Tuesday, January 03, 2006

How I spent my weekend, reading about Henry and Edsel Ford

A nice quiet weekend, and I spent most of it reading a book I received as a Christmas present. The Creation of the Ford Empire, Henry and Edsel by Richard Bak. A great read, and helped me realize how much I didn't know about Henry and his son Edsel. I had grown up thinking of old Henry as an inovator and simple genius and Edsel as a footnote in the Ford story. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ford Motor Company was old Henry's third attempt at an Auto manufacturing company and the first that he had total control over. While it's true that Henry gave birth to the company, what I hadn't realized is that Edsel saved it more than once from his father's capricious nature.
While Henry was not highly educated, Edsel was, and quite adept at many things. But respectful of his father until the end, he was the man that really created the Ford Motor Company that we know today. Fighting his father's will to improve what he could at Ford, while running Lincoln, he finally persuaded his father to replace the Model T in 1928.
Ford Motor Company dominated the early years of the US auto industry, fully 75% of all cars on the road were Model Ts. And between 1908 and 1927 15,000,000 were sold. But by the last few years, Chevrolet was outselling Ford and others were eating market share. Old Henry didn't want to change from the Model T, it was Edsel that saved the company and helped stear it on the course towards the modern age.
Henry Ford rubbed elbows with some of the greatest minds of the times, here he and Edsle flank Orville Wright. But it was Edsel that sought to diversify and expand Ford.
Here Edsel stands with Commander Byrd and William Stout beside a Ford TriMotor plane. Ford was not just a great businessman and engineer, but a patron of the arts and philanthropist. Edsel Ford financed Byrd's expedition and donated planes. William Stout had owned the company that Ford bought and worked for Ford.
Edsel Ford comissioned Diego Rivera to paint this famous mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Allowing Rivera access to the River Rouge plant, depicted here in the murals on four walls.
Rivera respected Edsel, and painted this portrait into the mural.
When most people hear the name Edsel, they think of the failed car bearing his name. That's a shame, because it was his legacy more than his father's that became the modern Ford Motor Company.

I can't retype the book here, but suggest anyone that has an interest in the history of Ford, and especially the son often overshadowed by the father. I cam away with a greater respect for Edsel and his son Henry II and a better understanding of Old Henry Ford. It put's into context his antisemitism and general bigotry. Old Henry was a complex man, yet in some ways very simple, who drove his only son to an early grave and almost destroyed his own company.

I hope to find more books about Edsel and possibly Henry II, but it seems that Henry II burned many documents to prevent such things.

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