His father wanted him to spend his life working on the family farm. His friends told him his idea was crazy. But Henry Ford defied all odds, paving the way for today’s automobile industry through his audacity to challenge convention and to persevere through all obstacles.
Let’s take a look at how this unlikely hero built a legacy of triumph and success that lives on years beyond his passing.
The early years
Henry Ford was born in Greenfield, Mich., in 1863. When his mother died in 1876, his father wanted him to work on the family farm, but Ford had no interest in farm work. From an early age, he displayed a remarkable talent with machinery. He built his first steam engine at the age of 15, and when he took apart and rebuilt a watch his father gifted him as a teenager, he soon gained a reputation as a skilled watch repairman.
After his marriage to Clara Jane Bryant at the age of 25, Ford reluctantly returned to farm work to provide for his young family. But his heart was clearly elsewhere.
In 1891, Ford joined Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Just two years later, at the age of 30, he was promoted to chief engineer. Ford’s work sparked his fascination with gasoline-powered engines, and he devoted all his spare time and resources to building one of his own. After achieving his goal in 1893, Ford turned his time and energy to chasing after his next, much bolder dream: to build a gasoline-powered automobile.
The Detroit Automobile Company
The “Quadricycle,” a crude contraption made of two bicycles placed side-by-side and powered by a gasoline engine, was Ford’s first triumph in the world of automobile production. It took more than a decade to build, but in 1896, it was finally complete. Ford was enormously proud of his hand-built “horseless carriage.” He took Detroit lumber tycoon William H. Murphy for a ride. By the time the ride was over, the two men were in business.
The Detroit Automobile Company opened in 1899, with Ford as superintendent in charge of production. Unfortunately, the business folded by the end of the year. Ford was skilled in building cars, but he couldn’t build them quickly enough to keep the company solvent.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Ford moved to a new plan: build a racer and use racing as a means to spread his name and his company throughout the country. Though he held a personal dislike for racing, Ford learned the art and quickly became a skilled racer. His efforts paid off, and in June of 1903, he had the financial support he needed to launch the Ford Motor Company.
Ford Motor Company
Ford founded his second company as he was nearing age 40. At the time, “horseless carriages” were outrageously expensive and owned by a wealthy few. Ford’s dream was to build an automobile that would be cheap enough for the average person to own while still enabling his company to turn a profit.
Ford quickly set to work designing and producing automobiles, rolling out the Model A in early summer of 1903. By the year’s end, more than 500 Model A vehicles had been sold at $850 each. The company’s next model was launched in 1907. The Model N retailed at $600 and was well received, with 7,000 sold in just one year.
But Ford was still unsatisfied. Where other automobile manufacturers poured their resources into making their cars more luxurious, Ford was after the simpler and the cheaper.
In 1908, Ford Motor launched his dream car: the Model T, retailing at $850. The no-frills automobile was more reliable and cheaper to build than the Model A and the Model N. Nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie,” the Model T was so popular, 6,389 cars were sold within a few months and the demand for the car quickly outpaced the supply.
Ford now had a new problem. How could he increase the production rate of the Model T without raising the price?
The moving assembly line
Ford’s innovative solution to his quandary also became his legacy. His idea for a moving assembly line was built on the assumption that, if each worker remained in one place and performed one assigned production task, they could roll out completed automobiles at a much faster pace.
Ford’s assumptions proved to be correct. After the completion of a new 60-acre production plant in Highland Park, Mich., the Ford Motor Company was able to churn out a completed Model T in less than six hours. This cut the old production time of 12+ hours by more than half. After Ford worked on perfecting the system, the factory was producing a new car every 93 minutes.
The reduction in production time enabled Ford to slash hundreds of dollars off the price of his car and helped him realize his lifelong dream of building an automobile the average person could afford. Sales continued to climb as the price continued to drop until the price tag for the Model T reached its low of $290 in 1927.
A legacy that endures
Ford’s work transformed the automobile industry and the moving assembly line sparked a modern-day industrial revolution. The Model T was named the most influential car of the 20th century. With 16.5 million cars sold between 1908 and 1927, the Model T continues to hold its place in the top-10 list of the most-sold cars of all time.
Unfortunately, the twilight of Ford’s life brought a slew of challenges, among them a decreased mental capacity and the loss of his only son.
Yet, Ford’s legacy endures.