Henry Ford's Chariots of Desire

Article excerpt

Automobiles were once sybaritic chariots of the rich. Until, that is, the arrival of Henry Ford's democratic Model T car, a vehicle for social change like no other.

Like most great men, Henry Ford's resume was a varied one: inventor, mechanic; empire-builder, tycoon; paternalistic autocrat and misguided peacenik; luckless political candidate, and vicious anti-Semite. But, above all, it is for his engineering exploits, and more specifically one car, that he is remembered.

As is proper for an American folk hero, Ford had humble beginnings. He was born in 1863 to a farming family near Detroit, and at 16 began work in a machine shop. Other jobs followed, but the young Henry always made time for his passion - mechanical invention. By 1893, he was chief of Detroit's Edison company with responsibility for the city's electricity. Although 'on call' 24 hours a day, in practice he could do more or less as he pleased. By the end of that year he had built a petrol engine, and in 1896 unveiled his first horseless carriage or 'quadricycle'. It was the first of many inventions. Over the next few years, he enjoyed the backing of various businessmen but they always ditched him in the end. They wanted a marketable car. Ford, with an inventor's disregard of commercial realities, replied that improvements were still needed and he wasn't ready.

Come 1903, however, Ford was ready. With a mere $28,000 at his disposal, he incorporated The Henry Ford Company. This quickly became successful, to the great displeasure of the Association of Licensed Auto Manufacturers of which Ford was not a member. The Association took him to court, arguing that the original American 'gasoline' engine had been patented in 1895 and only those licensed by the inventor were free to use it. Ford replied that this was nonsense: invention could be an evolutionary process. He lost the case in 1909 but won on appeal in 1911, his victory over the automotive Goliaths making him a popular hero.

Despite the legal battle, Ford had not neglected business. In 1908 he announced his intention to 'build a motor car for the great multitude'. Called the Model T, it would in time account for 50% of global auto production and sell over 15 million units in the US alone. These were Ford's finest years: his car represented a social revolution. Before its arrival cars were sybaritic chariots of the rich. …