By on June 21, 2009

Over the years, I’ve become inured to the mainstream automotive press’s mindless Motown cheerleading and irrational optimism. But every now and then, they really get my goat. The Detroit News ran a feature today by Bryce J. Hoffman clunkily entitled “How would Henry Ford react to today’s automakers?” It’s bad enough that Detroit’s zombies have suckered the federal government into endless subsidies by re-writing recent history. (We were doing GREAT until the economy tanked!) But for a journalist to raise an important historical question and then let Detroit apologists spin it without question is, uh, enervating.

Hoffman lobs the question to an industry titan: Crazy Henry’s genetic progeny.

“Most of this wouldn’t shock him because a lot of this happened during his lifetime. He failed a couple times,” Bill Ford relates. “He saw a lot of car companies come and go. And he saw his own company go bankrupt and then go on to the verge of bankruptcy several times during his lifetime.”

Yeah, well, great. Who cares if Henry Ford would have been shocked or not? What would the founding Ford have made of Chrysler’s federally subsidized [mock] salvation and GM’s nationalization?

Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of “Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress,” almost tackles the topic.

Henry Ford — the consummate self-made man — would have been disturbed by the big role the federal government now plays in the U.S. auto industry. But he would be far more interested in new technologies like battery-electric and ethanol powertrains that are emerging in the industry today.

That’s it? Henry Ford would have been “disturbed”? And then, what, forgotten about it to go chase unicorn fart-powered economy cars? I don’t think so. This article is more than a whitewash. It’s a washout.

Hoffman’s lazy, laissez-faire journalism aside, it’s an extremely interesting question. What would Henry have made of Uncle Sam sticking his nose in Detroit’s business (albeit by invitation)? Brinkley intimates that Hank would have condemned the fed’s interventionism. But is that true?

Lest we forget, like the current Chairman sharing his name, Henry Ford was happy to court and fill big, fat government contracts—from any government. In fact, Hank was an active supporter of European fascism.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ford’s involvement with Nazi Germany (and GM’s, but that’s another story), here’s a quick precis from a report printed by the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 1974:

Ford was also active in Nazi Germany’s prewar preparations. In 1938, for instance, it opened a truck assembly plant in Berlin whose “real purpose,” according to U.S. Army Intelligence, was producing “troop transport-type” vehicles for the Wehrmacht. That year Ford’s chief executive received the Nazi German Eagle (first class) . . . .

The outbreak of war in September 1939 resulted inevitably in the full conversion by GM and Ford of their Axis plants to the production of military aircraft and trucks . . . On the ground, GM and Ford subsidiaries built nearly 90 percent of the armored “mule” 3-ton half-trucks and more than 70 percent of the Reich’s medium and heavy-duty trucks. These vehicles, according to American intelligence reports, served as “the backbone of the German Army transportation system.”

As stated above, in July of 1938, Henry Ford accepted the Verdienstkreutz Deutscher Adler (the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle) from the Nazis. It was the highest award the Nazis could bestow upon a foreigner.

Given his political sympathies, I think it’s safe to say that Henry Ford would not have questioned President Bush and then Obama’s decision to “save” Chrysler and GM. I reckon he might have called for one overarching, government subsidized American automaker, with “disincentives” for transplanted competition. And himself running the show, of course.

But that’s just my take. Over to you, our Best and Brightest.

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20 Comments on “Ask the Best and Brightest: What Would Henry Ford Think of the Motown Meltdown...”


  • avatar
    jmo

    What Would Henry Ford Think of the Motown Meltdown

    Old Henry? He’d probably blame it on the jews.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    jmo–
    well done

  • avatar
    4runner

    Robert,

    Germany and the United States were not officially at war until December 11, 1941, when a German declaration was issued. Numerous well known US companies were profiting off of Germany’s war machine – Ford was not unique.

    This article was about how Old Man Henry would react to things today. It was not about his German sympathies or his regrettable anti semitic leanings (which was not uncommon for the day and is still too common for today). Truth be told, Henry was a megalomaniac, one that would even make Steve Jobs blush, but he wouldn’t mince words and would work tirelessly to save the company that bears his name.

    All in all, I think the DetNews article is a worthless “what if” that only highlights Henry’s positives attributes. TTAC’s take is no better in that it only highlights Henry’s negatives.

    Nonetheless, great find, and I look forward to the comments and future TTAC entries.

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    Henry would have no big problem with government intervention, but would be disgusted with the government intervention that is going on now.

    About 2 trillion so far being thrown away on financial institutions while education, infrastructure and research and development get scraps in comparison? That would not be covered well in Henry’s news paper.

    And while Henry definitely had antisemetic leanings, banker isn’t code for Jew; midwestern farmers don’t like bankers whether they are Anglicans, Jews, or, in the case of the most corrupt, taxpayer screwing banker in recent history, Christian Scientist.

  • avatar
    carlos.negros

    Who gives a shit was that anti-semitic evil man would have thought?

    You might as well ask what Charles Lindbergh, Charles Coughlin, or the America First supporters would have thought.

    Henry Ford funded the publication of “The International Jew” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But he backed down when a Jewish lawyer sued him and refused to fight in court because he was a coward.

    I suppose Ford would blame the current financial mess on Greenspan, Madoff, Rattner, Axelrod, Emmanual, and any other Jewish names he could find.

    I would find it more interesting to know what FDR would have thought of the whole mess, from the recent bank failures, housing bust, deficit, and auto bailout.

  • avatar
    Cicero

    It’s too bad that Henry Ford’s achievements as an industrial innovator have been tainted by his virulent Nazi-loving anti-Semitism. But they have. So screw him.

  • avatar
    RedStapler

    WWHFD?

    I given his interest in ethanol and other bio fuels I suspect that Ford would not be looking at the rear of Toyota and Honda in the advanced powertrain race.

  • avatar
    ajla

    If we are going to resurrect people to get their opinions on the current situation in Detroit, I would be much more interested in hearing from the Dodge brothers over Henry Ford.

    If nothing else it would be entertaining to see Horace and John give a beat down to Lasorda and Nardelli.

  • avatar
    don1967

    As the one who offered mass-production cars “in any colour as long as it’s black”, Ford would have probably predicted the meltdown around the time a Chevy could be ordered in nine different colours and differed from Pontiacs and Buicks and Oldsmobiles only by the badge on its nose.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I don’t see the point of re-hashing a pointless question. Who cares what Crazy Henry would think about the Motown Meltdown?

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I do not subscribe to Henry Ford’s attitudes on politics and race. However, they were more common at the time than most of us like to admit, and only seemed to come to the forefront during his last years.

    Nobody is addressing what Henry would have thought during his first 50 years, when he was busy designing and building the best cars he could at the lowest prices he could. I believe that his small-town midwestern attitude would have been against these bailouts. Nobody in that day and age would have dreamed of asking the Federal Government for a bailout or takeover. Henry Ford would have thought it thoroughly unfair to prop up the poorly run enterprise at the expense of that which had been run more prudently. In this attitude, he would have been joined by Alfred Sloan, Walter Chrysler, and the rest of those who ran the auto industry in its first 50 years.

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    “what FDR would have thought of the whole mess, from the recent bank failures, housing bust, deficit, and auto bailout.”

    He would have advised not to waste such a splendid ‘crisis’

  • avatar
    skor

    Ford build car factories all over the world back in the day, not just Nazi Germany. Ford factories were set up in South America and Imperial Japan as well. Ford built one of the world’s largest auto assembly plants in the former Soviet Union. During WWII the Nazis and Soviets battled it out with Ford vehicles built in their respective Ford factories.

  • avatar
    mel23

    I suppose Ford would blame the current financial mess on Greenspan, Madoff,…

    So far, so good. Actually the mess can be blamed on our societal mentality that left Greenspan in his job long after he had demonstrated an unwillingness to “take away the punch bowl” when he should have, and let Madoff and many others run wild despite many red flags. So it’s our mess that we’re stuck in.

    I see no point in beating up on Henry Ford. He was clearly a mechanical genius, and lacking in many other perspectives. And he was embittered by the shame brought to him in the trial where his general ignorance was exposed. He had a mean streak as evidenced by his chasing pedestrians when he was testing his early cars and sadly by his treatment of his only legitimate son who was a more complete man than Henry by far.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    History should be left to the historians, not the journalists or the blogger.

    While we all know what happened to Nazi Germany today, no one knew what was going to happen in during the 1930s. Even today, we cannot predict what will happen to North Korea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan or Russia. So to judge the CEO of an international auto maker as some kind of evil rube is ridiculous.

    Americans were afraid, justifiably so, of the communists, not the Nazis. Hitler stomped out the communists and returned peace and fiscal health to Germany at a time when both was lacking in the USA. As to his anti-Jewish campaign, many Western Europeans, as well as many Americans, were anti-Jewish.

    Being anti-communist, Henry Ford would have happily worked alongside other anti-communists such as the German governments during the Weimar era and the early Nazi era. Ford wasn’t alone.

    Hindsight is 20/20, but only if told correctly – which many of these anti-Ford bloggers are not doing.

    Ford ran for the US Senate. He was an active politician-businessman. Yes, after his defeat he would never again run publically, but that didn’t mean he would react to policies impacting his industry and name-sake business as do today’s bland CEOs. Ford was a self-made man and failed many times before finally succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. Ford today would not be silent, in my opinion, just as he was not silent during his active business years. Ford would not have approved of bailing out GM or Chrysler. He would not have approved of the role the Federal Government has undertaken this year. He campaigned for the US Senate as a conservative. He would not have altered his conservative stands to satisfy any polls or media campaigns. While he was a candidate, he was not a bellwhether politician like so many today. Ford isn’t unique. At the beginning of the 1910s, most men running for office weren’t spineless boobs like today’s politicians. They had backbones, philosophies, and usually took public stands and held them.

    It was Hitler’s anti-communist policies that kept him in good stand with the West. Few today remember or can comprehend the absolute shock when Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty in 1939, destroying Hitler’s ruse and exposing him as a ruthless dictator bend on fulfilling his goals as described in “Mein Kampf”.

    To equate Ford with Hitler as though they were team mates, or to claim that Ford was a boob taken in by Hitler, is to rewrite history incorrectly in order to make yourself look smarter than the great Henry Ford. To manipulate history is worse than failing to anticipate it, and exposes you as the bigger liar.

  • avatar
    BDB

    Being anti-communist, Henry Ford would have happily worked alongside other anti-communists such as the German governments during the Weimar era and the early Nazi era. Ford wasn’t alone.

    Didn’t he make a deal with Stalin to build Fords in the Soviet Union, though?

    From what I recall he was a big believer in peace through international trade.

    There’s no doubt, though, that Henry Ford was (personally) a rather nasty man with horrid political views. Doesn’t detract from his accomplishments, though. Historical figures are three dimensional human beings, not 2-D cartoons.

  • avatar
    skor

    @BDB,

    Yup, Ford built a large truck plant in the former USSR. Like I said in my previous post, the Nazis and Soviets battled it out with vehicles make in their respective Ford factories.

    Among Henry’s other loony endeavors, he maintained a “social hygiene” office that sent spies around to observe how his employees sent their free time. Evidence of gambling, drinking or whoring could cost a man a promotion, or even his job.

    Henry was opposed to pasteurized milk. Every day he’d quaff a quart of raw milk. YUCK!

    Crazy Henry was a strange bird, not so easy to pigeon hole.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Henry Ford I is difficult to understand in the context of modern times.

    Unfortunately, anti-semitism was quite common in his day. He said in public what many “respectable” people were saying in private. Yet he hired African-Americans in large numbers when other industrialists wouldn’t.

    He “spies” checked up on employees because, contrary to popular belief, not every employee was eligible for the $5-a-day wage. It was limited to men who were supporting families or single people supporting an infirm parent or relative. His spies made sure that those wages weren’t wasted on gambling dens, prostitutes or booze. (Later, he used this tactic to fight the fledgling UAW.)

    Many progressive reformers at this time were also crusading against these vices, particularly among the working class, so his tactics, which seem so intrusive today, weren’t really all that controversial at the time.

    Remember that he lived before the time of Temporary Aid to Need Families, the Women-Infant-Children program and federal food stamps. If a wage earner blew his paycheck at the local gambling den or drank it away at a saloon, the rest of the family was out of luck. This is why many progressives of that time were working to stamp out gambling dens, saloons and brothels (also remember that there weren’t any antibiotics to fight venereal diseases).

    He admired fascism, but in the early and mid-1930s, there were more admirers of German fascism in the U.S. and western Europe than we now care to admit. Hitler had revived a crumbling, demoralized nation and repudiated the hated Treaty of Versailles, which, by the 1930s, even many Europeans admitted had been too harsh (the U.S. never ratified it). And, again, Hitler’s anti-semitism found a more receptive audience than many people care to admit. Remember that the general public didn’t find out about the Nazi concentration camps until the very end of the war.

    He was also a true conservative when it came to foreign affairs – namely, he was an isolationist. This is why he opposed U.S. entry into World War I, and initially opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to aid Great Britain in the early days of World War II. In those days, it was progressives such as Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who advocated greater U.S. involvement in world events. Conservatives, heeding George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements, took the isolationist approach.

    And while his anti-war stance hasn’t earned him any points, it’s worth remembering that many leftists initially OPPOSED entry into World War II because the Soviet Union had signed the non-aggression pact with Nazi German, and then changed their tune when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. At least old Henry was consistent up until the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

    His approach to food and diet was way ahead of his time. He advocated a diet heavy on whole grains and vegetables, saying that “most people dig their graves with their teeth.” He did oppose the pasteurizing milk, but, interestingly enough, here in Pennsylvania we’ve been dealing with several natural foods advocates who want the state to allow the sale of unpasteurized milk! So maybe old Henry wasn’t so crazy after all…

    I seriously doubt that he would approve of the federal government aiding GM and Chrysler in this way. Remember that during the Great Depression, auto makers were failing left and right. The Roosevelt Administration attempted to stablize the market by encouraging the industry to adopt the codes called for under the National Recovery Act, which were designed to minimize competition. In the wake of the Great Crash, too much competition was thought to be a disruptive force. Ford refused to sign on to the codes, even though he met most of the guidelines. He did not want the government telling him how to run his business, and I doubt that he would have welcomed government-supported competition.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    Ford was a genius. An unbalanced genius, but a genius. He was about the first American employer to hire blacks and give them the same pay as whites. He also employed Jewish Americans in his factories, in spite of his harsh and stupid rhetoric. His Model T, and his 1932 Ford V8, were both astonishing breakthroughs. GM could not match the Ford V8 until 1955. He left a debt free company for his grandson to run, something more business owners should do. Yes he probably went insane, but that does not detract from his achievements. Good colored car paint was not available until DuPont made major breakthroughs in the early 20′s, and DuPont owned GM. Ford was not being unreasonable in insisting his cars be painted black, Ford adopted colors once good colored paint was available.
    Ford would have continued to push for fuel made from hemp or soy, and we probably would be energy independent. I don’t think for a moment he could stand the effete MBA pansies running the American auto industry.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Matt51: Yes he probably went insane, but that does not detract from his achievements.

    Many historians believe that Henry Ford I had a series of “ministrokes” in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and was later afflicted with early signs of dementia. Those affected his personality and outlook on life, although he was certainly cantankerous and unpredictable long before then.


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