Classic review: The People's Tycoon

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

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[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.

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.

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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."

Ford loved the ordinary folk and they loved him back. By 1920, half of all cars on US roads were Fords.

But it wasn't just cars that Ford was selling.

He preached a new gospel to a public raised on Puritan ideals of delayed gratification and self-control. Ford believed that money was for spending, and that workers should use their income to buy products that would improve their lives - products like his Model T.

To meet the enormous demand for his cars, Ford enthusiastically embraced mass production. He also believed he was providing a superior form of employment. "The average worker ... wants a job in which he does not have to think," he pronounced.

But if Ford managed to appear heroic at a certain moment in history - a day when working families needed sturdy, inexpensive cars and large numbers of unskilled workers were grateful for secure jobs - he utterly failed to keep pace with the times.

When consumers wanted more sophisticated cars, he insisted that his Model T was enough. When workers called for unions, he was adamant that they were unnecessary. And when the Depression took its toll, he couldn't grasp its severity.

Ford's intransigence cost him dearly. By the mid-1930s, General Motors and Chrysler had already passed him by.

The more tragic failure, however, is the story of Ford's relationship with his son Edsel, an intelligent and sensitive man who could have been the ideal heir to the business. But the older Ford - offended by the son's gentle style and superior education - ruthlessly undercut him at every turn, only then to mourn grievously when Edsel died young.

Watts, who is a professor of history at the University of Missouri and the author of a biography of Walt Disney, creates a comprehensive picture of Ford and the era in which he lived. (Although one error noted: Watts inaccurately identifies Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, as a leader of a "New Thought movement" founded by Phineas P. Quimby.)

The book is longer than it needs to be and its narrative is awkward at times. Watts tends to hit his main points too repetitively and sometimes works too hard to pump up drama. (Chapters often end with heavy-handed cliffhangers like: "Eventually, the Ford family and key associates stepped in to avert disaster, but not before this King Lear of the automotive world had been brought low.")

But "The People's Tycoon" remains well worth reading. Not only does it provide a lively portrait of America at a pivotal moment in history, it also offers the compelling human tale of a gifted man ultimately undone by his own success.

Ford's last days were sorrowful. On a visit to the house where he had lived as a newlywed he told his chauffeur, "I've got a lot of money, and I'd give every penny of it right now just to be here with Mrs. Ford the same as I was in the old days."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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