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Classic review: The People's Tycoon

Henry Ford was the very image of the America of his day: idealistic and far too self-assured.

By / May 31, 2009

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Aug. 16, 2005.] By the late 1920s Henry Ford was one of the wealthiest and most influential men on Earth. Everywhere the automaker went the press besieged him, begging for his thoughts on topics as diverse as foreign loans, marriage, world peace, mass production, the younger generation, farm life, and the care of babies.
"He is [as] steadily pelted away at, with requests for an opinion, as the oracle at Delphi," wrote one reporter.

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Ford created a beloved automobile at a price that average families could afford. He revolutionized industry with mass production. And he forever changed American life with his notions about the happiness that consumer goods could bring.
He was a giant of his time. Yet he was also plainspoken and fiercely anti-elitist. For all his fabulous wealth, he preferred simple, rural pleasures; had a taste for silly practical jokes; and delighted many with pronouncements like, "I wouldn't give five cents for all the art in the world."

This was no act. Ford was every inch the ingenious, simple, self-made man he made himself out to be. But sadly, in the end, his ingenuity was no match for the overwhelming seduction of his success.

The adulation of others ultimately convinced Ford that he was infallible and led him to ruinously bad decisions. It blinded him to his own hypocrisy as he preached family values and old-fashioned virtue and yet kept a mistress. It may also have driven him to destroy his only child.

The rise and fall of Henry Ford is thoroughly and engagingly chronicled in Steven Watt's The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. Ford's life story teems with energy and action, all of which Watts organizes admirably, even as he clearly delineates the contradictions of the automaker's character.

Ford's story begins with his birth in rural Michigan in 1863. All his life he would romanticize his childhood on a farm.

But the truth was that even as a boy Ford showed a disinclination for the hard labor required by farm life. As soon as he could, he fled to Detroit to work with machines.

It was there that he began tinkering with self-propelled vehicles. Many others were doing the same at the time, but few were as determined as Ford. His first two companies failed, but in 1903 he incorporated the Ford Motor Company and this time he met with the success he sought.

It was 1908 when the young company debuted its Model T - a spunky, sturdy, inexpensive car that quickly won the hearts of working folk.

Most carmakers of Ford's era had been concentrating on the luxury car market. But Ford wanted to put the average citizen behind the driver's wheel.

"He wanted to help people and we as the young men of his shop looked up to that," wrote one of his employees. "We could see that Mr. Ford's mind went to the farmer and the mechanic and to the people who lived in the hinterland."

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