Celebrating its 110th birthday on June 16, 2013 Ford Motor Company is one of the three dominant American automobile manufacturers. Founded by Henry Ford, the company and the man are credited with putting the nation on wheels. Ford is so intrinsically intertwined with the history of the automobile, many people credit him with inventing the car (actually that was done Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz in 1886). But Ford is definitely one of the pioneers in the field of automotive transportation.
Born in July of 1863, Henry Ford developed and produced the first automobile middle class Americans could afford to buy. The Ford Model T revolutionized both transportation and manufacturing in the United States. Prior to Ford’s creation, cars were built primarily for rich people, and largely one at a time.
Ford introduced economies of scale to auto production by building many cars at once, using an assembly line. While this is common practice today, this was a significant innovation back in 1913. While Ford is typically credited with inventing the automobile assembly line, the concept was actually brought into being by Ford employees Clarence Avery, Peter E. Martin, Charles E. Sorensen, and C. Harold Wills.
Ford was born into a farming family in Greenfield Township, Michigan. Never really into farming, Ford showed a mechanical aptitude early on. At the age of 15, his father gave him a pocket watch, which he repeatedly dismantled and reassembled. Ultimately, he developed a reputation as a watchmaker and performed repairs for all of his friends and neighbors.
At age 16, Ford went to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit for James Flower & Brothers, then later with the Detroit Dry Dock Company. He also studied bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit. One of Ford’s duties was maintaining the family’s Westinghouse portable steam engine. Ultimately, he was hired by Westinghouse to service the engines on a professional basis.
Ford went to work for Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company in 1891. By 1893 he had been promoted to chief engineer. This gave him enough of an income to tinker around with gasoline engines during his free time. In 1896, Ford built his first car, the Ford Quadricycle. Edison, learning of Ford’s creation, encouraged him to build another one.
Ford did so, completing it in 1898.
With the backing of William H. Murphy, Ford left Edison to build a company around his car. The Detroit Automobile Company was founded in August of 1899. Unfortunately, the car was more expensive than Ford’s ideal, and the quality wasn’t quite where he wanted it to be either. This led to the failure of the company in January of 1901. Ford went on to try to solve the problems plaguing his creation and ultimately started another company with help from the stockholders of the Detroit Automobile Company and Murphy once again.
This time they called the company the Henry Ford Company, and experienced modest success. Ford was chief engineer. Feeling the company needed a stronger business head, Murphy brought in Henry Leland as a management consultant in 1902. Ford left the company in protest, and the Henry Ford Company became the Cadillac Automobile Company.
Fortunately, Ford knew a lot of people with money; one of whom was Alexander Malcomson, a Detroit-area coal dealer. With Malcomson’s financial support, the two leased a factory and did a deal with John and Horace Dodge for parts to manufacture cars under the auspices of Ford & Malcomson, Ltd. The cars didn’t take off right away though, and when the Dodge brothers came collecting for their parts, Malcomson convinced them to take stock in the company instead. Malcomson also got another group of investors together and renamed the company the Ford Motor Company, incorporating on June 16, 1903.
Five years later, the Model T was introduced, and the rest as is often said is history. Revolutionary in design, it was easy to drive, easy to work on, and hugely affordable to purchase. Introduced at the price of $825, with each passing year the price fell, as Ford got more and more efficient at building it. The price finally settled at $360 in 1916. Ultimately some 15 million Model Ts were built.
But the Model T was only the first iconic model from the Ford Motor Company.
One of the most heavily coveted Ford automobiles was the Thunderbird. Introduced in 1955, in response to Chevrolet’s Corvette, the Thunderbird was more of a personal luxury coupe than a sports car like the Corvette. Still, it found a ready following.
Ford’s first “small” car, the Falcon was notable for that fact alone. But there is another more significant reason. The Falcon’s platform underpinned the 1964 Ford Mustang. An instant best seller, the Mustang caused every other American manufacturer to come up with a competing model, Chevrolet’s Camaro and the Dodge Challenger are the contemporary competitors to this, the longest continually produce vehicle in that segment.
The 1970s saw a considerable change of fortune for Ford. The fuel crisis made a lot of the brand’s product portfolio uncompetitive against the wave of more efficient imported cars. In the 1980s, the company introduced the Taurus family sedan and the Escort compact car, both of which improved showroom traffic for Ford considerably. Regardless of the times though, one area in which Ford has always shown particular strength is trucks. The Ford F-150 pickup truck is consistently the best selling truck in America, as well as one of the best-selling vehicles—period.
Ford also benefitted a great deal from the SUV boom of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Flush with cash from these products, and seeking to diversify, Ford acquired Volvo, Land Rover, Aston Martin, and Jaguar—teaming them up with Lincoln to form what it called the Ford Premier Auto Group. This undertaking ultimately failed though and Ford sold them all off in 2008.
Today, the Ford brand sells cars, trucks, and SUVs and is the second largest U.S.-based automaker (after General Motors). The company sells automobiles and commercial vehicles under the Ford brand name. It sells luxury cars under the Lincoln brand. It also still has a small holding in Aston Martin as well as Mazda.