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#190 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison
July 10th, 2021 | E190

What I learned from reading The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. 


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Ford generally accepted the responsibilities of his celebrity-he'd worked diligently to cultivate it, realizing early on that his personal fame heightened demand for Model Ts.

Ford's Model T changed everything. Thanks in great part to Ford's innovative assembly line, Model Ts were mass-produced on a previously unimaginable scale. In competitors factories, it took workers several hours to assemble an individual car. At the Ford plant, a completed Model T rolled off the line every two and a half minutes.

Ford continued tinkering with the manufacturing process, aggressively seeking ways to cut production expenses and Model T prices even more. The best example fostered a popular joke that you could buy any color Model T that you liked, so long as the color was black. Few realized that Ford insisted the cars come in that color because black paint dried quickest, meaning Model Ts could be whipped through the assembly line and off to dealerships at an even faster pace, saving additional time and labor related dollars.

The Model T alone would have established Henry Ford as a household name, but he'd further cemented his reputation as a friend of the working man with a stunning announcement. In an era when factory line workers were lucky to earn $2 a day for their labor and toiled through ten-hour shifts six days a week, Ford pledged to pay $5 a day, and to reduce workdays to eight hours. Everyone in America was talking about it.

Over the years, as Ford founded and failed with two auto manufacturing companies before succeeding with his third, he endlessly reminisced about the meeting and Edison's words of encouragement: “Young man, that's the thing. You have it. Keep at it.”

Ford was a cannier businessman than his hero, much wealthier.

They found themselves in complete agreement about the evils of Wall Street and the crass men there who cared only for profit and not for the public. Both were poor boys who made good. Neither had a college degree, and both were disdainful of those who believed classroom education was superior to hands-on work experience and common sense.

Like Edison, Ford didn't have many friends. Ford was a prickly man and also a complicated one, burning to make the world better for humanity as a whole while not enjoying personal contact with most individuals.

Ford never doubted his own beliefs and decisions, forbidding disagreement from employees and ignoring any from outsiders. Ford's hobby was work. He devoted almost every waking minute to it.

When he and the inventor quickly became the closest of friends, Ford felt energized again, thanks in great part to Edison's inspiration.

For all of Ford's professional life he'd had to overcome skepticism from other successful men. He had always been the outsider, the one with the crazy ideas and clumsy social graces. Edison sympathized, because in his earliest years of prominence he was criticized for some of the same traits. The inventor not only accepted Ford for the rough-edged man that he was, he recognized in him the fine qualities that offset the carmaker's obvious flaws.

Henry Ford was always a man of strong opinions, and one who absolutely trusted his own instincts. He especially disdained anyone identified as an expert: "If ever I wanted to kill opposition by unfair means, I would endow the opposition with experts. No one ever considers himself an expert if he really knows his job."

When prominent, better educated men and their hired experts insisted that the future of the automobile market was limited to manufacturing expensive cars for the wealthy, Ford believed that the real potential lay in sales of a modest but dependable vehicle to the growing American middle class; there would be less profit in individual transactions, but the sheer number of sales would yield greater cumulative returns. With the Model T, Ford was proved right, and he reveled in it.

Their main goal was to have a good time. But few business magnates in America had a shrewder understanding of marketing than Edison, Ford, and Firestone. If rank-and-file consumers liked what they saw and read about, as they surely would, then sales of cars and light bulbs and phonographs and tires would directly benefit, too.

Ford shocked America by resigning as company president. He was going to start an entirely new automobile manufacturing enterprise. Ford Motor Company stockholders assumed the threat was real, and within weeks agreed to sell Ford their shares at a whopping $12,500 a share. (James Couzens, who knew Ford best, held out and received $13,000 for each of his.) Though Ford had to borrow $60 million of the near $106 million total cost, he was still glad to do it. It had been an elaborate bluff, but he was now in complete control of Ford Motor Company.

Ford received thousands of letters with the general message that if he were an anarchist, then America needed more of them. Ford was the son of a Michigan farmer, and like  most rural Americans of the time his formal education was limited to a few years in local schools and teachers who themselves had often not graduated high school. Then he had to leave school to make a living. Like Ford, many of his countrymen read only with difficulty, if at all. Their understanding of American history was limited. They, too, might not remember the exact date of the American Revolution, but they knew that Henry Ford introduced the $5 workday and a car that ordinary people could afford. They identified with Ford so strongly that newspaper attacks on him were taken as insults directed at them.

They were shocked to receive shipments of Model Ts that they hadn't ordered. The edict on these cars was the same-Ford Motor Company must be paid for them. Refusal would terminate the dealer-company relationship. If they refused to accept these additional Model Ts and were fired by Ford, they could be ruined. Or, as the parent company suggested, they could accept the cars, if necessary get loans from their own banks to pay Ford for them, and then aggressively keep trying to sell Model Ts and hang on until the national economic crisis was over. The dealers had little choice but to accept. That provided Ford with enough money to meet his immediate corporate debts-the dealers had to risk wrath from their banks instead.

She never complained when Ford spent most of his off-the-job hours trying to build a combustion engine in their kitchen. Clara encouraged Ford to pursue his dream of creating "a car for the great multitudes," remaining supportive when his first two companies failed, encouraging  him during the difficult first years of Ford Motor Company, his third.

Ford fixated on even the smallest details.

Patience was never Ford's strength.

Ford had no interest in laurel-resting.

Ford’s cars were built to last. Never flashy, in every way efficient, always dependable, much like the man whose company assembled them. And, just as Ford never saw any reason to change himself, he felt no pressure to change the Model T.

Ford's stubbornness gave competitors the opening they needed. When Alfred Sloan took over General Motors in 1923, the new boss emphasized a marketing plan based on Americans wanting not just transportation, but selection. Enough people now owned cars so that ownership itself was no longer special. What was going to matter soon was driving a car that reflected the personality, the specialness, of the individual owner.

As individuals, Edison, Ford, and Firestone created the means for the "great multitudes" to enjoy leisure entertainment far beyond what was previously imagined. As the Vagabonds, their summer car and camping trips exemplified what they had helped make possible: See what we're doing? You çan do it, too. By their example, the Vagabonds encouraged countless ordinary Americans to pursue their own dreams.


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