The Founding of Ford

Ford is, in many ways, the quintessential American automaker. It has often stood as a bellwether for the automotive industry as a whole.  Like the company, its founder, Henry Ford, was also an iconic automaker.  In fact, the Ford Motor Company was Ford's second attempt in the business.  In 1899, he founded the Detroit Automobile company which later reorganized as the Henry Ford Company.  After conflict with his financiers, Ford left the company with the rights to his name and a small sum of cash.  Moving on, he partnered with a coal dealer named Alexander Malcomson to found Ford and Malcomson.  The company was going through money too quickly and had to find new investors. By 1903, the company was bringing in a profit of more than $35,000.  Ford and the other investors eventually froze Malcomson out of the company by 1906, leaving it as the Ford Motor Company. 

The Model T, Lincoln, and the Great Depression

Ford's major breakthrough was the esteemed Model T, first built in 1908.  The Model T was very much an all-purpose vehicle.  Paved roads were not the norm at the time, so the car needed to be rugged enough to travel over rocky or muddy terrain and could even (pardon the pun) ford a shallow stream.  Some farmers modified the Model T into a tractor, and others removed a wheel and used the hub to drive a belt to run a water pump, electrical generator, bucksaw, or other piece of equipment.

Ultimately, the Model T isn't remembered as much for what it could do compared to how it was made.  The Model T was built by hand at first, but eventually came to be built on the world's first moving assembly line at Highland Park in Michigan.  This reduced the time to assemble the car's chassis from more than twelve hours to fewer than three, leading to a huge boost in annual output. 

Prior to the assembly line, Model T's were available in red, green, and gray paints.  Ford could only find one paint that dried fast enough for the assembly line process, which lead to Henry Ford's famous quip that "any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  The new manufacturing techniques did come with some downside at first, though.  The faster pace of work was hard on employees and increased employee turnover.  The new workers needed to be trained and were slower than the previous, more practiced employees, which was ultimately a hindrance to productivity.  For this reason, Ford raised pay to five dollars a day and reduced its work day from nine to eight hours.  This lead to a reduction in employee turnover and an increase in productivity, which allowed Ford to reduce the price on the car.  Now, a Ford employee could buy the product he produced with four month's pay, increasing demand for the car. 

By 1920, half of all the cars in US were Model Ts.  Ford was quick to move into international markets.  In 1925, a factory in Yokohama, Japan began manufacturing Model Ts from knock-down kits.  In the 1930s, Ford established a factory in Russia to build a version of the new Model A for military use. 

In 1922 Ford bought the Lincoln Motor Company. In an interesting twist, Lincoln's founder, Henry Leland, was also a key founder of Cadillac, a company whose remnants derived from the Detroit Automobile Company-Ford's original start-up. The purchase was a move that would propel Ford into the line of luxury, and into the thirties lead to some of Ford's greatest automobiles under the direction of Edsel Ford. Such examples could be found in models like the Continental, which had originally been engineered to be Edsel's personal car.

Ford, like other automakers, suffered during the Great Depression and responded to decreased demand with layoffs.  Ford did offer assistance in the form of loans or parcels of land to a small number of the laid-off employees, but he also made public comments that the unemployed should work harder to find jobs.  Even during these hard times, Ford was producing one of its most iconic models: the Model B.  In the post war era, the Model B - in particular 1932 coupes - became sought-after by hot-rodders.  This trend was immortalized in the classic Beach Boy's song "Deuce Coupe."  The 1932 coupe was so popular with hot-rodders that today it's hard to find unmodified examples. 

WWII and a New Era

In 1942, Ford turned from production of passenger cars to producing B-24 bombers for the US military during World War II.  With the use of the assembly line techniques pioneered on the Model T, Ford was able to turn out a new plane every hour. During the war, in 1943, tragedy struck. Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, died from stomach cancer. He was known for having a consistent desire to modernize Ford models, being the director of the Lincoln division, founder of the Mercury division, and had been President of Ford Motor Company since 1919. Ford would take the reins of his company back, but had proved unsuitable due to declining health.  Sadly, Henry Ford lived only a couple years after the war.  At his funeral at Dearborn, Michigan, it is reported that more than 5,000 mourners passed by his casket each hour, a rate which, perhaps, the pioneer of the assembly line could have appreciated. 

Edsel's son, Henry Ford II, became President of Ford in 1945. He was 28 years old. It dawned a new era, and one which lead Ford to the top where it was known for its innovation and dominant cars. This all started in 1948 when Ford introduced the F-series pickup truck, which would go on to become one of its most popular models.  The F-150 is the most popular variant today and has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States in more than twenty different years and the best-selling truck nearly forty times.  In the prosperous 1950s consumers were looking for more powerful cars.  This was the era when the hot-rodders were making the Deuce Coupe famous and Chevrolet had just introduced the Corvette.  There was also a new demand for luxury cars. 

The Birth of the Muscle Car

So, in response, Ford created a luxury car, which, like the Corvette, was a two-seater with powerful V8 engine: the Thunderbird.  The Thunderbird could reach speeds around 110 miles per hour.  Neither strictly a sports car nor a luxury car, it was categorized in a class of its own: the personal luxury car.  It would later be joined in that class by cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and the Buick Riviera.  Over time, the Thunderbird moved more towards being a luxury vehicle.  Ford head Robert MacNamara (later President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense) thought that making the Thunderbird a four-seater would increase the sales market.  In 1971, the Neiman Marcus catalogue listed a pair of "his and hers" Thunderbirds with such amenities as tape recorders and telephones.  Later Thunderbird models did have some racing success, though, being used in NASCAR from 1977 to 1997.  The Thunderbird, like the Deuce Coupe, was also immortalized with a mention in a Beach Boys song, titled "Fun, Fun, Fun." 

Following up on the Thunderbird, Ford released another sporty car that was to be the prototype of a class all its own.  In late 1964 Ford introduced the Mustang.  One of their more popular and renowned models, the dealers' initial 100,000 unit sales projection later blossomed into a 400,000 piece output. Half the price of a Corvette and nearly twice as popular, the first models, really early models for the 1965 model year, are called 1964½ models by enthusiasts. . It was a smash hit and the first of a set of affordable sporty cars with long hoods and short cabins-such as the Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Plymouth Barracuda.  In honor of the Mustang, this style of small sporty two-doors is today known as the pony car. 

Ford executives were so desirous to recapture the Thunderbird's lightning in a bottle that they considered calling the Mustang the "T-Bird II."  The Mustang name, among others, was tested with consumer groups and was the favorite by a wide margin.  Early designs were two-seaters, but in the end, the decision was made that, like with the Thunderbird, sales would be better on a four-seater model. 

The Mustang was officially introduced at a Grand Prix race in upstate New York, where a Formula One driver took it around the track in a time only slightly off the pace of the F1 cars that had raced earlier. It was known as much for its looks as its performance, being awarded the Tiffany Gold Medal for excellence in American design in 1965.  It was the first car to win the award.  With its performance pedigree and stylish appearance, it's no surprise that the Mustang quickly became an iconic car, appearing in the James Bond film Goldfinger in 1964 and in 1974's Gone in 60 Seconds.  It was also featured in the 2000 remake of the latter film. 

The Mustang grew larger and larger until it became more like a luxury car and started to become "a less muscular steed that seemed to be cantering" rather than galloping, according to later critics.  In the eighties, the Mustang shrank to a smaller more economical car, which became the trend for other Fords like the Taurus and Focus.  It was, however, a successful trend.  The Mustang was on the Car and Driver Ten Best list in 1983, 1987, and 1988, and the Taurus was America's best-selling car from 1992 to 1995. 

A New Class: The Taurus, The SUV, and Near Bankruptcy

Ford has been known for spearheading many advancements on the automobile since its inception. The Model T was the first affordable model, the Mustang was the first pony car, and the Taurus was known for its aerodynamic "jelly bean" shape that changed the conventional car. First introduced for the 1986 model year, the front-wheel drive Taurus grabbed everybody's eye, and at first Ford executives were a little worried about how it would fair with the public. Its oval shape and grille-less front end was so radical it stuck out like a sore thumb in a world full of boxy cars. But, as time progressed, more models began to shape themselves after it, which ultimately changed the shape of the modern car. It came with a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, but many opted for the 3.0-liter V6, which boosted its popularity, and eventually lead to the Taurus becoming the best-selling car in the U.S. from 1992 to 1996.

On the larger end of the vehicle spectrum, the Ford Explorer helped popularize Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV), and the F-series truck continued to win awards left and right-including Motor Trend's Truck of the Year Award in 2009, "Best residual value for a full-size light-duty truck" from the Automotive Leasing Guide, and an Automotive Excellence Award in the Workhorse Category from Popular Mechanics. 

Ford was facing a problem, though, in that although some of its brands were very profitable, others were not.  While posting big losses in the early 2000s, Ford decided that restructuring the company would be necessary.  The plan to do so was named The Way Forward.  Ford sold off foreign brands it owned, including Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, as well as a 20% share in Mazda.  Although Ford originally intended to maintain the Mercury brand, it closed Mercury in 2010.

30,000 factory jobs were cut, as were around 4,000 other positions.  In contrast to Henry Ford's response to the 1920s' assembly line layoffs, workers were offered large severance packages and offers of tuition payments to workers returning to school.  These cost reductions still weren't enough, so Ford had to take out $25 billion in loans, offering nearly all of its assets as collateral - including intellectual property rights to its iconic blue oval logo.  The loans turned out to be serendipitous.  When a financial crisis occurred in 2009, Ford had enough cash on hand to stay afloat while Chrysler and GM had to enter government-sponsored bankruptcy.  In 2010, Ford surpassed Chevrolet as the leading US automotive brand. 

Of course, Ford's Way Forward must also include the kind of innovative engineering and designs that brought them to prominence in the first place.  Ford President Mark Fields said in a speech in 2006 that the Way Forward is "about instilling the values and spirit of America in every Ford vehicle we produce in the same way that Volvo is unmistakably Swedish." The Fords of the past have always embodied these qualities and hopefully, so to can the Fords to come.

Ford Today

While the Ford Motor Company is arguably the most recognizable automotive brand in the United States, it stands today as the tenth largest US-owned company in any industry, according to the Fortune 500 list.  It is also the third largest automaker in the world in terms of profit according to Forbes.  In 2012, the Ford Focus was the best-selling car in the world. Ford has also expanded its reach across the world, effectively globalizing the company. Many of their models can be found driving the streets of China, as well as many European countries like the United Kingdom.  Its F-Series models are still strong, as well as models such as the Mustang and Taurus.  It's also broken into the electric motor market with their Ford Focus hybrid which can reach up to 110 MPGe. Henry Ford's family still owns a minority interest of special stock which allows it to run the company.  It is one of the largest family-run corporations in the world.  

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