Bob Casey, automotive historian and Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”
Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.
Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?
Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.
How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?
In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.
On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.
What new insights about Henry Ford can readers expect to find in these books?
Watts tells how Ford felt there was no need to advertise the Model T – it pretty much sold itself. What Ford didn’t take into account was the incredible marketing campaign executed by Norval Hawkins – the accountant and first sales manager of Ford Motor Company – and how his strategy advanced the company into becoming the industry leader. After Hawkins left the company and went to General Motors, Henry Ford still pushed the Model T at a time when people didn’t need it anymore. Ford was behind the times, and Hawkins was instrumental in helping General Motors’ sales surpass Ford Motor Company’s by 1927.
Another little-known story is that Harry Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s executives and a known Union buster, was like a surrogate son to Ford. As mentioned earlier, Ford did not appreciate Edsel’s talents, and Bennett was everything that Edsel wasn’t. Bennett did everything that Henry asked him to, in a very crude and mean sense, and did it quickly. But Bennett seemed to take pleasure in lording his power over other people. If Ford told him to fire someone, Bennett would do it in a manner that was humiliating to that the person. If Ford told Bennett to countermand someone else’s decision, Bennett would go out of his way to make that person look bad. According to Watts, Bennett was the son Henry always wanted.
How would you describe Olson’s illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first 40 years?
This book is based off of the Fair Lane Papers along with other letters and bills from the Fair Lane estate. The Fair Lane Papers are the personal Ford family papers that were left at the Ford estate (called Fair Lane) after Clara Ford died in 1950 (Henry died in 1947). They contain letters, diaries, photos, notebooks, legal documents, checks—all the sorts of paper people accumulate over a lifetime. They formed the foundation on which Olson built his book.
His book draws heavily from accounts on the Ford family farm; and Henry Ford’s life up until the start of Ford Motor Company. It focuses on the people who were most important to Henry Ford.
Olson, who worked as a public relations guy for Ford Motor Company, knew Ford’s history and looked at every single scrap of paper to assemble a collective history that can be read episodically. It is very fun to read, with a great introduction to an excellent story of the early years of Henry Ford’s life.
Overall, how do these books capture the essence of a Michigan farm boy who emerged as one of the greatest American icons?
These are personal rise-and-fall stories. They focus primarily on the first half of the 1920s when Ford was the leader in the auto industry, and eventually into the 1930s when Ford is ranked third behind General Motors. They equally capture the “rollercoaster ride” that is the life of a man who changed the world.
Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, $34.95
Sidney Olson, Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, $18