New Ford Book Highlights Centennial

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The author of a new full-scale history of the Ford Motor Co. and the Ford family says the story of the giant automaker is the history of 20th century America.

“They are one the great families in American history. In politics, there are the Adams, the Kennedys, and the Bushes. In the business world, it’s really the Rockefellers, and the Fords that have continued to kind of capture people’s imagination,” Brinkley said in an interview that coincided with his trip to Detroit to sign copies of Wheels For The World.

The publication of Wheels For The World (Viking, 858 Pages, $34.95) coincides with the Ford Centennial, which will be celebrated next month in Dearborn, Mich., with fireworks, concerts, and a huge display of Ford vehicles from the past century. The book is not an official history, however. It is, however, well written and encompasses the enormous literature about the company and the family as it takes the story of Ford and Fords from early in the 20th century right up to the present day and the revitalization plan put in place by Henry’s great-grandson, William Clay Ford Jr.

Ambrosian inspiration

Brinkley says he got the idea for writing a book about Ford from the late Stephen Ambrose, the author of several popular histories of World War II who was also a friend and mentor. Brinkley had written several biographies and Ambrose suggested switching gears. “He said, ‘Doug, write a big book about America. And as we talked about it the story of Ford really stood out,’ recalled Brinkley, who now is the director of the Eisenhower Center For American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

“It’s this Horatio Alger story of Henry who rose up from the workers’ bench to become the world's first billionaire. It’s an extraordinary story,” Brinkley said. “There are other great business leaders in American history. There is Singer with his sewing machine, Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, and Robert Fulton and the steamboat and even Thomas Edison with electricity. But the automobile is an extension of individuals, because people love their cars. The products of the Ford Motor Co. — the automobile — people have stories of them. You can hear people like John Steinbeck tell the story of his first Model T or Wilson Pickett sing about Mustang Sally or Larry McMurtry write about the virtues of the Ford pickup truck…Jay Leno in the current issue of Rolling Stone has an essay about the Mustang.

“People love their vehicles and the Fords are putting their name in people’s driveway,” Brinkley said. “Even with people like Bill Gates, you're not using the Bill Gates drive. Even Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, which have famous logos, don’t have the family name on it in that regards. There is a great personal identification with the product, the family and the legacy,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley also said “loads” of the family personality has poured into the operations of the automaker. “They’ve been blessed with a lot of luck. When I wrote the book I realized what a rollercoaster it’s been for the family and the company. Every minute they look like they’re on the precipice of disaster only to produce in nick of time a new vehicle that saves it,” Brinkley said. “Right when the Model T had run its course, the Model A came and took over and right when the Model A was antiquated their came the V-8,” Brinkley said.

“The notion of a Ford means an American-made vehicle durability and toughness. [With] some of the more successful brands you don’t have to say Ford. You don’t have to say Ford Mustang — you can say Mustang. You don’t have to say Ford Taurus — you can say Taurus,” he notes. But the trucks, which have been one of the critical elements in the company’s and the family’s success, have also been closely identified with the family name, Brinkley said.

The strong personal identification between the family and the company’s vehicles continues to the present day. William Clay Ford Sr. was instrumental in pushing Ford into acquiring Jaguar and William Clay Ford Jr. was the champion of the new Mustang.

“The intuition of Henry Ford and Edsel, which continued through the family genes, seems, at the right moment when the disaster looms, to pull a miracle or rabbit out of the hat,” says Brinkley.
The Fords also have been civic-minded and patrons of the arts and by and large equitable and humane employers, Brinkley observed. “The only dark spot on the company’s record" is the virulent and notorious anti-Semitism of Henry Ford, who was admired by Adolf Hitler.

Wheels For The World
plows a lot of familiar ground. But its key strength is that it brings some critical perspective to more recent events in Ford history such as the company’s push into racing during the 1960s, the 1970s feud between Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, and the company’s dazzling but now half-forgotten turnaround in the 1980s. Brinkley might be faulted for using too many secondary sources but he’s still done an impressive amount of legwork and produced a book that’s both entertaining and well worth reading.

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