sold their shares. A few months later, Ford purchased all of the remaining stock, giving him complete control over the company.

A Rift with the Chicago Tribune

But this fake company was not the only controversy that Ford was involved with. In 1916, which was the middle of the Mexican Revolution, President Woodrow Wilson announced that he was going to send American troops down to the Mexican border. However, Ford, who was a known Pacifist, was publicly against the president’s plan. Ford’s stance irked the Chicago Tribune, which argued that the automobile tycoon was an “ignorant idealist and an anarchist enemy of the nation.”

Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone Jr, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and RJH De Loach posing around a water mill.
Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone Jr, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and RJH De Loach. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Ford sued the newspaper for libel and $1 million in damages. In the summer of 1919, Ford was finally put on the witness stand, where he was questioned for eight full days. Newspapers across the country covered the trial and, although he won, the press ridiculed him. According to them, Ford not only lacked historical knowledge, but he gave an inarticulate performance.

Competing with General Motors

But Ford didn’t seem too bothered with what the press thought of him, and he continued on with business as usual. In 1921, Ford purchased Lincoln Motor Co., which helped his company expand into the luxury car market. Until now, Ford was focused only on the low-end market, but with General Motor’s “price ladder” that offered a car for “every purse and purpose,” something needed to change.

Henry Ford sitting around in a stack of hay
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

But even after he purchased the luxury car company, Ford had little to no enthusiasm for the production of vehicles outside of the low-end market. He left the original Lincoln Model L untouched for an entire decade. It wasn’t until the Model L became outdated that Ford replaced it with the Model K.

Time to End the Model T?

In 1926, Ford received a memo from Ernest Kanzler, who was a Ford VP at the time. Kanzler expressed what everyone else at the company was already thinking: Ford needed to end Model T production. Ford executives were frustrated. The car’s sales were sliding, and they wanted to build a better model. However, Ford was not used to opposition from people within his company.

Henry Ford standing next to the Ten Millionth Ford Model T and a Quadricycle
Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

So instead of looking into why his top employees were frustrated, Ford decided to humiliate Kanzler any chance he got. Within months, Kanzler was forced out of the company. This seems like a pretty senseless act, mainly because the Model T was officially taken off the market the following year.

A Relative Disappointment

The same day that the last Model T ceremoniously rolled off the assembly line, Ford announced that his company was soon going to produce a brand new automobile: the Model A. Ford was very involved with the engine design, as well as other mechanical necessities. However, according to Ford manager Charles Sorensen, Ford had little former mechanical engineering training.

A Model A Ford automobile
Model A Ford. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The manager even went as far as to say that Ford didn’t know how to read a blueprint. Instead, Ford supervised a team of engineers, giving them overall direction. The Model A made its debut in December 1927. However, it proved to be a relative disappointment and was outsold by GM’s Chevrolet and Chrysler’s Plymouth models.

How Much Do I Own?

The Model A was eventually discontinued in 1931, after selling 4 million models. The following year, Ford introduced the first V-8 engine, which was the result of a top-secret project that Ford launched in 1930. However, even with the success of the V-8 engine, the Ford Motor Company dropped to number three in sales. There were also other problems brewing.

Henry Ford inspecting his new V-8 motor circa 1932
Henry Ford inspecting his new V-8 motor circa 1932. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

For starters, Ford didn’t believe in accountants. He thought that they would cost him more trouble than they were worth. He never had his company audited and had no way of knowing exactly how much money was coming and going each month. It wasn’t until 1956 that Ford became a publically traded company.

Fighting the Unions

Although Ford was known for his progressive labor philosophies with the $5 a day wages and the five-day workweek, he waged a long battle against the labor unions. According to his book, My Life and Work, Ford believed that the unions were too heavily influenced by their leaders, which ended up doing more harm than good.

Henry Ford examining the Ford Flying Flivver
Henry Ford and the Ford Flying Flivver. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Ford was all about increasing productivity, but he believed that the unions wanted to restrict it in at attempt to foster employment. The automobile tycoon believed that this was self-defeating. Ford went on to promote Harry Bennett, a former Navy boxer, to lead the Service Department. More often than not, Bennett would use intimidation tactics to stop union organizing.

Recognizing the UAW

Even after Ford’s competitors came to terms with the United Automobile Workers (UAW), Ford refused. Then in 1937, Bennett’s security staff clashed with the UAW in the so-called “Battle of the Overpass.” After this brutal incident, the National Labor Relations Board told Ford that he was no longer allowed to interfere with the organizations of unions.

John Coolidge, President Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison at the Coolidge Farmhouse in Vermont
John Coolidge, President Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Ford was the last automobile company in Detroit to recognize the UAW, despite pressure from the rest of the industry, as well as the US government. He even threatened to close down the company because of how much he despised the unions. According to Sorensen, his wife threatened to leave him if he chose to disassemble the company because of all the chaos it would cause.

Controversial Political Views

Ford’s political views earned him criticism over the years, starting with his opposition to World War I. But although he saw the war as waste and blamed it on the “financiers,” his factories in Britain produced tractors, trucks, and aircraft engines. By the time the United States entered the war, Ford was a major weapons supplier.

Henry Ford and military officers inspecting a large military vehicle
Henry Ford and military officers inspecting a multi-wheeled vehicle with caterpillar tracks circa 1921. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Then, in 1918, Ford published a number of anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. His views remained unchanged during World War II. If anything, his views became more radical as he expressed his admiration and support for Germany. When his son Edsel passed away from cancer in 1943, Ford replaced him as president, but a series of strokes in the later ’30s left him debilitated, with his mental ability fading.

Time for a Replacement

Soon, Ford was sidelined. Sorensen and a handful of senior executives began making decisions in Ford’s name. According to Sorensen, Ford became increasingly jealous of the engineer’s publicity and forced him out of the company in 1944. As bankruptcy began to loom over the company’s head, Clara and Edsel’s widow confronted Ford.

Edsel and Henry Ford with his 25 Millionth Ford sitting next to the Quadricycle
Edsel and Henry Ford January 1937. Source: Shutterstock

They demanded that he put his grandson, Henry Ford II, in charge. If he refused, they said they would sell their company shares, which amounted to three-quarters of the Ford Motor Company’s Shares. Ford was allegedly furious, but he had no choice but to give in to their demands. Ford died two years later at his home in Dearborn, at the age of 83.