By on July 21, 2009

In between long stints behind the keyboard and the wheel of an Audi, I’ve been reading Robert Lacey’s epic Ford: The Men and the Machine. Catching up on the story of Ford, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Crazy Henry had somehow cheated death and was still around to witness the recent travails of his company. Ford’s deep commitment to basic transportation may have been a liability in the heyday of the American automobile, but things seem to be coming full circle. The decades of glamor and expression in automotive design and marketing launched GM to dizzying heights and threatened to leave stolid old Ford behind. But Ford never completely embraced the planned obsolescence and marketing-heavy development patterns that defined GM’s success. The Blue Oval’s best products always had a certain affordable and rugged charm that seems to be coming back in style. Ford now finds itself positioned to become the first American automaker with a lineup weighted towards competitive small and mid-sized cars. If it can succeed with this strategy and stay focused, Ford has a chance to reinterpret its original brand appeal and vindicate Henry Ford’s philosophy in a thoroughly 21st Century fashion.

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16 Comments on “Daily Podcast: Fording the River...”


  • avatar
    carlisimo

    Yesterday I saw a shipment of Transit Connects arrive at a Ford Truck dealership. They’ve got Fiestas in San Francisco too for that promotion of theirs.

    I do think they’re quicker on their feet than the other Two.

  • avatar
    talkstoanimals

    Part of Henry’s success was also attributable to his realization that he needed to pay his workers well enough to actually afford the products they were building. A notion that has been completely alien in our recent age of increasing worker productivity with stagnant or declining wages for all but the highest level of management – a change in living standards we’ve attempted to make up for by importing cheap goods from China and petroleum from the Middle East, then compulsively purchasing those goods with borrowed money (also from China and the Middle East).

    As we (hopefully) wake up from the folly of that economic model, Ford may be well positioned to pick up sales with their improving lineup of vehicles that seem to comport with the new ethos of thrift and adult behavior.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    The last time Ford’s net income was in the black was in 2005 ($2.024 billion), when, according to data published today on TTAC, it sold 3,166,114 vehicles. Last year, their net income was -$14.67 billion with 2,010,669 vehicles sold. (Income figures provided by Wolfram Alpha.) This is a simplistic view of their profit and loss, but . . .

    SAARy, I can’t see how Ford is the bright spot in Detroit when GM has received a “mulligan” financed by the taxpayer. DoE loans won’t level the playing field nor will small cars with their small profits.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “Part of Henry’s success was also attributable to his realization that he needed to pay his workers well enough to actually afford the products they were building.”

    Not really. Old Henry had to pay them exhorbitant wages so they’d stick around despite the ghastly work conditions. Henry figured that was cheaper than training replacement hires every week.

    IIRC, the book was made into some TV movie-of-the-week a while back, which had an amusing scene where Henry & Co. built a car, then had to knock down part of the garage to get it out.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    P.S. Apple IIe emulator and Oregon Trail ROMs for the win.

    http://www.virtualapple.org/oregontraildisk.html

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    @talkstoanimals: Amen brother. Add to Henry’s understanding of the pay principle his understanding that happy workers are good workers and good workers keep costs down. Costs such as what comes from accidents which would slow the production line and if the worker wasn’t worried about his family situation, they’d be more apt to concentrate on doing a quality job. In the end, contented workers kept the plants humming along with little stoppage, low accident rates, and little breakage or loss of parts/machinery.

    Ford accomplished this little miracle by providing affordable housing in and around the factories, a corporate owned and run hospital facility as well as schools, and a decent pension program. However, this is not to make the man into a saint, rather that he inherently understood that his assembly line process was unbelievable mind-numbing at times and there needed to be added incentive to the job. Its not unlike what Toyota does today for its worker. You provide for the worker so he/she has PRIDE in what they are doing and will FIGHT to keep their job and continue to provide superior productivity.

    But then he also wore suits made of sod and had an autographed picture of Hitler on his desk. So, nobody’s perfect.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Henry Ford’s biggest contribution would be to avoid the cycle of crap product quality that seems to take over at Ford every 10-20 years or so.
    Think about it – late 50s to maybe 1960, Ford had a lot of quality issues. Big improvement through the 60s, but then it was pretty bad again as the Iacocca era progressed, bottoming by the late 70s. I have wondered if this was one of the things that led Henry Ford II to oust Lee. Another epic improvement in the mid 80s (“Quality is Job 1″ and “Have you driven a Ford Lately?) but mid 90s-early 2000s Trotman/Nasser era was a bad period too. Ever own a Windstar?
    Henry Ford would never have put up with badly engineered, badly designed or badly assembled cars with his name on the hood.

  • avatar

    Two totally awesome mispronunciations in this podcast… were they intentional?

    Of course I speak of the “echo-boost” EEEE-kO, not echo, and Eco-BOAST which is a fitting a name as any for how Ford is marketing MOAR power from lighter lumps.

    Also, I read the other day that Ford almost has a laser-beam ignition system ready to replace spark plugs, brilliant!

  • avatar
    kowsnofskia

    Amen brother. Add to Henry’s understanding of the pay principle his understanding that happy workers are good workers and good workers keep costs down. Costs such as what comes from accidents which would slow the production line and if the worker wasn’t worried about his family situation, they’d be more apt to concentrate on doing a quality job. In the end, contented workers kept the plants humming along with little stoppage, low accident rates, and little breakage or loss of parts/machinery.

    Apparently this line of thinking wasn’t applicable to Ford’s engineering staff, who were often being paid far less than the company’s line workers.

    Could this have been one of the reasons behind FoMoCo’s notoriously shitty engineering in the latter third of the 20th century? After all, quality has nothing whatsoever to do with the people who actually design the cars, right?

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    I just re-read Ford: The Men and The Machine at the start of the collapse of GM and Chrysler. A great book re: the history of FoMoCo and the Ford Family. IMO, Ford’s future depends on a return to its roots – it needs to be more Honda than Toyota.

  • avatar
    findude

    Maybe this is too simple, but the first two big generations of Ford vehicles (The Model T and then the Model A) were essentially single chassis/single power train vehicles. There were different models, and there were variants for trucks (the TT and the AA) as well as some specials, but the vast majority of the vehicles were built on the same platform.

    Maybe Ford needs to go back to fewer platforms. Could be a good strategy for a contracting market.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Well, they’ve gone waaaay back to the days of fewer choices, along with everyone else. You can have any interior you want as long as it is GRAY. Well, or maybe beige.

    It may be that it was going too far in the other direction in the days when any American manufacturer would sell you a white or black car with a red, blue, green, black, or tan interior.

    But if anyone asked me what would be my druthers – more color choices or cup holders and Ipod connectivity, you know what my answer would be.

  • avatar
    Packard

    If Henry had been around, the company would have gone out of business long ago. He nearly ran it into the ground in the late 1940′s. One may have forgotten that the U.S. government released Henry Ford II from the Navy early, so that he could take over Ford after a family revolt got Henry I to relinquish control – the government didn’t want to let Ford go under, because it was such a major defense contractor at the time.

    Had the company survived, it would probably now still be trying to make cars out of soybeans.

    In fact, didn’t Ford just use soybeans for the fabric in a Mustang interior?

  • avatar
    venator

    What is so wrong about making cars out of soybeans? I would rather have that than eating them!

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Hahahahahahaha. I thought that was Oregon Trail!

    Ah the memories of HS sophomore computer class. Don’t monkey around, get work done in 10-15 minutes, play Oregon Trail and Chip’s Challenge for the remaining 45. Lol. Easiest class of my life.

  • avatar
    50merc

    bumpy ii: “ome TV movie-of-the-week a while back, which had an amusing scene where Henry & Co. built a car, then had to knock down part of the garage to get it out.”

    That actually happened. Henry and Clara’s landlord wasn’t happy.

    Old Henry was eccentric, to say the least, and certainly senile in his later years. As someone noted, the famous $5/day wage wasn’t altruism; it was to reduce the horrendous turnover rate. And in practice, neither was it a simple $5/day. Old Henry’s Sociology Department acted to uplift the working class in accordance with hypocritical Henry’s moral code, with an intrusiveness no one would believe today. FoMoCo was better than most companies in hiring blacks, but they got the most unpleasant jobs, such as in the foundry. Old Henry might have thought his workers were contented, but Sorensen ran the plants like Soviet gulags, and a small army of goons were employed to crush UAW organizing efforts. Henry II had an abiding loathing of his grandfather because of the humiliations and abuse inflicted on Edsel.

    That said, FoMoCo could do worse than to keep Henry’s 1907 mission statement in mind:
    “I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” Amen.


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