|Henry Ford was one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs in creating the automobile assembly line; it was his controversial characteristics and unorthodox approach towards administering the Ford Motor Company which resulted in the conglomeration of one of the most successful corporations in the world. Between the five dollar/day plan, his policies on administrating his company, and his relations with his customers, Ford was often presented as a suspicious character.
The direction of the Ford Motor Company toward even pricier model cars had bothered Henry Ford. He used his new power to curtail their production, a move that coincided with the panic of 1907. This case of accidental good timing probably saved the company [The Right Time]. Ford, insisting that high prices ultimately slowed market expansion, had decided in 1906 to introduce a new, cheaper model with a lower profit margin: the Model N [Small Successes]. While the N was only a tepid success, Ford nonetheless pressed forward with the design of the car he really wanted to build: the Model T.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude” (Wik 53), Ford proclaimed. Such a notion was revolutionary; until then the automobile had been a status symbol painstakingly manufactured by craftsmen, however Ford set out to make the car a commodity [Piggyback]. In the winter of 1906, Ford secretly partitioned a twelve-by-fifteen-foot room in his plant and with the help of a few colleagues; he devoted two years to the design and planning of the Model T [Study Group]. The car that finally emerged from Ford’s secret design section at the factory would change America forever. For $825, a Model T customer could take home a car that was light (about 1,200 pounds); relatively powerful (four-cylinder, twenty horsepower engine), and fairly easy to drive. Simple, sturdy, and versatile, the little car would excite the public imagination. The Model T certainly fired up its investors: when Henry Ford brought the prototype out of the factory for its first test drive, he was too excited to drive and an assistant has to take the wheel (Rae 106) [Trial Run].
In the early years, Model Ts were produced at Piquette Avenue in much the same way that all other cars were built. Growing demand for the new Ford overwhelmed the only method however and Ford soon realized that he not only had to build a new factory, but also a new system within that factory. Throughout his tenure as the head of the company; Henry Ford believed in maintaining enormous cash reserves. This policy allowed him to plan a new facility for production of the Model T without interference or outside pressure. In its first few years, the four-story Highland Park factory was organized from top to bottom. According to Wik:
Assembly wound downward, from the fourth floor, where body panels were hammered out, to the third floor, where workers placed tires on wheels and painted auto bodies. After assembly was completed on the second floor, new automobiles descended a final ramp past the first-floor offices. Production increased by approximately 100 percent in each of the first three years (p. 119) [Smell of Success].
At the Highland Park factory, Ford began to implement factory automation in 1910, but experimentation would continue every single day for the new seventeen years [Sustained Momentum]. Ford and his efficiency experts examined every aspect of assembly and tested new methods to increase productivity [Time for Reflection]. As a results of Ford’s assembly line, the men who made cars no longer had to be mechanically inclined, as in the earlier days; they were just day laborers. Ford chose to see the bigger picture of the employment he offered: “I has head it said, in fact, I believe it’s quite a current thought, that we have taken skill out of work…we have not, we have put a higher skill into planning, managing, and tool buildings” (Wik 154) [Piggyback].
On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced a new minimum wage of five dollars per eight-hour day, in addition to a profit-sharing plan. The talk of the town, Ford was hailed as the friend of the worker, as an outright socialist, or as a madman bent on bankrupting his company [Smell of Success]. Recognizing the human element in mass production, Ford knew that retaining more employees would lower costs, and that a happier workforce would inevitably lead to greater productivity. Once again Ford was correct; between 1914 and 1916, the company’s profits doubled from $30 million to $60 million. “The payment of five dollars a day for an eight-hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” he later said (Rae 83).
On June 4, 1924, the ten millionth Model T Ford left the Highland Park factory, which would remain the main facility for the Model T production. Henry Ford refused to even consider replacing his beloved Model T and once, while he was away on vacation, his employees built an updated Model T and surprised him with it on his return. Ford responded by kicking in the windshield and stomping on the roof. “We got the message,” one of the employees said later, “As far as he was concerned, the Model T was god and we were to put away false images” (Rae 91).
When the last Model T rolled off the assembly line it was not the end of an ear, it was still the very dawn of the one that the little car had inaugurated. Cars, more than half of them Model Ts, pervaded American Culture. They jammed the streets of the great eastern cities and roamed newly laid roads in southern California [In Your Space]. Adapted to haul everything from mail to machine guns to coffins to schoolchildren, automobiles represented an opportunity for change in practically everything. They also became a crucial factor in recasting a growing economy. Henry Ford has created a car for the multitudes and that car had created the basis of the car culture embraced by every subsequent generation. Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947 at the age of eighty-three.
Author: Bill Bernath
Rae, John B. (1969) Henry Ford. Prentice Hall Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Wik, Reynold M. (1972) Henry Ford and Grass-roots America. The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, MI.