During the summer, many of us avail ourselves of giant blockbuster books, bodice-rippers and techno-thrillers, tomes about the size of a brick with the sustenance of cotton candy. But on a sunny day at the seaside: so what? Still, this year I’d like to recommend that you wile away the hours with a book that is giant both physically and in scope: the 858-page Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress by Douglas Brinkley (Viking; $24.95). This is the centennial of the Ford Motor Company; the anniversary date is June 16. To be a part of this industry is to have it permeate lots of aspects of our lives, especially for those of us in southeastern Michigan. But the consequences of Henry Ford’s actions and ideas, his inventions and his investments, literally did, as Brinkley’s title suggests, put the world on wheels. No, it was not about inventing the car. Ford didn’t do that. He didn’t invent the first “American” car, either. Nor did he invent mass production. What he did invent was a vision for several aspects of what we know as automobiles and, more importantly, for the automobile industry, what it does and how it does it. He imbued the industry with the sort of passion that’s required to truly excel in this arena. Arguably, Ford took steady aim on a vehicle and on the processes required to make it (the Model T), then pursued it with a manner that today is described as “continuous improvement.” “Nobody knows the exact moment Henry Ford locked his sights onto the goal of manufacturing a car propelled by internal combustion, but the joshing at the Night Owl Lunch Wagon”—which Ford frequented while working as an engineer for Detroit Edison—“records the fact that by the beginning of 1894 he had hitched his own wagon, and reputation, to the star potential of the gasoline-powered automobile,” Brinkley writes. Note that that was nine years before the 1903 date that is being celebrated, and that Ford had been working toward that goal even earlier than 1894. His idol and later friend Thomas Edison quipped, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”; Henry worked it. And success was even longer in coming than might be realized: Ford’s first car company, the Detroit Automotive Company, was formed in August 1899. By November 1900, it was out of business. Brinkley explains, “In the end, the Detroit Automobile Company failed not so much because Ford took too long to produce a vehicle up to his standards, but because the vehicle he actually produced wasn’t very impressive by anyone’s standards.” He could have probably given up and gone back to his job at Detroit Edison. But no, he persevered.
It came as a surprise to me to discover that Ford was something of a Tom Sawyer in the section about whitewashing the picket fence. That is, Ford had a knack for bringing people to his projects to help him get them done. Yet Ford was a hands-on person. He didn’t create a company that fundamentally revolutionized the world by financial prestidigitation or by taking advantage of natural resources (e.g., coal or oil). He made things. Or, actually, he had a tendency to make a lot of one thing: the Model T (1908-27) didn’t have such a long run because no one in the company had no other ideas: Henry liked to improve things. A lot.
He succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. While he can certainly be considered a model in some aspects, the picture that Brinkley limns is not one that is wholly flattering—not by a long shot. Brinkley’s book deals with the entire company, but more than half of it is devoted to Henry (who died in 1947). Which is as it should be.