- Henry Ford. by Vincent Curcio
Every biographer who tackles Henry Ford’s life ultimately has the same challenge: explaining all the different men who resided in Ford’s lean, restless body. There was the brilliant businessman who developed an iconic product and then nearly destroyed his own company. There was the humanitarian who found meaningful work for African Americans and the physically disabled but who was also a bigot responsible for vicious anti-Semitic screeds. There was the man who said that history was mostly bunk but who founded one of America’s great history museums. There was the employer who shocked the world by doubling his workers’ pay but who used spies, intimidation, and violence to fight union organizers. There was the leader who attracted a cadre of supremely talented, able subordinates and then gradually drove them all away.
Vincent Curcio’s approach is to provide a rapid overview of Ford’s life [End Page 274] and accomplishments, based on secondary sources, that serves as a foundation for commentaries on Ford himself. One consequence of the book’s brevity is that the reader is swept quickly from one Ford activity to another, emphasizing the restlessness of the man’s mind. Autos, airplanes, soybeans, alcohol fuels, waterpower, old-fashioned dancing, historic preservation, nutrition, education, and anti-Semitism all seized Ford’s interest at one time or another.
Another advantage of Curcio’s fast-moving narrative is that it allows the reader to make connections easily between aspects of Ford’s character and personality that were critical to his success but morphed into hindrances as he aged. Ford’s intuitive grasp of mechanisms was matched (for a while) by an intuitive grasp of what potential customers wanted. This bolstered his self-confidence during his early struggles. But as he aged that confidence morphed into arrogant refusal to listen to advice. After his mother’s death in his thirteenth year Ford withdrew into himself, learning to rely on his own talents and judgment. This self-possession was essential while Ford tried to establish himself in business. But as time went on it made him suspicious even of old associates, whom he pushed out of the company. His toughness and liking for rough practical jokes helped him establish a rapport with mechanics and machinists when Ford Motor Company was small. But an older Ford encouraged subordinates to treat workers harshly and took pleasure in pitting those subordinates against one another.
Curcio sees as key a remark Ford made in 1936: “There is nothing evil. Everything has its purpose, its reason for being. Something may look evil, but if it arouses people to bringing about a better state of affairs, then it has been a good influence, hasn’t it?” The statement “perhaps explains both the vision that led him (Ford) to unparalleled social and industrial accomplishment for the betterment of humanity, and the moral blindness by which he could excuse himself for the terrible results of his tremendous moral failings” (p. 273).
The book is marred by a number of small errors, including the following: Elwood Haynes developed a process for making stainless steel, not carbon steel. The car Alexander Winton raced against Henry Ford in 1901 was not called the Bullet. The engine in Ford Motor Company’s first car was a horizontally opposed two-cylinder, not a vertical four-cylinder. The Model T was not the first American production car with left-hand drive. The city of Hamtramck has never been part of the city of Detroit. The River Rouge plant manufactured parts for the Model T but never assembled the whole car. Henry Ford II did not take Ford Motor Company public in 1956 because he wanted to raise capital, but rather because the Ford Foundation decided to sell its company stock.
Curcio’s character-focused narrative offers little for historians of technology. [End Page 275] Most are already familiar with the outline of Ford’s career. Those interested in the implications of Ford’s technological accomplishments have their choice of a number of monographs. Readers of this journal...