Henry Ford: a life not for celebrating
Monday 28th October 2013
Peter Frost refuses to join those paying tribute this year to various significant dates in the life of the world’s most famous car-maker
The life and achievements of US car-maker Henry Ford is not something any right-thinking individual will want to celebrate.
Ford was born 150 years ago in 1863 in the midst of the civil war.
He left his father’s farm to take up various jobs with steam engine builders where he learnt his undoubted engineering skills.
He is often credited with inventing the motor car. He didn’t.
Ford read about Otto, Daimler and Maybach’s 1885 car in Germany and decided to copy the idea. His first two cars were built in 1896.
Then he had a few of attempts at starting an automobile manufacturing company.
It took three attempts losing a huge amount of his backer’s money and falling out with them along the way.
Ford would make his reputation and his first fortune with the Model T which was introduced on October 1 1908.
The car was very simple to drive and easy and cheap to repair. It was much cheaper than other cars at the time, selling for just $825 in 1908, about £15,000 at today’s prices, and the price went down every year.
It had the steering wheel on the left, which every other company soon copied.
The entire engine and transmission were out of sight — the four cylinders were cast in a solid block and the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs. Many of these features are still present on US cars and lorries today.
Sales passed 250,000 in 1914. By 1916, as the price dropped to $360 (£5,000 in today’s money) over half the cars sold in the US were Model T Fords.
What Ford had done was make cheaper and more available motorcars. By the time Model T production ended in 1927 Ford had built over 15 million and the model T was the commonest car on US roads.
Eventually Ford would build an automobile manufacturing empire that at its peak made a third of the entire world’s motorcar production.
This year, it is said, marks the centenary of Ford inventing the production line and many are celebrating the birth of that dehumanising creation.
In fact Ford didn’t invent that either. But he did much to sentence millions of workers to a mind-numbing lifetime of work on the conveyor belt.
Richard Garrett of Leiston in Suffolk was building his steam engines on a purpose-built production line more than 60 years before Henry Ford claimed to invent the idea in 1913.
Ford was actually a despicable individual whose real passion was his hatred of Jews.
He promulgated his rabid anti-semitism in a series of writings called The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.
This nasty piece of work first appeared as a series of magazine articles and then as a book. It is still in print and still sold by various organisations including the American Nazi Party.
Ford believed there was a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. He blamed Jewish financiers for fomenting World War I so that they could profit from supplying both sides.
He accused Jewish automobile dealers of conspiring to undermine Ford Company sales policies.
Ford’s racist right-wing rantings prompted Adolf Hitler to call the US industrialist his “inspiration.”
The nazi fuehrer kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk in his Munich headquarters.
Ford spent much of his fortune promoting his extremist views. He printed and promoted the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, now well-known as a malicious forgery created by the Russian tsar’s secret service at the turn of the century.
Ford and other fascists claimed it was the Jewish conspiracy’s blueprint for world domination. Ford supplied free copies to every library in the US.
Here is another anniversary — exactly 75 years ago, in 1938, Hitler and the nazis presented Ford with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. It was the highest nazi medal that could be awarded to non-Germans.
As you would expect, Ford hated trade unions — they got in the way of him wringing the last cent of profit out of his workforce.
He used thugs, strike-breakers, detective agencies and a private army to resist union organisation in his factories.
To oppose union activity, Ford promoted former navy boxer Harry Bennett to head a private army, an anti-union paramilitary arm of the Ford Motor Company called the Service Department.
Bennett’s bully boys employed various intimidation tactics to crush any union activity.
The most famous incident, on May 26 1937, involved Bennett’s security men using clubs to beat United Automobile Workers (UAW) representatives.
The police chief on the scene was Carl Brooks, himself trained in Bennett’s Service Department. He and his men stood by and did nothing to stop the attack.
Henry’s son Edsel, when he became president of the company in the early 1940s, tried to come to some sort of collective bargaining agreement with the unions.
Henry, who still had the final veto in the company, refused to co-operate.
The Ford Motor Company was the last Detroit car factory to recognise the UAW.
When a sit-down strike by the union closed Ford’s River Rouge plant in April 1941, Ford threatened to shut down the company rather than settle.
His wife Clara told him she would leave him if he destroyed the family business. The contract was reluctantly signed in June 1941.
Although he never officially aligned with either of the major US political parties, Ford’s prominence as a successful industrialist prompted Woodrow Wilson to invite him to run for Senate as a Democrat in 1918.
Ford lost that race. He made a presidential bid in 1924, but when that failed too he never ran for office again.
Close to Hitler and the nazis, it is no surprise that Ford wasn’t very enthusiastic about entering World War II. He had also strongly opposed any US involvement in World War I.
Eventually the Ford plants in the US did start producing aircraft to aid the war effort. But at the same time his Ford plants in Germany were supplying the nazi war machine with military vehicles and trucks.
Devious Henry, and the Ford Motor Company, managed to profit from both sides of the war.
Even worse, during the war, Ford employed slave labour in Germany on the production lines.
After a series of strokes, Ford died in 1947 of a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 83.
We have two choices in the way we remember Ford — either as the industrial genius who perfected the mass production of motorcars and thereby revolutionised the way we live.
Or, as I do, as a reclusive manic man who would tolerate no opposition or criticism, whose vicious attempts to prevent trade unionism at his plants produced strikes and violence, mostly provoked by his own private bully boys.
This was a man who hated and opposed out-of-home childcare, government regulation, eastern European immigration and even new styles in fashion, jazz music and Hollywood movies.
He was a man full of hate — anti-immigrant, anti-union and anti-semitic.
In short Ford was a bigot and a fool who, if his name wasn’t on the blue oval badge on the front of so many of today’s motor cars, would have been laughed at, ignored and towed away to the scrapyard of history a very long time ago.