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Henry Ford

Lessons about Aging, Success, and Humility

Henry Ford

by Dennis Pollock

Aptitude is an amazing thing. Why is it that one child shows a distinct passion and gift for art, while another leans toward athletics? Why was it that Mozart could compose minuets by the age of six, while most children drive their parents crazy with their clumsy banging around on piano keys, trying to play the simplest of melodies? Why does one youth become a standout on the basketball court, while his buddy watches enviously as he sits on the bench game after game? The mystery of the clearly unequal and inexplicable distribution of talents and abilities is one we will never solve, but no one can question its reality.

Henry Ford was born in July, 1863 during the midst of our nation's Civil War, and he was from the beginning a natural mechanic. His parents were farmers, relatively prosperous and hard working, but not particularly exceptional. Young Henry was not fond of the hard work required to keep a farm going and a family eating. He could lose himself in long hours and days tinkering on watches and figuring out how machines work, but he despised spending hours behind a plow or watering corn plants. At the age of thirteen Henry was given a watch and promptly took it apart just to see how it worked. Taking it apart was easy, but the young man was determined to put it back together, with every part in its proper place doing its proper task. He soon succeeded and then went about looking for other watches and machines to disassemble and reassemble.

The passion to tinker, to analyze, to fix, to disassemble and reassemble became so great that at sixteen he left home for the nearby city of Detroit, determined to get a job that would increase his mechanical skills and broaden his understanding of how machines work. He was a skinny kid, not especially imposing to look at, but he had a confidence in himself and a drive that made employers willing to give him a chance. He had an innate ability to look at a machine that had broken down, assess the problem, and quickly come up with a solution. In fact he was so good that when he solved a mechanical problem at his first job that had baffled the older guys, he was fired out of jealousy. But he soon had another job, and after learning all he could learn there, he switched jobs, taking a lower salary for the privilege of working at a shipbuilding firm and learning new skills.

After some time Ford went back to the farm for nearly nine years, but not really to farm. That he left to others while he worked at various jobs, repairing engines, teaching mechanics, and doing various odd jobs that required a tinkerer and a thinker. During this time he met a young lady, Clara Bryant, with whom he promptly fell in love. They were married in April, 1888, and stayed together until Henry's death some 59 years later. In many ways Henry was a likeable, charismatic man with a keen sense of humor. But his burning drive and ambition would never allow him to be the romantic husband for which Clara had probably hoped. He would often work his "day job," come home and have supper with her, and then go out to his workshop behind their house, where he would spend five or six hours experimenting with a gas engine which he determined to build. Henry used to comfort Clara with the thought that, once the gasoline engine was built, they could go back to a more normal life and they would have more time together. But they were both just kidding themselves. The engine was no sooner built than Henry was already working and experimenting with ways to improve it. It is ironic that although Henry could hardly stand to spend four to six hours doing farm work, he had no problem whatsoever putting in sixteen and eighteen hour days building, experimenting, problem solving, and tinkering with engines. Give a man a job he loves, and motivation is never in short supply.

Eventually Henry moved back to Detroit with Clara, and worked for the Detroit Illuminating Company. He became obsessed with the idea of developing a horseless carriage. He was certainly not the inventor of the automobile. In fact Henry never really invented anything. His gift was not so much that of an inventor, like his friend Thomas Edison. He was more suited to taking ideas and concepts already in existence, and finding ways to vastly improve them, and make their creation infinitely more efficient.

His first effort was completed in June, 1896, and he named it the "Quadricycle." It looked like two bicycle frames joined together with a two-cylinder, four horsepower gasoline engine between them. In its trial run he had a friend go before him announcing that a horseless carriage was coming, so that horses could be directed to the side of the road. It puttered along at about twenty miles an hour, and had no brakes. Still it ran and made Ford something of a local celebrity. After driving it around the city for some time, he sold it for $200, and started working on an improved version.

In a period of two and a half years Ford found backers for two auto companies but clashes with investors turned both efforts into failures. Henry Ford was like a cork in a swirling body of water – he sometimes was forced by the currents underneath, but always kept bobbing back up to the surface. His mechanical genius, his racing cars which kept winning races, his personal charisma, and his obstinate refusal to give up kept creating opportunities for him. Within six months after leaving the second business, a Scottish coal merchant named Malcomson took an interest in him, and set about to gather other investors and establish yet another car company. In June, 1903 the Ford Motor Company was born.

The company made several models which became commercial successes, although not in spectacular fashion. Ford wasn't particularly creative in naming his various models. He started with the Model A and worked his way through the alphabet. For several years the company did this and turned a tidy profit. They were not setting the world on fire, but they became a significant force in the auto-making industry. Ford became known in the business world and among auto fans in Detroit, but was an unknown on the national stage. Within about five years, all of that would change, and Henry Ford would become a towering national and international figure, known by nearly every American. Three different events were responsible for this.

Model T

Model T

It started with the creation of the most popular automobile America has ever seen – the legendary Model T. Practically from the beginning of his automotive career Henry Ford had been obsessed with the idea of creating a sort of people's car. The Model T Ford turned out to be the car of Ford's dreams. It would cost around $850 and was built with a new type of steel called vanadium, which was both strong and lightweight. It was a purely no-frills car, weighed a mere 1,200 pounds, had good power and a blazing top speed of over forty miles an hour. Like all of Ford's automobiles it wasn't strictly of his making. Ford had enough sense to know that a team of engineering experts could achieve far more than a single man, and he had some of the best automotive engineers in the region working on the project. Ford set the goals and his team provided the plans. Henry's constant quest for improvement had paid off big time with the creation of the Model T. It was improved in almost every way from the previous model, and still the price was not significantly higher.

The combination of low price and remarkable reliability made the Model T a huge success. It soon outsold every other car on the market, and in time would come to represent half the cars in the world. In the initial stages, the popularity of this car became a huge problem. Ford had his hands full increasing his sales and production forces to meet the rising demand. Eventually this desperate need for producing more and more cars led to a second factor which would make Ford a household name – the institution of mass production through the use of an assembly line.

Mass Production

Henry Ford hated waste – the waste of money, the waste of time, and the waste of materials. From his earliest days in machine shops he despised how much time was lost by mechanics and machinists as they leisurely went about their jobs in a haphazard manner. Ford's company was far more efficient than most car companies, but still he knew they could do better. This came to fruition in 1913 when Ford and some of his leading associates decided to convert their company to assembly line production. Like nearly all of Ford's innovations, it was not strictly a new idea. Other car companies had used assembly lines as a part of their assembly process. But nobody had ever used them as extensively as Ford did.

The time it took to create a road-ready Model T plummeted. Whereas under the old system the fastest time had been in just over twelve hours, with an assembly line they could turn out a new car in about an hour and a half. Instead of churning out twenty to thirty cars a day, they were soon producing hundreds a day, and eventually reached Ford's dream of one thousand Model T's being rolled out of the plant in a day's time. With the increased efficiency the cars could be built for significantly less cost, and profits began to soar. But Ford was not content to merely pocket the profits, and instead used most of the increased revenue to lower prices. Year after year the cost of a Model T, the most popular car in America, dropped significantly. From $850 to $700 to $600, and lower still. By 1925 you could buy a Model T for around $260 – a price that almost anyone who had any kind of a decent job could afford. Model T's cluttered America's roads from Minnesota to Texas, from California to New York. And although Ford was not seeing a large profit from each unit, the huge volume of cars being sold was putting millions of dollars in his pockets.

The $5 a Day Wage

With the changeover to mass production a new problem quickly developed. Workers started dropping out like flies. Doing one rote movement all day long at a fast rate of speed was something American workers were not used to and in which they took little pleasure. Such work was a perfect recipe for burnout. Why work for Ford doing something exhausting when you could get a job down the road and do things the old, slow way, and make nearly as much money? Turnover became epidemic, and at one point it was necessary to hire around 1,000 workers in order to fill about 100 jobs.

Henry Ford, always thinking, soon realized what had to be done. Wages would have to be raised significantly, until workers considered it a privilege to work for him rather than a punishment. Never one to do things in a small way, Ford announced in January, 1914 that he was going to more than double the salaries of his workers, from $2.34 a day to $5 a day. Although he was doing it mostly because he felt it was the only solution to his turnover problem, Ford was hailed as a great friend of the common laborer. Everybody was talking about this new, radical step taken by the world's greatest automaker. The New York Times ran over thirty stories on Ford. Although most business owners dismissed him as crazy, ordinary Americans came to think of him as the greatest man of the age. And sure enough, Ford's turnover problem was solved and Model T's continued to sell like nothing else, making Ford more millions still.

Problems in Fordland

With Henry Ford's newfound fame, cracks in his personal foundation began to surface. Historian Steven Watts notes: "He begins to believe the headlines: Henry Ford the great man, Henry Ford the folk hero, Henry Ford changing the world. He soaks all of that in, this farm boy from Dearborn, Michigan, and he begins to believe that stuff." An ugly side to Henry Ford appeared. Part of it was from ego and part was from the desire to control nearly everything. One of the first evidences of Henry's belief in his own press is seen in his naïve and foolish attempt to singlehandedly end World War I by chartering a "peace ship" and heading off to Europe to convince the European leaders to make peace, a mission which proved to be the fiasco almost everybody had predicted.

In this as well as in many other matters dealing with people and political issues, Henry Ford was way out of his league. The truth was, Henry Ford was a mechanic – keen eyed, insightful, and creative when it came to machines, gears, nuts, bolts, and screws, but totally clueless in most other matters. As he aged a mean streak revealed itself. Always concerned about efficiency, Ford became more and more obsessed with avoiding waste and saving time, until people and their needs, wants, and feelings became irrelevant to him. He fired many of his smartest and best qualified associates, determined that he alone would run his company without competition or challenge. Even the smallest changes in his company would not be tolerated without his consent. Once while on vacation, a new model was created as a possible successor to the Model T. When the dictatorial Ford saw what his son and some of his leading engineers had been working on, he was livid. He went to the passenger door and literally ripped it off its hinges. Then he methodically went all around the car smashing parts and ripping off others to demonstrate just how monstrous was the offense of showing initiative without the consent and approval of Henry Ford.

As he aged he became a notorious bully, intimidating the weak and firing those who would not be intimidated. Once his son Edsel had a new wing of the plant begun without his father's knowledge. When he learned about it, Ford had the building stopped immediately, but refused to fill in the gaping hole that had been dug for the foundation. He wanted Edsel and everyone else to pass that hole every day on their way to their jobs, and be reminded of what happened when you dared start a project without imploring his permission. In this and many other ways Ford humiliated and harassed his son, partly because it was his nature, and partly hoping his son would get tough and fight back. Edsel, who was born with a gentle nature and hated confrontation, almost never did. He developed stomach ulcers and eventually stomach cancer and died several years before his father, at the age of 49. The old man, realizing that he was at least partly responsible for his son's death, was never the same.

In his latter years Henry demanded more and more from his workers. The assembly line was accelerated until workers went home dazed and exhausted. Ford created a "service department" which was more like a mini-Gestapo, spying on workers and making sure they toed the line. Talking to a co-worker would get you fired, as would taking even the briefest moment to sit down while still on the clock. Anyone found trying to organize the workers into a union would be beaten and then fired.

Perhaps the most famous chink in Henry Ford's armor was his notorious anti-Semitism. Ford was probably infected with anti-Semitism from his youth, but what made him unique was his national prominence and his willingness to make his views well known and crystal clear. After achieving success in the auto industry Ford bought a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Henry Ford was an opinionated guy, and the newspaper was the perfect vehicle for him to share the wealth of his views with his fellow Americans. He made sure the newspaper got a wide circulation by having it distributed to every one of his dealers. Many a new Ford automobile was driven away with a copy of the paper in the back seat.

In this paper Henry Ford began to spew the poison of anti-Semitism with article after article blaming the Jews for nearly every American evil: degenerate movies, World War I, speakeasies, immoral dancing, short skirts, liquor consumption, Wall Street woes… you name the problem – the Jews were ultimately behind it, in Ford's mind. Eventually, intense pressure upon Ford and his company prompted him to apologize, but the damage had been done.

Ford's final years were sad ones. With his mind dulled by strokes, Ford became less and less engaged in the company he had founded. For a time even his wife shut him out, blaming him for their son's death. He sat in company meetings with a detached look, no longer a formidable, intimidating presence, but a lonely, sad, old man. Finally, at the age of 83 Henry Ford died with his head on his wife's shoulders.

The Problem with Success

Much has been written about the ill effects of poverty and failure, but their polar opposites can be equally dangerous. In Henry Ford's life we see the terrible effects sometimes caused by wealth and success. Generally speaking, success is a wonderful thing. We are made by God to achieve successes, some larger and some smaller throughout our lives. But success can be very illusory – it can give us the impression that all we do, believe, and decide is unquestionably right and true. It can be wrongly interpreted as a blanket endorsement from God on every part of our life. What we fail to realize is that any successes we have always come in limited form; they are never "across the board." Henry Ford was a tremendous success as an automaker and a mechanical problem solver, but this by no means meant that his opinions on other matters carried any more weight than the man who cut his lawn or the maid who cleaned his house. Put Ford in a room full of engineers and have him design an efficient and reliable automobile and he will excel, but ask him to opine on world wars or religion or politics or history and he comes across as the simple-minded man that he was.

We see the same thing today. Actors, businessmen, singers, athletes, and others often achieve so much popularity and success in their fields that they come to the conclusion that they are somehow endowed with such incredible wisdom and general superiority that they are qualified far above the common man to fix the world's problems and provide solutions for all sorts of dilemmas and issues. But this is patently false. Take the basketball player off the court, take the singer off the stage, take the businessman out of the boardroom, take the actor off the set, and you find them just as ordinary as anyone else. They may have achieved incredible success in one area of life, but this hardly qualifies them to speak on any other.

A second problem with success is that it tends to produce an unnatural deference in the people who relate to those who achieve it. Lackeys and yes-men always are drawn to the successful and the powerful. They will constantly praise their bosses and never challenge them. Henry Ford made matters worse in his old age by getting rid of the few men who expressed any kind of independent thought or a willingness to challenge his ideas. Henry came to rule with an iron hand, and streaks of meanness, irritability, impatience, and paranoia became more and more prominent, traits which were barely seen in his earlier days when he was forced to deal with partners, investors, and strong-willed associates. In his latter years, Henry surrounded himself with men whose constant refrain was, "Yes, Mr. Ford. How high would you like me to jump, Mr. Ford?" It was a recipe for disaster.

Problem with Age

Old age is a time when small seeds become full grown plants. What were hints and whispers in one's youth are now shouts and trumpet blasts. This is true for the good and the bad. Kind and gentle young people will often grow kinder and more gentle with age. But grumpy young people will usually become grumpier old people. Whiners will get whinier with age, complainers will get "complainier," and control freaks, freakier. Whatever you are as a young person, you will likely become far more of it in your old age.

The disintegration of Henry Ford was a sad one. He started out as a thoroughly likeable young man, fascinated with life, eager to achieve success and to help others in the process. There were small streaks of obsession and a desire to control his surroundings, but nothing like the ruthlessness that would characterize the older version. But the process of time and the maturing of the seeds of his obsessive personality resulted in Ford eventually becoming a grumpy, controlling, mean-spirited old man, who drove his son to an early grave and alienated most of the associates who had helped make him the success that he was.

Henry Ford's biggest problem was essentially fundamental – a lack of Jesus Christ in his life. He was the product of parents who never took religion very seriously and Henry followed in their footsteps. He eventually abandoned any pretense at Christianity and came to believe in reincarnation. This allowed him the comfort of believing that there is a an ultimate purpose in our lives and a meaningful universe, without the need of the personal morality that evangelical Christians espouse. He never took the sexual boundaries of the Scriptures very seriously, once telling a friend that it was OK to sleep with as many women as you pleased as long as your wife never finds out. Ford came to justify all his meanness and his insistence upon total control in all things with the idea that his success was "for the common good." Perhaps he did overdo it in his demands of his workers, perhaps he did rule his company and his family with a heavy dose of unyielding toughness, but the result was more cars and jobs produced.

Without Christ, the sinful nature of men and women takes increasing domination as the years pass. The Bible tells us that our "old man" (our sinful nature) grows corrupt due to its deceitful lusts. It starts out bad, but gets progressively worse as we mature and age. Selfishness, anger, impatience, and all the rest of those nasty traits with which men and women struggle increase exponentially as we age and our youthful inhibitions and timidity dissolve and disintegrate. On the other hand, when Jesus is actively involved and in control of the heart, an entirely different set of traits begins to dominate. The Bible speaks of "the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ." Paul sums up these traits as divine love and describes the outworking of this love in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked… (1 Corinthians 13:4,5)

The life of the one who abides in Jesus and lives by His words becomes more attractive with age. The lives of those who remain alienated from the God of love and mercy become decidedly more ugly. The story of Henry Ford, at one time the richest man in the world, and certainly one of the most influential men of the twentieth century, serves as a cautionary tale to us all, but especially to those who taste the heady wine of significant success. Regardless of how much success God graciously grants us, no matter how many people stand by our side and tell us how great and talented and brilliant and wise we are, we must never forget that we are in the end, just common men and women, desperately in need of Christ, and very much in need of humility.

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