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Ford Motor Co.'s founder was a charismatic risk-taker who relentlessly pursued his vision

March 27, 2003
BY SHERYL JAMES
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The big race was about to begin and Henry Ford had to be nervous.

The date was Oct. 10, 1901.

The place was the Grosse Pointe Race Track in rural Grosse Pointe Township between present-day Alter and Chalmers roads.

The event was Detroit's first automobile race. It was the highlight of the year, save, perhaps, a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. City offices and even the courts had closed and the streetcars were leaving for the track every 30 seconds. At least 8,000 people packed the grandstand -- many of them, a Free Press reporter wrote, dressed in a "display of feminine finery expected to attract quite as much attention as the speedy machines."

The track, built in 1895 for horse racing, was a mile-long dirt oval. Promoters had worked hard to hype the event. Several races primed the crowd. One featured steam-powered cars, another electric vehicles. Two of the nation's best-known bicycle racers competed as well: Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield.

But everyone was waiting for what promoters billed as a world championship auto race. It was to be a 25-mile contest featuring gasoline-powered cars -- the speed demons of the day. The prize was $1,000 and a punch bowl set. Several of the country's best auto racers had signed up, hoping to break the land speed record of roughly 1 minute and 14 seconds per mile.

But one by one, racers had dropped out for various reasons: mechanical problems, travel snafus. By the time the race began, just two competitors were left. They could not have been more different.

One was Alexander Winton, the very man who held the speed record. Winton was a pioneer auto manufacturer from Cleveland. He had competed in races from Chicago to France. His 40-horsepower racer was considered hard to beat.

The other competitor was Henry Ford. He was a local mechanic and "chauffeur," in the words of one reporter. He was 38 years old. He'd never raced a car in his life. He had just finished building his 26-horsepower, two-cylinder car to his satisfaction that morning, and he was not in the race for money. He was in it to resurrect his business prospects.

Promoters were appalled at the apparently uneven match. Before the start, the race length was cut to 10 miles, because earlier races had taken so long.

And so, for better or worse, the two racers throttled off the starting line and the contest was on, the crowd cheering wildly. Ford "sat up high with nothing but the wheel to hang onto," wrote Booton Herndon in his 1969 book, "Ford: An Unconventional Biography of the Men and Their Times."

"He had no brakes, no windshield, no goggles. As he was neither stupid nor ignorant about automobiles, he must have been brave."

A little desperate, actually.

Henry Ford is famous for his enormous accomplishments. He was the man who put America on wheels, the creator of the first automobile assembly line, one of the world's first billionaires. His name is synonymous with success.

But Ford is far less known for his failures, for the years he spent tinkering and toiling, miffing chances and moving every few months. By the time this complex man climbed into his rudimentary racing machine, he already had blown his first, highly capitalized auto business. And, with just two practice runs in his new vehicle, he was facing embarrassment at best, severe injury at worst. What in the world was he thinking?

Only true entrepreneurs would understand. And long before he was the king of combustion, Henry Ford was a full-fledged -- and, by its very definition, fledgling -- entrepreneur.

A talented tinkerer
Henry Ford, born on a Detroit-area farm in 1863, nursed tremendous nostalgia for rural America all his life. But it was evident early that he was misplaced in the country. He disliked the drudgery of farm work and he hated horses, especially after one dragged him some distance. But more important, he had an innate instinct for mechanics, an instinct that found fertile ground in the embryonic auto industry and the place, Detroit, where the industry took root. That combination -- the man, the time, the place -- cannot be overstated.

"Detroit at the turn of the century happened to have a bunch of people, like Ford and Billy Durant and the Dodge brothers, who, as one historian said, would rather go broke building automobiles than get rich doing anything else," said Robert Casey, John and Horace Dodge curator at the Henry Ford: America's Greatest History Attraction in Dearborn.

"And it was a wide variety of talents. Some of them were more mechanical, some of them were more money, some were more organizational. But there were enough of them -- with that fascination with this new technology -- to create this sort of critical mass that you saw earlier in Pittsburgh with steel and later in Silicon Valley," Casey said.

Ford was a gregarious, well-liked youth, but not overly studious. He was a hands-on learner, always tinkering. He had only a sixth-grade education, not unusual for his time. In 1879, at age 16, he found work with the Michigan Car Co., a rail car manufacturer. Six days later, he was fired. His father then helped him get a job as an errand boy at James Flower& Brothers machine shop in Detroit. There he met Fred Strauss, one of the few people from those early years ever formally interviewed.

"Henry was to do the same work that I did," Strauss said in a 1955 oral history interview commissioned by the Ford Motor Co. "He didn't sweep the floor. I did that because I was more of a worker than he was. He was never a good worker but he was a good fellow."

After a short time at the machine shop, Ford, in 1881, took a job at Detroit Drydock Co., a steamship maker. He and Strauss still visited, goofing around, trying to build rudimentary gas engines.

Strauss' perceptive recollections of the youthful Ford pinpoint the qualities that would spur Ford's early failures -- and later successes.

Ford, Strauss said, "always had another idea" and "was always wanting to make things. The first time I ever saw him spend any money -- he usually got the other fellow to spend it -- he bought a set of castings."

Ford, Strauss said, also "started things but never finished."

Within a year, Ford returned to his father's farm, "more because I wanted to experiment than because I wanted to farmand I had a first-class workshop," he wrote in his 1922 autobiography "My Life and Work."

By then, Ford had worked with several steam engines and they fascinated him. On the farm, he operated a neighbor's steam traction engine for threshing and other jobs and wound up by the mid-1880s fixing steam engines for the Westinghouse Co. He also built a "steam car that ran," he wrote in his autobiography. But after experimenting for two years with different boilers, he concluded steam engines would not make a suitable "road vehicle." And by then, he fully intended to build one.

Ford 'had some kind of a magnet'
Automobiles were absent from Detroit's streets when Ford first job-hopped his way into town. But the tidal wave was approaching. Cars already were rich men's toys in Europe, and enthusiasts such as Ford talked of little else but engines, "motive power" and horseless carriages. Ford pored over magazine articles about internal combustion engines. In the late 1880s, he experimented with this new technology, trying to build small gas engines.

Ford had married Clara Bryant, who lived on a nearby farm, in 1888 and built a small house on 40 acres his father had given him. Clara loved the house and farm life, but Ford had other ideas. In September 1891, he accepted a job as night operating engineer at a substation of the Edison Illuminating Co. at Woodward and Willis in Detroit. His farm days were done.

That was the real beginning of Ford's meandering journey toward auto manufacturing. He kept working at Edison during the next several years, but he always found lots of time to work on his engines.

He used the workshop at Edison's main station on Washington Boulevard, where he soon transferred, for his experiments and set up another nearby. Meanwhile, he had workshops in various residences he and Clara rented from 1891 well into the early 1900s. It was as if he could not have enough of them.

The most important of his many addresses was 58 Bagley St., which had a storage shed out back. It was there that Ford built his Quadricycle in 1896.

In the years before and after, Ford was one of Detroit's side-street machine-shop enthusiasts -- men who tinkered with gas engines. It was a network of shops and shared-knowledge fellowship, and Ford reveled in it.

Strauss' oral history paints a good picture:

"In 1893 . . . Henry had all kinds of time and he used to come down to see me" at a nearby machine shop. "He had a little shop of his own back of the Edison company. It was one-quarter height of a basement off the ground and was above the sidewalk on the street. . . . Henry used that as a hangout. He was never hardly in the power station. . . .

"I used to go up there and hang out there, too. There were other fellows who would come and sit in there. He had this little lathe in there. He had this idea of making a little gasoline engine out of scrap. That was the first engine he ever made, way back in 1893. It was a one-cylinder engine. I built the whole thing, but he gave me the instructions.

"We didn't work every night. We would just joke away. . . . It took about six weeks to get this little engine built. . . . When we ran that little engine in the basement, of course, there would be quite a few people on the outside listening to the noise, wondering what was going on. We would run it some nights, and some nights we wouldn't. Some nights we would just talk. . . .

"On Saturday nights, we had quite a crowd. Henry had some kind of a magnet. He could draw people to him; that was a funny thing about him."

At Edison and the machine shops, Ford was garnering a reputation as a good mechanic and gas engine builder. He also was getting to know every skilled mechanic and car enthusiast around. These men spanned the economic spectrum; some were modest, others wealthy. Ford, solidly middle class but relatively uneducated, was comfortable with all of them.

That odd charisma was a key Ford trait. He had an uncanny ability during his early pioneering years to meet the right men at the right time and then convince them to offer up their best work, their money or both. Ford more often was the director, the motivator, the glue among a small group of talented young experimenters.

'Young man . . . you have it'
In 1893, just after the birth of their son, Edsel, the Fords moved to 58 Bagley, a duplex. It was their seventh home. There, using scrap pieces and simple machines, Ford labored for three years, until the famous early morning -- June 4, 1896 -- that he motored his Quadricycle from the storage shed onto the dark, silent Detroit streets. It was an enormous accomplishment difficult to understand once autos were ubiquitous, wrote Sidney Olson in his book "Young Henry Ford."

"To nonmechanical people, which means most people, the natural question about his first car may be: What took him so long? Well, there was no such thing as a spark plug; it hadn't been invented. There was no such thing as a carburetor. There were no automobile wheels -- only wagon wheels and buggy wheels. The front steering on wagons and buggies had to be adapted. Camshafts, crankshafts, push rods, bearings, piston rings, gears -- everything had to be made from the ground up. Each tiny part was not one problem but a host of problems."

One key encounter occurred in 1896, just as Ford was developing his Quadricycle. He attended an annual convention of the Edison Illuminating Co. at Manhattan Beach, N.Y. There, according to "The Triumph of an Idea, The Story of Henry Ford," a 1935 book by Ralph H. Graves, everyone was talking about the "electric carriage." At one meal, the 33-year-old Ford met the nation's premier inventor -- Thomas Edison. He told Edison all about his gas engine.

Afterward, Edison banged his fist on the table. "Young man, that's the thing," he told Ford. "You have it. Keep at it."

"That bang on the table," Ford wrote later, "was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement." Ford and Edison remained close friends until Edison's death in 1931.

Ford sold his Quadricycle and started on his second car, which he finished in 1898, when he also obtained a patent for a carburetor. The car was considerably more sophisticated, a reflection of Ford's relentless but thorough experimenting. He did not believe in freezing any design. He succeeded at something, then cast it off and tried a better way. He had "the vision," those who knew him said. Part of this vision, which set him apart from most other early auto builders, was the desire to make a lighter, more reliable and durable car. He believed such cars could be mass-produced so nearly everyone could afford them.

Word was getting around town and in national automotive circles. This Ford had something to him. He knew what he was doing. And, with the help of his father's stature in the community, Ford began to link up with men who could bankroll his vision.

Reaching for the dream
One key person was a friend of the Ford family, William Maybury, who just happened to be mayor of Detroit. Maybury, well connected, introduced Ford to other small investors. Soon after, Ford met William Murphy, a wealthy lumber merchant and among a group of men eyeing the potential of the auto business. Small car companies were springing up, and Ransom Olds by 1901 was manufacturing several hundred one-cylinder Oldsmobiles.

Ford was working on this third vehicle, a delivery wagon (a novel application for the time). He honed in on Murphy, clinching his backing after taking him in July 1899 on a 60-mile, 3 1/2-hour jaunt to Farmington and Pontiac.

Shortly after that, Maybury took Ford and Strauss to an empty factory at 1343 Cass Ave. It was to be the home of the Detroit Automobile Co., which incorporated on Aug. 5, 1899. Ten days later, Ford, then chief engineer at Edison, gave up this stable, well-paying job.

"It might be thought something of a step," Ford wrote, "for I had no personal funds. What money was left over from living was all used in experimenting."

But "Henry had the dream," as Strauss and others said, and a wife who backed him. He was ready to reach for that dream.

Getting into the race game
The Detroit Automobile Co. was capitalized at an impressive $150,000. Ford was named the mechanical superintendent and given a small amount of stock. The 12 investors read like a who's-who of Detroit's money men.

The company was to make Ford's delivery wagon. The first one was finished in January 1900. It never worked well and only a few were made. Things at the company soon went sour. There are many theories about what happened -- and some solid reasons. The wagon itself was a poor product. And its designer apparently was not ready, willing or able to make the leap from easygoing workshop tinkerer to serious manufacturing.

Ford later blamed pressure from investors interested only in profits. They wouldn't let him build his car, he charged. What seems more likely is that Ford was still the perpetual experimenter. He would not stay with a design. He kept reinventing, sometimes wandering off into the woods with one of his mechanical cohorts to make designs. He would come back, Strauss recalled, with "little sketches," another plan, another way. He began disappearing from the company for long periods, and he began avoiding his investors.

Finally, the investors held a meeting to decide the company's future. Ford told Strauss to tell them he was out of town. The investors, fed up, decided to dissolve the company. Ford, still largely absent, got his last check in October 1900. In January 1901 -- 10 months before the big race in Grosse Pointe -- the Detroit Automobile Co. ceased to exist.

Did Ford fall apart? Hardly.

He started building a race car.

Ford had some rationale for this apparent sharp left in his carmaking. He knew the best innovations in autos were in racers. He also knew most people still considered cars race toys -- "therefore, we had to race," he wrote.

Meanwhile, he was lucky: Maybury and Murphy hung on, financing an experimental shop in a corner of the Cass factory. There, Ford, with the help of the highly skilled Edward Huff, Oliver Barthel and Harold Wills, built the race car. It was, he believed, a winner, and a way to get "the only kind of advertising people cared about."

He was gambling the race would bring on new investors. And he was out of time and money. He had just moved his family into the same apartment building as his retired father, William. And dad, it is believed, was paying the rent.

A fateful seventh lap
At the Grosse Pointe Race Track, Winton took the lead right away. The hapless Ford, driving his brake-free car, had to shut off his engine to coast the turns. Ed Huff, ever loyal and reckless, rode the outside of the driver's door, swinging his body far out to work the curves. (Winton had a similar assistant.)

But Ford, master of learn-by-doing, gained ground as he figured out how to maneuver his less powerful but much lighter racer. In the sixth lap, he gained on Winton. The crowd roared louder as the two rumbled side by side, Ford inching closer and closer.

Suddenly, in the seventh lap, Winton's vehicle began to smoke. His rider poured oil on the motor, but to no avail. Winton was out. Ford made the finish line alone and victorious.

The hometown crew "went wild," Clara Ford later wrote to her brother, Milton Bryant. "One man threw his hat up, and when it came down, he stamped on it, he was so excited. Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle. She stood up in her seat and screamed, 'I'd bet fifty dollars on Ford if I had it!' "

Back on the track, young boys rushed up to the grimy, breathless Ford. "Boy, I'll never do that again!" he mumbled. "I was scared to death!"

Six weeks later, Ford was back in business. But it was not the Ford Motor Co. that was incorporated on Nov. 30, 1901.It was the Henry Ford Co. And Ford, named chief engineer and granted about $10,000 worth of stock, lasted just four months before he walked out.

The short-lived company was to make a lightweight runabout, based on Ford's latest design -- exactly what he said he wanted to do. But, by all accounts, Ford was by this time obsessed with racers. Once again, he became evasive. But his investors, Murphy among them, caught onto him more quickly this time around. Ford, it seemed, was secretly building another racer, a much larger, more powerful one. His investors did not want to fund another racer.

On March 10, 1902, Ford left the Henry Ford Co., stipulating only that the name be changed. He also surrendered the designs for the runabout. The investors by then had been in contact with Henry Leland, a well-established and respected mechanical engineer. He came aboard and, using most of Ford's designs and some of his own, supervised the manufacture ofthe little runabouts. The name of the car, and the company: Cadillac.

Ford had run through two sets of Detroit investors. If he panicked, no one noticed. In fact, he already had linked with Tom Cooper, the bicycle racer, who was wealthy and willing to pay Ford to make two super auto racers, one for Ford, one for Cooper. The men found another shop at 81 Park Place, where Ford built the racers named after trains: the 999 and the Arrow.

These were muscle cars. The first, the 999, had four 7-by-7-inch cylinders producing nearly 100 horsepower. Ford admitted he and Cooper were afraid to drive the thing, especially after trying it out on the track. They were eyeing another race at the Grosse Pointe track and Cooper suddenly remembered his fellow bicyclist, Barney Oldfield.

Oldfield never had driven a car, but he was fearless. He took a week's lessons and on Oct. 25, 1902, became the Mario Andretti of the day when he clocked 5 miles in 5 minutes, 28 seconds in the 999. Oldfield went on to great daredevil fame as an auto racer.

One man in the raucous crowd that day was Alexander Malcomson, a well-off Detroit coal dealer. Within a few weeks, he and Ford were talking business. Ford once again seemed to find the right man at the right time -- and in two important ways. First, Malcomson became Ford's link to all kinds of new investors, all clients, personal friends and even family to Malcomson.

But perhaps equally important was Malcomson's clerk, who soon would play a key role in Ford's business: His name was James Couzens.

$28,000 and know-how
Cooper and Ford had parted for unknown reasons and by December 1902, Malcomson and Ford formed a partnership. Malcomson paid Ford, with help from Harold Wills and others, to build a passenger car at the 81 Park Place shop. Wills suggested making the cylinders vertical rather than horizontal, "a milestone in automotive technology," wrote Robert Lacey in his 1986 book, "Ford, the Men and the Machines."

This was typical of how Ford worked; earlier, when spark plugs were problematic, Huff had come up with the idea of encasing them in porcelain, which a dentist supplied. Spark plugs have been white ever since.

The new car was called the Model A. But Ford and Malcomson needed more money if they were to manufacture it. Before long, Malcomson circled his friends, associates, anyone who had money to help form a new company. The biggest and most reluctant investor was Malcomson's uncle, John S. Gray, a wealthy Detroit banker. Two other investors were John and Horace Dodge.

Nine original stockholders along with Malcomson, Couzens and Ford officially formed the Ford Motor Co. on June 16, 1903. The investors put up $28,000 in cash and pledged another $21,000. Ford offered nothing but his know-how. Couzens scraped together every penny he had and borrowed the rest to invest $2,500. Malcomson, who already had paid about $7,000 to get the Model A going, backed most of the other investors. He and Ford received $25,500 credit for the machinery, patents and contract, and each got 255 shares of the company. Together, they owned 51 percent of the company.

Without Malcomson, Ford Motor Co. never would have materialized. And, as it turned out, without Malcomson's clerk, Couzens, the company would not have survived.

Couzens, later a U.S. senator, was a cold-blooded, hot-tempered businessman to the core. Hard-working, organized and ambitious, he saw in Ford his opportunity to make big money. And Ford, following his pattern, saw something in Couzens, then 31, too. He quickly befriended Couzens.

Ford Motor Co., with Gray as president, opened on Mack Avenue and Bellevue. Ford was vice president and general manager; Couzens was treasurer. There was limited operating cash and most of the investors were pessimistic.

And the company was a latecomer. By the time it incorporated, Ransom Olds already was manufacturing his curved-dash Oldsmobile and Cadillac was filling hundreds of orders for its "one-lung" (one-cylinder) car.

Between 1900 and 1908, 502 companies were formed to make automobiles in the United States, according to Lacey. As many were in other states as in Michigan. Ford not only had to catch up and fit in, he had to distinguish himself.

Here, Ford's vision of the simple, cheap and durable car for the common people would begin to bear fruit. Most early automakers believed in building high-priced cars for the well-off, Olson wrote. There were, after all, few roads beyond city centers. Cars, too, were unreliable, so their use was seen as mainly entertainment. They were luxuries and they were made, largely, one at a time.

"A small number of experts even at the time agreed with Ford," Olson wrote. "He was not the only man with a vision. But they were the minority." These men understood where the market would go, and, in the end, "only the visionaries survived."

A dentist saves the day
In July 1903, crews began assembling the cars. The Model A weighed 1,250 pounds, and had a two-cylinder, eight-horsepower engine. It ran up to 30 m.p.h. There were two forward speeds, one reverse.

As Ford roamed the factory floor, Couzens worked 15-hour days organizing the office, hiring, firing, keeping the books, tending to the all-important sales. But there were no standing orders. Money kept going out and, by July 10, the company had just $223.65 left.

Five days later, a single order arrived. A Dr. E. Pfennig, a Chicago dentist, bought the first Model A. He paid $850 cash.

Additional orders soon rolled in, but Ford started pulling his act again: Some of the cars had problems. We have to stop shipping, he argued. He wanted to make improvements. Couzens put his foot down. No, he said. We can send mechanics to fix customers' cars, 1but we will ship them. Couzens, who soon after conceived of and organized the nation's first dealership system, understood what Ford did not: You must ship the product to make money.

And so Couzens joined a special group of men -- Malcomson, Murphy and Maybury -- who rescued Ford at the right time. Without any one of them, Ford Motor might never have prospered. But few argue that Ford, for all his eccentricities, had the vision that would lead within a decade to Highland Park and the world's first automobile assembly line, to the Model T, and to history. He already had described this vision:

"I will build a motor car for the multitude. It shall be large enough for the family, but small enough for the unskilled individual to operate easily and care for, and it shall be light in weight and it may be economical in maintenance. It will be built of honest materials, by the best workmen that money can hire, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise.

"But it shall be so low in price that the man of moderate means may own one and enjoy with his family the blessings of happy hours spent in God's great open spaces."

(Photo) courtesy of Henry Ford: America's Greatest History Attraction
In Detroit's first auto race, Henry Ford gains ground on Alexander Winton. On paper, Ford and his 26-horsepower, brakeless contraption had a huge disadvantage.
 

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