Lincoln: Will the Past Be Prologue?

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This past Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and the Epic Quest to Arm an America at War by A.J. Baime. Which was surprising for a couple of reasons.

One is, that, as the subtitle indicates, this is a book about the auto industry, and as she and I are both involved with the industry, we have sort of a standing understanding that we don’t get each other work-related gifts.

The second is that she knows that I am not one who spends a great deal of time watching the History Channel and its re-coverage of the battles and the people and the strategies and the botched efforts and the successes and the alternatives and the whatever of World War II. But my friend is far more clever than I.

Yes, the book is about the undertakings made by the auto industry to create the planes, tanks, Jeeps, munitions, and other elements needed to arm the U.S. and Allied troops during World War II. But that’s the 50,000-foot view. And yes, it deals with Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and other figures, major and minor, who figure largely in those History Channel programs. But that’s also a 50,000-foot view.

The book is really about two men, Henry Ford and his only son, Edsel. It is a family drama with real characters that are almost Shakespearian.

When you grow up in Detroit, you know the name “Ford” in ways that most other people don’t. It is not simply the name on trucks and cars. But it is the name of a major history museum, a leading hospital, a freeway, and much more. FCA has tried to bring the Dodge brothers to national attention of late with some TV ads, having previously given attention to Walter P. Chrysler. GM doesn’t have a single person who is generally associated in the public’s mind with the corporation; a few years back they used the ghost of design chief Harley Earl in Buick ads, but that didn’t last.

One of the things that I took away from The Arsenal of Democracy is that Henry Ford, for the production genius that he was, was not a nice man. I can think of many words to describe him as a person, and most of them are NSFW.

But the bigger thing that I took away is that Edsel Ford is a man who is not given the amount of attention and respect that he deserves. That aforementioned freeway is named after him. It is a section of I-94. It is a section that runs from Ypsilanti east to Dearborn and into Detroit. Ypsilanti because that is where Edsel Ford, much to his father’s dismay, built the Willow Run plant that was created to fulfill Edsel’s commitment to bring automotive manufacturing techniques to the war effort, to build one B-24 an hour.

In this industry we sometimes refer to something that’s a stretch “a moon shot.” What Edsel Ford pulled off was an “intergalactic shot.” At the end of the Academy Award-winning The Imitation Game, it says that because Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code, the Allies won World War II. I’d like to suggest that because Edsel Ford stated that they’d build a bomber an hour and fulfilled that commitment (which wasn’t merely an issue of building a factory on a greenfield site; it also involved tremendous sociopolitical challenges, to say nothing of the Lear-like issues in the family) the war was won by the Allies.

Here is a hero whose name adorns a car introduced in 1957, a car that is roundly derided. What is forgotten is that he is the man who was instrumental in the creation of Lincoln. He is the man responsible for the Lincoln Continental. He is a man who had the highest respect for and understanding of automotive design.

I am writing this the morning after the Lincoln Continental Concept was unveiled in Manhattan. By the time you read this, the car, which provides clues to what the production full-size sedan will be like when it is introduced next year, will have been poked, prodded and analyzed in a multitude of ways, as people who do what I do try to suss out whether Lincoln will make it in a market segment with immensely strong competitors.

And I think that if the leadership of Lincoln—Kumar Galhotra, Matt VanDyke, David Woodhouse, Scott Tobin, and others—take just an ounce of encouragement from the accomplishments of Edsel Ford, there can be little doubt of success.