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Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903-2003
Douglas Brinkley
New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
$18.00, 858 pages, ISBN 014-20-0439-1.

Thomas J. Mayock
Annandale, Virginia


This is the paperback edition of the original work on Ford, brought out to general approbation by Viking in 2003. Brinkley, author of studies on public figures such as Franklin Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, among others, became a public figure in his own right after his book on John Kerry, Tour of Duty, virtually turned the 2004 presidential campaign into a referendum on the Vietnam War.

In addition, he is Stephen Ambrose’s successor at the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and, as such, an advocate and practitioner of popular history. For this, he can expect a certain chilliness in academic circles.

The title of his book on Ford reads like a run-on sentence and the tome tops 850 pages trying to cover what three or more volumes had covered before, but it must be admitted that the writing is fresh and up to the job. Brinkley spent at least six years off and on producing the work, for which Henry’s great grandson, and current head of the company favored a “Warts and All” approach. In his introduction, Brinkley quotes Will Rogers to the effect that it would take a hundred years to find out if Henry Ford was a help or a hindrance to America, but he “sure didn’t leave us where he found us.”

Brinkley avoids the judgmental and portentous and makes no noise about new interpretations or dramatic new evidence. He weaves his sources into the narrative, reducing the Notes to citations. The editors mercifully shortened the original hundred-page bibliography he submitted. His organization is sound and the volume will probably wear better than most.

For all of his odd personality Ford seems to have had a happy childhood. The son of a prosperous farmer, he was allowed to go his own way. If his Model T effectively ushered in a new society, he demonstrated his fondness for the old times by recreating them in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, where he even set up his friend Thomas Edison’s original laboratory.

He was an original, an eccentric who reacted differently from his contemporaries, obsessed with creating a gasoline buggy “for the multitude.” The bicycle had already begun what Ford would complete: loosening up society, for one thing, putting women riders into “bifurcated pantaloons” or bloomers. The assembly line had come in, and Daimler and Benz were working on gas-driven vehicles. Ford was a hard-nosed businessman who by 1914 had a substantial lead over other auto manufacturers, whom he then proceeded to shock by introducing a five-dollar-a-day wage, still a good take-home a quarter of a century later. Those of us accustomed to sticker shock will be piqued to learn that over the sixteen-year production run of the Model T the price consistently fell, thanks to the production feats of the Ford factories. It seems to be the consensus that these novelties converted the Detroit factory worker, and after him, the American factory worker, into a middle-class citizen with, perhaps, a vacation camp in the Michigan woods, instead of a rootless proletarian.

Along with his industrial prowess, Ford enjoyed himself as a cracker-barrel philosopher speaking out on the perils of cigarettes and hard liquor; nor did he hesitate to take on the scourge of international war. In 1915, seizing on the idea of getting the boys out of the trenches in Europe by Christmas, he teamed up with the suffragist and pacifist Rosika Schwimmer and hired a Peace Ship, the Oskar II, to carry a delegation to Oslo, footing the entire bill, and suffering the unanimous derision of the newspapers. Reporters tended to regard the whole thing as a publicity stunt.

As a supporter of Woodrow Wilson, he narrowly lost a Senate race in 1918, after refusing to spend money on his campaign or to make any speeches. He may have had the presidential bug. He was excoriated by Teddy Roosevelt and Taft and libeled as an “ignorant idealist” by the Chicago Tribune which he sued for a million dollars (... and from which he collected six cents). He opposed the Mexican intervention. After Black Tom and other German sabotage the USA went on an anti-sabotage binge which Ford defied by refusing to fire people, notional German agents, in his employ. He shared the populist mentality of his times.

As to whether Ford’s bitterness at the rejection of his pacifist views led to his anti-Semitism Brinkley doesn’t say. But he believes that outside his specialty, Ford in many ways had the mind of a child. The book covers the dissemination of the notorious Protocols of Zion in Ford’s Dearborn Independent and the role of his personal secretary in the papers bigoted contents. Ford kept at it for years and didn’t quit until pressured by a lawsuit and loss of business.

It’s all here: the tremendous impact of the flivver, the Tin Lizzie, on American mores and morals. By 1926 the Model T was hopelessly outclassed by Chevrolet, but when the new Ford Model A was unveiled the next year riot police had to be called out to control the crowds that rushed the showrooms. In the thirties, however, after a brave start, the company, like the rest of Detroit, was mired in the Great Depression and highly resistant to the demands of labor, to the point of firing on demonstrators. Ford himself accepted a decoration from the Third Reich, made Charles Lindbergh welcome in Detroit, and was no more enthusiastic about World War II than he had been about World War I, though he built an impressive number of B-24 bombers.

The author could have rested after relating Ford’s death in 1947, but he brings the story up to date and sometimes these latter episodes are more interesting. For instance, we learn that when the poet Marianne Moore was consulted about naming the ill-fated Edsel, she suggested, inter alia, Pastelogram and Turtletop. Lee Iocacca turned out to be in some ways a replica of the founder, and lost out in a struggle with Henry Ford II, but not before they developed the fabulously successful Mustang.

A work such as this which involves the splendors and miseries of modern times, no less, is bound to generate critical comment. Meanwhile, it stands as a reader-friendly reference.


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