January 28, 2013

PBS documentary explores life, successes of Henry Ford

After watching PBS’ “American Experience” on Henry Ford, you see what he was as really about.


9 p.m. Tuesday, “American Experience,” PBS

After watching PBS’ “American Experience” on Henry Ford, you see what he was as really about.


He controlled his company, he controlled his workers and he controlled his “everyman” image as much as he could.

Like many controllers – and inventors – he changed the world, as director Sarah Colt shows in her two-hour documentary.

Ford, born in 1863, the oldest son of a farmer in rural Michigan, disliked farming immensely. His parents let him go to Detroit to foster his engineering talents.

Ford became obsessed with the idea of building automobiles, then a rich man’s toy. He wanted to make them for everyone.

In 1896, he built a gas-powered car called a “quadicycle.” The vehicle intrigued many, but problems with investors forced Ford to close his first company.

In 1903, he incorporated the Ford Motor Co. He experimented with new versions until he found one he considered perfect: the Model-T, in 1908.

Ford was quoted as saying buyers could have the Model-T in any color as long as it was black. The initial price was $850, considerably cheaper than other autos, and it was “remarkably durable” – which was good, considering the state of roads at the time.

Consumers gobbled it up; suddenly, everyone could travel – and travel they did.

Ford implemented the concept of a production line, where a worker did the same job on each car.

“Under the old stationary system, the record time for assembling a car had been 12 hours 13 minutes. Using the assembly line process, it took one hour and 33 minutes,” said Bob Casey, curator of the Henry Ford Museum.

Workers balked. Forced to do the same job for hours, they quit in droves. Ford countered in 1914 by giving everyone a raise from $2.34 a day to $5, “a share of the profits of the house” and an eight-hour workday.

He built a huge factory in River Rouge, Mich., which worked around the clock and employed 75,000 men in eight-hour shifts. “Its sole function was to have thousands of men working to churn out, as efficiently as possible, as many automobiles as they could,” says historian Steven Watts.

There also was a darker side to the Henry Ford success story: He invaded his workers’ privacy; had anti-Semitic beliefs; and disparaged his only son, Edsel, to the point that when Edsel was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, he didn’t tell his father because knew he wouldn’t gain sympathy.

The Roaring ’20s made Ford uneasy, the Great Depression brought layoffs and, during World War II, unions arrived – which Ford hated “with a passion,” said historian Greg Grandlin. It was Edsel Ford, who championed the Model-A, who also established the company’s contract with the unions; he died at 49 in 1943.

Henry Ford died in 1947, at 83, after making history.

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