With pipe and scrap metal, Henry Ford laid the foundation of an automotive empire.
On December 29, 1893, a thirty-year-old engineer employed by the Edison Illuminating Company began construction of a new type of two-cylinder gasoline engine He worked in a small shop at 59 Bagley Avenue, where he lived. His name was Henry Ford and he was destined to revolutionize the automobile industry by building a vast empire which would bring personal transportation within the means of literally millions.
Three years later, after countless hours of research, toil, and experimentation carried out in his spare time, and with considerable financial sacrifice (Mrs. Ford justly lamented: “It seems we never have any money for ourselves!”), Henry completed his first auto buggy. Built from plumbing pipe, bicycle wheels, carriage cushions and bits of scrap metal machined on a lathe, the first Ford car ever built had a two-cylinder, 10 hp engine with a crankshaft forged by hand! Its speed was 10 mph in low and 20 mph in high. It ran moodily. Undaunted, in June, 1896, Ford cranked up, climbed aboard and drove all the way to his father’s farm in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb. To clear a path through traffic, he used a loud gong, but the engine was so noisy with its popping and banging that he could have dispensed with the warning! This was three months after Charles Brady King, another automotive pioneer, had appeared on the streets of Detroit with his own car. King was the first ever to do so in a horseless carriage. In fact, he gave Ford some assistance and contributed the engine’s intake valves, the two men being rather close friends.
In 1899, Ford gave up his job at the Edison plant to help organize the Detroit Automobile Company. His third car was already on the drawing board. He took one-sixth of the new company’s stock in exchange for becoming its chief engineer. By 1901, he had introduced the steering wheel as a production feature, to replace tillers. That same year, driving a two-cylinder car, he defeated a serious competitor, the dashing Alexander Winton, in a race at Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Shortly afterwards a sharp divergence of views between Ford and his associates grew into open warfare. Ford’s dream was to produce a low-price car that would be within the reach of most people: whereas his associates thought in opposite terms, preferring to cater to a small and exclusive clientele. As a result, in 1902 Ford broke off with the Detroit Automobile Company (which was later to become the highly successful Cadillac Automobile Company), and started to manufacture his own cars. Ford’s new enterprise attracted $7,000 from Alexander Malcolmson, a coal dealer, and smaller investments from a number of other interested parties--including a candy maker named John F. Gray. Another $5,000 was forthcoming from Ford’s attorneys, John W. Anderson and Horace H. Rackham, while John and Horace Dodge (later to become famous as the Dodge brothers), took stock in exchange for tooling up their small machine shop to build Ford engines. For another block of stock, Albert Strelow, a carpenter, converted his workshop into an assembly plant.
On June 16, 1903, Henry Ford organized the Ford Motor Company with a stock issue of $100,000, of which only $28,000 in cash was paid in by a dozen shareholders. But the newly established automobile manufacturer had abundant confidence in his ability to succeed. Ford was elected vice president of the company with a holding of twenty-five and one-half percent of the original stock, while John Gray was made president. Just five weeks after the company’s incorporation, the first production Ford was sold. Known as the Model A, it was an eight hp rear-entrance tonneau, priced at a modest $850. The next three cars were shipped in less than a month and 1,708 units were built and sold that year. It was a promising beginning. Ford was the third manufacturer to employ mass-assembly methods.
For 1904, three new cars, Models B, C and F were introduced, with a price range of from $850 to $2,000. These found 340 customers. The Model B with Ford’s first four-cylinder engine was the most ambitious of the lot and to some extent contradicted his basic aims of low-priced, mass transportation. But it was designed obviously in an attempt to cater to the widest possible buying public. That same year he also introduced the torque tube drive in production cars. In addition, he broke all previous speed records on the ice track at Lake St. Clair, Michigan; grasping the tiller of his already famous 999 racer, Ford covered a mile in 39.4 seconds (91.4 mph). Up until that time, tops at the track was a mile-a-minute.
The following year saw the company plant moved to Piquette Avenue and Beaubien Street, Detroit. By 1906, having acquired 51 per cent of the stock, Henry Ford replaced John Gray as president of the growing organization.
Four new Ford models appeared during that period, three of them with four-cylinder engines (the N, S and R), and the fourth, known as the Model K, was powered by the first Ford six-cylinder engine. Nevertheless, these incursions into the luxury field were not a success and the resultant sales drop made them a costly experiment for Ford.
Business did not recover for another two years, but meantime the company came out with some important innovations--the removable cylinder head and a fin and tube radiator, which replaced the cellular type.
Undoubtedly, Ford’s greatest inspiration was the Model T, the first example of which was completed October 1, 1908. This 20 hp, four-cylinder touring car, costing only $850 complete, had a speed of 40 mph and fulfilled Ford’s promise of a dependable, high-grade automobile at a price hitherto unheard of in the industry.
In June, 1909, Ford hit a new production record of 100 cars in a single day, and in December a greatly expanded plant was opened at Highland Park, Michigan. From 1909 on, the company concentrated solely on the Model T, improving it year by year as production scaled new peaks.
By 1911, Ford had installed the first endless floor conveyor chain to speed up mass production. Also he was building a British factory, at Dagenham, near London, capable of turning out complete Ford cars. In 1914, with a new annual production high of 300,000 cars, he pioneered a minimum working wage of $5 a day for an eight-hour workday. On April 16 of that same year the first Model T sedan was produced.
The immense River Rouge Plant property was acquired by the company in July, 1915. Three months later saw the opening of the Henry Ford Hospital. That year the first Ford farm tractors appeared. These eventually reached a sales total of 1,300,000 units. On December 10, the millionth Ford car rolled off the assembly line. The same month saw the introduction of the first coach-type body on the Model T. The last (and 15 millionth) of these great cars was completed on May 26, 1927, following which the Ford plants closed down for three months to re-tool for the equally famous Model A, its immediate successor. Priced at a staggeringly low $395, the Model A was destined to sell five million units in five years. Ford was now world’s master of mass-production.