Tin Lizzie and Her Progeny: One Hundred Years of Ford

Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903-2003 , by Douglas Brinkley. Viking, 858 pages, $34.95.

In one of his notebooks, Henry Ford once wrote, “I’m going to see that no man comes to know me.” In this dreadnought of a book (764 pages, and that’s without the endnotes!) the prolific historian Douglas Brinkley helps us to know Ford intimately. Understanding him, however, is another matter.

So much has been written about Ford that Mr. Brinkley and his associate writer, the historian Julie Fenster, were forced to spend lots of space simply parsing through the stories, myths and legends that have grown up around the man. And so we get detailed, measured and well-written treatments of Ford’s youth-he was born two years before the end of the Civil War and died two years after World War II ended; of his entrée into the world of machines as a young mechanical engineer at a Detroit electrical company; of his efforts to build a car; of his marriage to the saintly Clara Jane Bryant Ford; of the development of the Model T and the impressive River Rouge plant; and of his strange, late-in-life yearning for the pastoral idyll of his farm youth-which he had hastened to escape.

While there’s little hint of revisionism in all this, the authors do restore early Ford executive James Couzens to his rightful place of honor. Couzens, who left Ford in 1915 and later became the mayor of Detroit, put in place the infrastructure that enabled the Model T to grow quickly into the first true global car. A financial whiz, he demanded partial payment in advance from dealers, thus guaranteeing liquidity. The “$5 Day”-the revolutionary 1914 move aimed at holding down the immense turnover induced by the mind-numbing tedium of the assembly line-was also Couzens’ idea. (Ford, both a stubborn idealist and the ultimate pragmatist, later called it “the greatest cost-cutting move I ever made.”)

Ultimately, however, Ford’s greatest achievement-the Model T-was his alone. “I will build a motorcar for the great multitude,” he proclaimed. In 1908, when the Model T debuted at $850, it was the first step in transforming the car from a plaything of the rich to an entitlement. Obsessed with making the Model T cheaper and more widely available, Ford relentlessly pursued manufacturing efficiencies, ever more intricate assembly lines and vertical integration as means of controlling costs. And here the unlettered rustic emerges as Thoroughly Modern Henry. What distinguished Ford, Mr. Brinkley shrewdly notes, “was the creation of an atmosphere in which improvement was the real product; a better, cheaper Model T followed naturally.” In 16 years, he would build 10 million Model T’s. By 1925, the cost of a Model T would amount to just one-eighth the average annual income in the U.S. And by 1926, the U.S. had one motor vehicle for every six citizens, compared with 49 for Britain and 1,935 for Germany. (Some illustrative charts and graphs would have been helpful here.) “Ford Motor Company’s production nearly doubled every year for a decade after 1913, while the price of a Model T dropped by two thirds,” Mr. Brinkley writes.

The fact that this is stated so matter-of-factly is one of my few beefs. One wonders what someone with the gaudy narrative talents of Robert A. Caro, or Ron Chernow, would have made of this stunning industrial feat-one far more impressive than Intel’s practice of Moore’s Law. The growth, and the way the Model T transformed the nation, begs for some rhapsody.

Ford’s brilliance seemed, however, to have calcified sometime in the second decade of the 20th century. He held on too long to the Model T, forced out strong executives and tortured his unfortunate son, Edsel, the company’s longtime president, who died in 1943 at the age of 49 without ever having exerted significant authority at the company that was his birthright. In 1927, Alfred P. Sloan’s customer-friendly General Motors surpassed Ford as the leading U.S. carmaker-a lead G.M. has yet to relinquish.

Mr. Brinkley effectively makes the case that we’re still living in Ford’s world. “I invented the modern age,” he once said. But his industrial legacy is frequently overlooked, in part because his clangorous social views still resonate. In this age of the Dixie Chicks and freedom fries, the early parts of Wheels make a great case study on the market impact of dissent. In the 1910′s, Ford’s stance on everything from geopolitics to labor relations was far outside the mainstream. Opposed to World War I, he chartered the Peace Ship with the (Jewish) Hungarian pacifist Rosika Schwimmer. He bought the Dearborn Independent and used it to spread venomous anti-Semitism, a record that has embarrassed the Fords lo unto the third generation. But none of his (still inexplicable) shenanigans affected sales measurably. Public opinion largely rejected Ford’s social views but embraced his products with stunning affection. In 1927, when the Model A was introduced, it was estimated that some 25 percent of the U.S. population made a point of seeing the new vehicle in its first week on the market.

Ford wasn’t sufficiently with it to torment Henry Ford II, the high-living Yale graduate who became president in 1945 at the age of 28 and ushered the company into the modern managerial age. And for a long stretch, Wheels turns into a more conventional story-the battle with Japanese imports, Lee Iacocca and the introduction of the Mustang, the exploding Pintos of the 1970′s, the quality crisis of the 1980′s, and the advent of the Taurus in the 1980′s and S.U.V.’s in the 1990′s.

The narrative pistons misfire toward the end, however, when Mr. Brinkley strains to link the current C.E.O., William Clay Ford Jr., to the original. In 1998, the 41-year-old great-grandson of Henry-whose primary occupation was running the perennially underachieving Detroit Lions-was named chairman of the board, and Lebanese-born Jacques Nasser became president and C.E.O. Under Nasser and Ford, the company misallocated capital badly. It diversified into unrelated fields, bought Volvo and Land Rover, and then moved the luxury division to California in a fruitless effort to improve design and market share. In 2001, Ford lost $5.5 billion and Mr. Nasser was fired. “[Nasser] let the core business of automaking drift,” Mr. Brinkley writes. “The mess left behind was for Bill Jr. to clean up.”

Bill Ford, however, gets off way too easily. (Mr. Nasser was conspicuously not interviewed in this book, and might have a somewhat different story to tell.) Mr. Ford’s quick abandonment of a gaudy promise to increase fuel efficiency is excused, and Mr. Brinkley glosses over the fishy episode in which Mr. Ford received thousands of shares of Goldman Sachs’ I.P.O. The fawning treatment of this underqualified scion reminds me a little of the way The Weekly Standard treats the underqualified scion who now runs the country-explaining away every screw-up and inflating the completion of routine tasks into towering achievements

Douglas Brinkley promises a warts-and-all account, even though his book was “authorized.” (Ford archivists provided significant support, and while the book was not formally commissioned by the company, it’s likely that the prospect of Ford buying oodles of books figured into Viking’s planning.) But Wheels for the World is more like a case of eczema, in which skin blemishes are evident in the patient’s infancy and youth and then evaporate when he matures.

Daniel Gross, who writes the “Moneybox” column for Slate , is co-author (with Davis Dyer) of The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation (Oxford University Press).