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article number 409
article date 01-01-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Roots of Our American Auto Industry Part 2, Tireless Tinkerer, Henry Ford, 1890’s
by Keith Sward

From the 1948 book, The Legend of Henry Ford.

(From the previous section) … “it was Leland’s personal achievement in the arts of production, along with Olds’ example, that made Detroit the birthplace of the American automobile industry. Because of his influence, Detroit clinched its primacy in the new field; it perfected its techniques of manufacturing more quickly than any other factory center in the country.”

Such was the state of the feverish young industry when Henry Ford and a small group of his associates founded the Ford Motor Co. in 1903. Ford himself was forty at the time. Although he was destined to become Leland’s and Olds’ most distinguished disciple, his background was as ordinary as that of hundreds of other mechanics who had been enthralled by the spectacle of the “horseless carriage.”

Born in Michigan near the township of Dearborn in 1863, Henry Ford was the son of a moderately successful farmer. He sprang from a line of early American settlers. His mother’s people were Pennsylvania Dutch. His father’s father was an Irish immigrant.

As Ford has told us in his autobiography, written when he was fifty-nine, he detested farm work from the moment he put his hand to it. As a boy he rebelled against the continual round of chores and the long hours of dreary, sweating labor.

The only thing that made life at all bearable on his father’s acres, he recalled in later life, was the fact that now and then he had a chance to fiddle with machinery. Here, if nowhere else, young Ford had been at home down on the farm. He was the born tinkerer.

When he was still in grammar school he developed the knack of keeping his father’s farm machinery in repair. When all the appliances were in working order on his father’s place, he would scurry about to see if any of the neighbors had implements or machines that needed “fixing.”

He was barely in his teens when he began to putter with old clocks and watches, pulling them apart and mending them by trial and error. So pronounced was this youngster’s passion for mechanical work that it drove him off the farm altogether at an age when the interests of the average boy are only half formed.

At sixteen he resolved to follow the machinist’s trade. With that end in mind, he overrode his father’s objections and set out for the nearby city of Detroit.

Welcome to the city of Detroit, Mr. Ford.

In 1879, the year in which Ford left the farm, Detroit was a busy lake port and a rising manufacturing center with a population of 100,000. It had a place for zealous young men who were quick with their hands.

Ford hired out at once as a machinist’s apprentice in a shop that was building marine engines for the lake trade. His habits of work at the time have been described by one of his co-workers who was interviewed on the subject years later by a Detroit newspaperman.

According to this former fellow-worker, Henry Ford, the apprentice of 1880, was apt and diligent at the bench, but he never worked “too hard;” he was continually “wandering about the shop” to see what the other man was doing.

Several years later, in the middle of the 80’s, Ford had an even wider opportunity to see what the “other fellow” was up to. By this time a full-fledged journeyman, he was hired by a manufacturer to travel along the waterfront and to the larger farms, installing and repairing steam and gasoline engines.

At the age of twenty-four, after having devoted eight years to the craft of his choice, Ford reversed himself. He went back to the farm. Whether he was following his own wishes or the desires of his family, he acted as if he had come back to stay. For he immediately accepted from his father the present of a threshing machine and a forty-acre strip of ground.

The prodigal son settled on the land, apparently for good. A year later he married Clara Bryant, the daughter of a prosperous neighboring farmer.

As long as he remained in Dearborn, Ford was only learning all over again what he had the wit to grasp when he was a farmhand in his youth. Once more he found that he had no real hankering for the farm. During this adult trial on the land, he was in his element only in the fall, when he could make the rounds with his mechanical thresher, taking it from one place to the next for a price.

But for the most part, the tinkerer was perpetually at war with the farmer. While his neighbors tilled their soil with reins in hand, Ford was devoting a good share of his time to an experiment in “horseless” plowing. Convincing his father and other farmers in the locality that he had “wheels in his head” for certain, he pieced together bits of discarded barnyard equipment in a fruitless effort to make a steam locomotive that would displace the horse.

After two years of such conflict, with his feet on the land and his heart in the shop, Ford deserted the farm for good. In 1888, turning twenty-six, he took his young bride to Detroit, intent on earning his living in a trade that was more to his liking.

Transported to a more congenial environment, Ford readily found his niche. He went to work as a mechanical engineer at the Edison Illuminating Co., the concern that supplied the city of Detroit with light and power. Here he remained for eleven years.

He was a highly regarded Detroit-Edison employe in 1892, four years after his second desertion from the farm, when Charles Duryea startled the new world by inventing the first American automobile.

Henry Ford, top row, 6th person, with the Detroit-Edison Illuminating Co.

Like many another mechanic, Ford was bewitched by Duryea’s feat. He devoured reports on the subject which appeared in the newspapers and popular magazines of the day.

Straightway he settled down to the job of making a car of his own. Once fired by such a desire, Ford hung on for the next seven years, laboring against odds that would have sidetracked all but the most dogged. Throughout this period he was, of necessity, still tied to a full-time job at the power company; his laborious experiments had to be sandwiched in during leisure hours.

His tools were crude and inadequate; he did most of his work by hand; the workshop which he set up in a small shed behind his home on Bagley Avenue was a primitive affair. Pioneering car-builders like himself had the scantiest precedent behind them. Their work was largely uncharted; it was a case of try-and-try-again in a new line of endeavor in which failure was far more common than success.

Moreover, in resolving to follow in Duryea’s footsteps, Ford had to persist in the face of widespread social disapproval. As a rule, amateur inventors in this field were objects of ridicule. They were still popularly regarded as a queer and impractical lot.

Before he had carried his first car much beyond the blueprint stage, Ford had the good fortune to meet Charles B. King. King was a versatile fellow-townsman who was then hard at work on an automobile of his own.

When these two began to fraternize for the purpose of exchanging ideas, King was unquestionably the more advanced member of the pair. He was an established marine engineer; he was widely read in the field of automotive invention; he was corresponding with car-builders and scientific societies all over Europe; and the motor car which he was building was farther along than Ford’s.

At the same time Ford was a stimulating mechanic in his own right; he was full of ideas; he was curious and hard-working; he had a flair for picking up ideas in conversation; and in this particular field that obsessed him he was an easy and lively talker.

While fraternizing with Ford, King brought his motor car to completion. This automobile, the first in Detroit, was given a secret trial run one night in 1894. And shortly thereafter King decided to go to Paris to make a study of the French automobile industry.

Before he left the country, convinced of the fact that his own handiwork had been outmoded by French inventions, he called in his friend Henry Ford and made him a present of the parts and designs of the car which he had demonstrated with success in 1894.*

* King was an artist as well as an inventor and engineer. When he reached Paris, he switched careers; he dropped the automobile and took up painting instead.

Stimulated by his contacts with King and rewarded by his own mastery of the subject, Ford was prepared in the spring of 1896 to conduct a trial performance of the “horseless carriage” that he himself had built.*

* Ford later dated the appearance of his first car by remarking in his autobiography, “I was running it when the bobolinks came to Dearborn and they always come on April 2nd.” This 1896 model was not, as he further contended in his autobiography, “the only car in Detroit for a long time.” King’s car appeared in the city two years earlier than his own. And three years after the initial demonstration of Ford’s first automobile, the Oldsmobile was in production.

After spending the better part of two days and nights in a last effort to put his machine in working order, he took to the road at two in the morning. It was raining at the time, and his wife, crouched under an umbrella, came out to see him off.

Where Henry Ford tinkered to success: the brick shed behind his Detroit home.

Ford’s patient labors were crowned with success. Jerking and sputtering, the car ran. Its happy inventor, worn with fatigue, rode into the night, picking his way over the dark, cedar-block pavement with the aid of a dangling kerosene lamp.

This first work of Ford’s was a gasoline “quadricycle,” its chassis a buggy frame mounted on four bicycle wheels. Its air-cooled motor had two cylinders which Ford had made by hand from the exhaust pipe of a steam engine.

Having no reverse gear, the vehicle could move forward but not backward. The power from its motor was transmitted to the rear wheels by a revolving leather belt.

From the standpoint of mechanics or design, the car had no novel features. It was like most of the other automotive models of the period. It represented no departure in principle from the work of King or Duryea or from the original invention which Daimler had demonstrated in Paris ten years earlier.

The significance of the Ford model of 1896, as Arthur Pound points out in his book ‘Detroit, Dynamic City’, is the fact that it worked and that it encouraged Ford to go ahead.

Heartened by his first success but still dependent on the job at the electric light works, Ford began living for the day when he could give himself over completely to the automobile. Whenever time allowed, he continued to hug the bench in the shed on Bagley Avenue, and within the next several years he brought out two more experimental cars.

Meanwhile his test rides, like those of other contemporary car-builders, became more and more public. In trying out this or that model, Ford ventured onto the streets of Detroit in full daylight, exposing both his person and his machines to an element of risk. As long as his cars were still a novel sight, he was cursed and often threatened by draymen and teamsters.

Eventually he appealed to the mayor of the city for protection and was given a special street permit which allowed him to proceed with his daylight rides, unmolested. On other occasions it was the car rather than the man that was subject to hazards.

There were times when Ford had to desert one or another of his models in a strange neighborhood while he took off on foot to fetch a tool or a missing part. When that happened, he took the precaution of chaining the abandoned vehicle to the nearest lamp post so that no youngster or bicycle rider could make off with it in his absence.

By 1899 Ford was a recognized pioneer in the business. He had three cars to his credit, and his work had received the personal blessing of the great inventor, Thomas A. Edison.

Ford and Edison had met in the East in the course of a conference given over to the affairs of the Detroit Edison Co. After listening to a first-hand account of Ford’s hobby, Edison, who had already pronounced that “the horse” was “doomed,” gave warm encouragement to the efforts of his young visitor from Detroit.

Ford’s increasing stature in Detroit proper is indicated by the caliber of the men who collected about him. His personal circle included at the time such figures as Tom Cooper, a retired bicycle racing champion who was relatively well-to-do, and C. Harold Wills, a gifted young draftsman and engineer.

While pooling his talents with those of Wills and Cooper, Ford had his first big chance in the field that concerned him most. He was approached by a group of local capitalists who wanted to go into the business of making and selling cars.

These financiers invited Ford to join them, and he accepted. Having filed the role of amateur experimenter for the better part of seven years, he was more than willing to try his hand as manufacturer.

Henry Ford on his Quadricycle. It had no reverse gear.

The organization with which he joined forces in the double capacity of part owner and “chief engineer” was the Detroit Automobile Co. The year was 1899. Simultaneously and under almost identical circumstances, Ransom Olds started in at the Olds Motor Works.

But while Olds made a brilliant start in the business, Ford’s efforts at the Detroit Automobile Co. failed from the beginning. Within a year’s time Ford was out of a job; and in the course of reorganizing—this time as founders of the Cadillac Motor Car Co.—his erstwhile directors were hunting for a new production manager. The man selected to fill Ford’s place was Henry M. Leland.

As to the primary reason for Ford’s failure, all the reputable early commentators of the trade are in agreement. These authorities hold that the product manufactured by the Detroit Automobile Co. was utterly unsalable.

They say that as “chief engineer” undergoing his first trial as manufacturer, Ford exhausted a sizable budget in an effort to perfect a high-priced racing model that had no commercial value whatsoever.

According to Ford’s autobiographical account of this period, it was his directors who were responsible for missing the mass market by so wide a margin. When he was powerless to make them see the light, he later contended, he resigned of his own accord.

If such were Ford’s thwarted intentions in 1900, he gave no indication of the fact, or he was once more overruled against his better judgment when he reentered the business the following year. For during his second effort as a manufacturer, after he began to function under a new set of promoters in 1901 as manager of the Ford Automobile Co., he repeated the mistake that he had made two years earlier.

Still wide of the market, he squandered his time and his resources on another unsalable commodity, an expensive high-powered racer designed in collaboration with Tom Cooper and C. H. Wills.

Consequently the Ford Automobile Co., like the concern which Ford had managed previously, lasted but a single year. It was dissolved in 1902.

Still bent on having a career in the automobile business, Ford concentrated as never before on the very interest that had defeated his first practical effort in the field. Working privately with Wills and Cooper and operating on Cooper’s money, he continued to develop his flair for racing models.

What concerned him at this period was not so much a passion for racing, but rather the hope that his engineering exploits and his performance on the dirt track would command attention and give him still another opportunity in the manufacturing field. Other car builders of the day, men like Pierce, Winton, Packard and Chevrolet, were courting financial backers in the same manner. They were distinguishing themselves as either racers or long-distance drivers.

For some time Ford himself took to the track to demonstrate the cars that issued from his work with Wills and Cooper. At the wheel of these models that became ever faster and more powerful, he made an outstanding record. His first notable success took place at a racing event held in the fashionable Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, before a group of spectators whom the Detroit ‘News’ described as “society folk” from Cleveland and Detroit.

When he reached the finish line on this occasion, his appearance must have amused the well-groomed members of the audience; he was daubed with oil from head to foot; “his tie looked as though it had been cooked in lard.” But he led the field.

In taking stock of the event, the Detroit ‘News’ remarked that the performance of the two-cylindered Ford-Wills-Cooper car was so “wonderful,” it had lifted Ford into the “front rank of American chauffeurs.” Other similar feats followed. Before long, reports of Ford’s prowess as a “speed demon” began to appear in the columns of the widely circulated trade journal ‘Horseless Age’.

In one dispatch ‘Horseless Ag’e announced that over a half-mile course laid out along a residential boulevard inside the city limits of Detroit, Ford had driven one of his racing machines at a speed of seventy miles per hour. In another column, the magazine printed an open challenge to the effect that Henry Ford, the “Detroit chauffeur,” was willing to race against any “foreign mechanic,” provided the contest be held on an American track.

In the summer of 1902, however, Ford thought it prudent to withdraw from active participation in racing events. By this time he had produced his most famous racer, the “999.” The “999” was a big red car that shot flames from its motor. It was so fast that neither Ford nor either of his principal associates cared to risk his life trying it out at full speed.

Henry Ford driving his “999” race car in 1902. Racing would give publicity to the new automobile industry.

To find a candidate for the job, the three co-builders of the car were forced to extend their circle. Cooper found the man they were looking for. He succeeded in enlisting as a driver Barney Oldfield, an old friend who, like himself, was a former bicycle racing champion.

Deft and reckless, Oldfield began where Ford left off and in the same locality. He entered the “999” in a widely publicized three-mile race held at Grosse Pointe in October, 1902, and he finished half a mile in front of his closest competitor. Among the cars which had had to trail behind him was the celebrated “Bullet,” driven by Alexander Winton.

In the process of launching his own career as one of the pioneer “daredevils” of the American track, Oldfield helped to put Henry Ford back on his feet. For one of the closest followers of the 999’s career was Alex Y. Malcomson, a prosperous local coal dealer who was on the point of investing a modest fortune in the automobile business.

Malcomson was already convinced of the wisdom of making such an investment; he had studied the rise of the Olds Motor Works. What he lacked for the fulfillment of his plans in the fall of 1902 was some trustworthy automotive inventor and shop man who was still without a backer.

Checking into the facts, he decided that Ford was his man. From what he could gather, Ford was the leading spirit of the group which produced the “999;” he already had a name in the field; he was an able mechanic; he had no other business commitments; and he was surrounded by a group of talented co-workers.

Within a month after Barney Oldfield’s spectacular performance at Grosse Pointe, Malcomson sought out Ford and the two men began the negotiations that led to the founding of the Ford Motor Co.

Detroit Michigan. Transportation by horse would meet a new competitor.
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