The Story of Henry Ford, the man who revolutionized mass car production.
The story begins in Springwells Township, Wayne County, Michigan, on 30 July 1863, when Henry was the first-born of William and Mary Ford’s six children. Growing up on a prosperous family farm, he was educated in a one-room school, where he showed an early interest in all things mechanical. This interest would develop into true genius and earn him the accolade of ‘one of the greatest industrialists in the world’.
Learning the trade
Henry Ford started young. By the age of 12, he was spending most of his spare time in a small machine shop, which he had equipped himself. It was here that he constructed his first steam engine, in 1878, aged just 15. The next year, Henry left home, bound for the nearby city of Detroit, to work as an apprentice machinist. His apprenticeship lasted three years, after which he returned home to Dearborn. During the next few years, Henry divided his time between operating and repairing steam engines, finding occasional work in a Detroit factory and overhauling his father's farm implements. The year 1888, saw a major change in his life, when he married Clara Bryant and began supporting his new family by running a sawmill.
It wasn’t long before Henry made another change and by 1891, he had become an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. A promotion to Chief Engineer two years later, gave him enough time and money to devote more attention to his personal experiments on internal combustion engines.
His First Vehicle
The culmination of his experiments was the building of a self-propelled vehicle – the Quadricycle – in 1896. The first Ford engine spluttered its way into history, on his wooden kitchen table at 58 Bagley Avenue and this was quickly followed by his next design, an engine mounted on a frame, fitted with four bicycle wheels – the first Ford car.
Henry Ford realised his dream of producing an automobile that was reasonably priced, reliable, and efficient with the introduction of the Model T in 1908. This vehicle signalled a new era in personal transport – it was easy to operate, maintain and handle on rough roads and was an immediate success.
It was Henry's intention to produce the largest number of cars, to the simplest design, for the lowest possible cost. When car ownership was confined to the privileged few, Henry Ford's aim was to "put the world on wheels" and produce an affordable vehicle for the general public.
Things were advancing rapidly. 1919 saw Henry and his son, Edsel, acquire the interest of all minority stockholders for $105,568,858 and become the sole owners of the company.
Edsel, who succeeded his father as President that year, continued to occupy the position up until his death in 1943, when Henry Ford returned to the driving seat of the company.
After resigning as president of Ford Motor Company for the second time during September 1945, Henry was succeeded by his grandson, Henry Ford II.
In the following year, he was honoured at the American Automotive Golden Jubilee for his major contributions to the motor industry and later that year, the American Petroleum Institute also awarded him its first Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to the welfare of humanity.
The Car Revolution
In the early days, Ford built cars the same way as everybody else – one at a time. The car sat on the ground throughout the build as mechanics and their support teams sourced parts and returned to the car to assemble it from the chassis upwards. To speed the process up, cars were then assembled on benches which were moved from one team of workers to the next. But this was not fast, as Ford still needed skilled labour teams to assemble the 'hand-built' car. So production levels were still low and the price of the car was higher to cover the costs of mechanics.
What was needed was automation. Henry and his engineers invented machines to make large quantities of the parts needed for the vehicle and devised methods of assembling the parts as fast as they were made. They were ready for the breakthrough.
To achieve Henry Ford’s goal of mass consumption through mass production, productivity needed to increase. At the Detroit factory in Michigan, workers were placed at appointed stations and the chassis was hauled along between them using strong rope. The chassis stopped at each station, where parts were fitted, until it was finally completed.
Henry Ford had built on the basic principles of early pioneers such as Elihu Root, who masterminded an assembly system for Samuel Colt, which divided the manufacturing process in order to simplify it.
He continued experimenting until every practice was refined, and his mass production vision became a reality.
Another initiative was to use interchangeable parts that could be put together easily by unskilled workers. The experiments continued with gravity slides and conveyors. Naturally, even the placement of men and tools was meticulously researched to ensure the production line ran as efficiently as possible
Each department, in the manufacturing process was broken down into its constituent parts. These sub-assembly lines were set up in each area until, as Henry was heard to remark, "everything in the plant moved." As a result, production speeds increased – sometimes they were up to four times faster.
The ultimate step was the creation of the moving final assembly line. Starting with a bare chassis, it moved along the line and through each workstation until a complete car was driven off under its own power. An essential part of this process was that all feeder lines along the route were synchronised to supply the right parts, at the right time.
This combination of accuracy, continuity and speed introduced mass production to the world. At Highland Park, Model T production reached record levels, with a complete car leaving the line every 10 seconds of every working day. Ford was able to cut prices, double the minimum daily wage to $5, produce a superior product and still make a profit.
At this time, two million Model Ts were being produced by Ford each year and sold at just $260 – a very affordable price for its time.