By on June 12, 2013
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Diego Rivera mural, Detroit Institute of Arts

I was at the Eleanor and Edsel Ford estate today for the media preview for the Eyes On Design car show coming up on Father’s Day this Sunday. The grounds of the Ford home are where the show is held every year – in honor of Edsel’s seminal role in the history of automotive styling. Eyes On Design is a unique car show. The cars are concours level (many Eyes On Design cars get shown at the Concours of America (formerly Meadow Brook)) but they’re not judged on build quality or meticulous authenticity. The show is pretty much run by car designers and the cars are judged on their design, not whether or not the air cleaner is factory or aftermarket. After the press event I walked around the 87 acre site, checking out the outside of the home and the other buildings, which were (no surprise here) Albert Kahn designs. Henry Ford’s greatest asset was his sheer indomitable nature. His second greatest talent was surrounding himself with talented people like Kahn.

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Ford surrounded himself with people who not only had great talent but had the ability to get Henry to agree with them – most likely by getting him to think it was his idea in the first place. James Couzens, Horace Rackham, Charlie Sorensen, Peter Martin, Eugene Farkas, Joe Galamb and Walter Flanders were arguably as instrumental in the success of FoMoCo as Henry was. Henry was also lucky with his son. Edsel was a very capable business manager as well as a pretty refined person – certainly compared to his farmboy father.

Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997

Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997

There is one of those Detroit stories, thought by some to be apocryphal, but documented in Richard Bak’s Henry and Edsel, about a prototype Model T that was built at Edsel’s direction fairly late in the T’s production run, in 1924. The Dodge brothers had decided to start selling their own cars in 1914 rather than continue supplying Ford with components and rolling chassis because they were good engineers and wanted to build modern cars. If technology and style had outstripped the Model T by 1914, imagine how obsolete it was a decade later.

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Edsel was a good businessman and knew how much market share Ford Motor Co. had lost to Chevrolet and Dodge. Henry, rich as Croesus, didn’t care, he thought the Model T was the perfect car, forever.

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While Henry was in Europe, Edsel had a revised Model T prototype built to try out his ideas. The prototype was sitting in a Ford garage at the Highland Park plant when Henry happened upon it after his return from the continent. It was less boxy than a standard Model T and it was painted bright red. Though the Model T was available in different colors early on, by 1924, “any color you want as long as it’s black” was part of Ford’s productivity model so I’m sure the red car was a shock to Henry.

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Henry and Edsel in a Ford Model F, 1905

According to the account of George Brown, the FoMoCo purchasing agent who had worked on the project for Edsel, Ford asked him, “What’s over there?”

“Well, Mr. Ford, that’s the new car.”

“Ford car?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He walked around the car three or four times, looking at it very closely. Finally, he got to the left side of the car, and he gets hold of the door, and BANG! One jerk, and he had it off the hinges! He ripped the door right off! God, how the man done it, I don’t know! He jumped in, and BANG! goes the other door! BANG! goes the windshield! He jumped over the back sat and started pounding on the top. He wrecked the car as much as he could.”

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A 13 year old Edsel Ford takes some friends sledding in a Ford Model N

In time, Edsel would bring Bob Gregorie to Ford to start a styling department at the Dearborn automaker. Unlike his father, Edsel had an art patron’s eye and understood how fashions and tastes change.

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Edsel and Eleanor’s home shows that they had great taste. It’s a magnificent property and Eleanor lived there until her death in 1976. When Edsel died in 1943, he had been running the company. Henry was, of course, in charge, but he wasn’t involved on a day to day basis, that was Edsel’s job.

Henry and Clara Ford leaving Edsel Ford's funeral, 1943

Henry and Clara Ford leaving Edsel Ford’s funeral, 1943

When Edsel died, Henry reasserted operational control of FoMoCo, by then one of the major suppliers to the U.S. and British war efforts in WWII. There were rumors that Henry wanted to put the Model T back into production. The U.S. government could not afford for the company making Jeeps and B-24s to be run by a man who was always a bit of a crackpot but now was also senile.

Edsel had some training as an artist. Here's a charcoal sketch he did as a teenager.

Edsel had some training as an artist. Here’s a charcoal sketch he did as a teenager.

Henry was a megalomaniac who had lost control of the Henry Ford Company in 1902 to his financial backers (that brought in Henry Leland who then talked them into using the assets to start Cadillac). He hated the idea of partners and once he could afford it after the huge success of the Model T, he paid investors like Rackham and the Dodges (who had taken stock in lieu of payment in the early days) $12.5 million for every $5,000 they had invested in FoMoCo. Couzens, who was FoMoCo’s business manager and a very early investor, got over $29 million for a $2,500 investment.

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Those prices were paid after Henry first tried depressing the value of their Ford stock by publicly announcing that he was going to start a new car company that would compete with Ford Motor Company. Once he controlled 100% of Ford stock, Henry kept 49% for himself, gave Edsel a minority stake at 48%, and gave Clara, Mrs. Henry Ford, the remaining 3% of the stock.

Another sketch of Edsel Ford's, this one presages his role in automotive styling

Another sketch of Edsel Ford’s, this one presages his role in automotive styling

After Edsel died, the U.S. Army discharged Henry Ford II from officer’s training school so he could return to Dearborn and run the company. Henry balked until Eleanor and Clara explained that they owned 51% of Ford Motor Company stock and that if he didn’t turn over operational control of the company to his grandson, they would sell their shares. Clara, who had tolerated Henry taking Evangeline Dahlinger as a mistress, had her limits.

One of a series of custom roadsters Edsel had built for his personal use. C. 1911

One of a series of custom roadsters Edsel had built for his personal use. C. 1911

I couldn’t help but wonder, in an alternate history sense, how different things would have been if it was Henry who died in middle age instead of Edsel. Edsel was 49 when he died of stomach cancer – the family felt it was brought on by the ulcers he got from his father’s regular humiliations (Henry didn’t want Edsel to be the soft son of a rich man, so he’d berate him in front of others).

Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel liked fast boats as well as fast cars. He'd sometimes commute to Dearborn via the Detroit River.

Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel liked fast boats as well as fast cars. He’d sometimes commute to Dearborn via the Detroit River.

Henry Ford would have been 49 in 1912. He was already a very rich man as the Model T was a huge success (actually, he was already rich before the Model T, since unlike his first two automotive ventures, Ford Motor Company had thrived). What would Ford Motor Company and automotive history had been like if Edsel had taken over in 1912?

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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23 Comments on “Alternate History: What If Henry Ford, and Not Edsel, Had Died Young?...”


  • avatar
    geozinger

    Some days Ronnie, I believe you’re writing for the wrong site…

    The early days of the automobile industry are incredibly fascinating to me, and the Ford dynasty is one of the most fascinating of all.

    I could see Edsel taking Ford Motor Company in a whole new direction, one free of Henry’s prejudices. By that, I mean the acquisition of Lincoln, not any of Henry’s other idiosyncrasies.

    I can imagine that Edsel would have initiated moving FoMoCo to a more upward position, or possibly starting the Mercury brand much sooner. It would have been interesting to see how Mercury would have fared in the “go-go” 1920′s; there were a lot of brands and a lot of them that failed in the time period. Who knows, maybe Mercury would have been a footnote in 1932 rather than 80 years later.

    It would have been interesting to also see what luxury brand he could have devised without the Lincoln acquisition; again, with a proper amount of investment in competitive materials instead of being tied to the production efficiencies of the Model T/A/B.

    Freed of the bullying by Henry, Edsel possibly could have come up with an entirely different Ford Motor Company, one we would never recognize here in the 21st century.

    Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      Henry Ford the second (Hank Deuce) despised his grandfather for driving his own father (Edsel) to an early grave. Ironically, in the end, he became just like Henry I.

      Edsel had been charged with overseeing the building of the vertically integrated Rouge complex. One day old Henry discovered a building foundation had been laid about a foot out of position. On that vast tract of land, it was of no consequence. When Edsel pointed this out, old Henry flew into a rage, hurling abuse at Edsel in an act public humiliation. Old Henry overruled Edsel, and demanded that the work be torn up and relaid. After all the effort Edsel had made to impress his father on this big project – being cut down had been his reward.

      This is only one of many stories that must have gotten back to young Henry (II). Getting control of the operation, then disposing of old Henry’s closed ally, Harry Bennett (at gun point). Must have been a very satisfying act of retribution.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    You should coordinate with Aaron at AUWM. He is the poet laureate of automotive history. The more the merrier.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Fascinating read.

    The alternate history might have been:
    There would not have been a John Dahlinger love child.
    Ford’s WWII record might have been different.
    FoMoCo might have advanced more quickly, or maybe gone out of business.
    There would never have been an Edsel car.

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    Would Ford had been publicly traded sooner? Perhaps. What would the manufacturing expansion of the 50′s looked like had it been sooner, based on stronger demand? Would Highland Park have had as significant of a role in the company or would it have been left sooner?

    The manufacturing landscape could have been much different from what was laid out in the 50′s and the 2000′s plant closures would have impacted different parts of the country.

    Maybe the deuce wouldn’t have helped the Israelis as much (as you noted in a previous article)?

    Ronnie, you just tickled my favorite part of the brain. I love your articles.

  • avatar
    niky

    Lovely idea… don’t know where to start, though… Despite being under his father’s thumb, I’ve heard Edsel still had enormous influence on the design of Ford models. We definitely wouldn’t have an “Edsel”, I doubt he would have ever greenlit the design, but maybe we would have had a “Henry” that would have been much better.

    • 0 avatar
      schmitt trigger

      Also, if Edsel had had his time fully occupied with running FoMoCo, perhaps he could have not had time to be such an incredible patron of the arts. He was Detroit’s Lorenzo di Medici.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        His wife, Eleanor Clay Ford, was also quite interested in the arts, so the Ford Family’s support of the arts wouldn’t have necessarily disappeared or even lessened if Edsel was fully absorbed in running the Ford Motor Company.

  • avatar
    leonidas

    Agreed, great article. The whole story of American labor relations might have been different if Henry had died in middle age.

    Also, the date on the picture of Edsel and his mother is probably 1897, not 1997! I think by 1997 official Ford photographers were shooting in color! ;-)

  • avatar
    jnik

    Edsel would have been 19 in 1912. Would it have been possible for him to control the company at an age when he still didn’t have all the rights of adulthood back then?
    That stated, Edsel was probably more responsible for the Model “A” than Henry was. He probably would have been more accomodating to the UAW than Henry. And he might have still been in charge after WW2, when he would have been offered Volkswagen. He would have had less need of Henry Breech’s advice than his son Henry 2 did. I wonder if he would have taken VW?

  • avatar
    DIYer

    If Henry Ford died in 1912 at age 49, it is likely his company would have been acquired by John and Horace Dodge. The Dodge brothers built every mechanical part of the first 500,000 Ford Model T cars, and had terms in their contract with Ford to receive all of Ford’s assests if Ford went bankrupt.

    In 1914, Ford began producing his own parts at the newly completed Rouge Plant, and didn’t need Dodge to make parts for him. In 1915, the Dodge brothers produced their own car to compete with the Model T.

    John and Horace Dodge both died in 1920, aged 55 and 52 respectively.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    One of the best books about Ford is “Ford, the Men and the Machine”, by Robert Lacey.

    If one is an auto-history buff, one will not be able to put the book down. Beyond fascinating. Read that many years ago, and if I recall properly, the destruction of the Edsel-designed red model T is described there.

    One of the unfortunate traits of great men is that they are mostly a-holes. This is true whether they are military personnel, industry titans or politicians. It must be an alpha-male thing; their insatiable drive, their no-prisioners-taken policies, their low tolerance for lesser human beings. Those same traits that make them great also destroy whoever is unfortunate enough to cross their path. Even if he is their son.

    • 0 avatar

      That is a great book! I read the cover off mine a few times, and have bought it several times over. It starts petering out around 1980 but considering the book was published in ’86 it brings a good insight into what nearly killed Ford in the 70s and the ouster of Iacocca from Ford after his meteoric rise.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      No question about it, Henry was a prick. The late Steve Jobs had a lot in common with Henry.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Hmmm, no Ford peace ship.

  • avatar
    vcficus

    Agreed, another great article Ronnie! You use the Edsel shot from the Rivera mural; one of my favorite works of art. I hope we can still go see it when Citibank owns the DIA or whoever’s going to get it after Chapter 9 around here.

    I’m also fascinated by the contradictions of Henry the Elder… he hated life on the farm but set up an idyllic recreation of it in Greenfield Village and so on.

    Supposedly he also saved the Industry mural at the last minute; other local leaders were upset at a Socialist artist like Diego being enshrined there during the 1930′s and they were mounting opposition to get it removed or painted over prior to it being revealed.

    Henry went and looked at it with Edsel and didn’t pick up on any of underlying themes of worker oppression or war mongering… he just liked the way the assembly plant was depicted; shrugged and said “It’s staying”.

    Or something like that…

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I don’t know if Henry Ford I hated farm life itself as much as he despised the DRUDGERY of farm life. We tend to forget just how hard farmers and their wives worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Running a successful farm required lots of tedious, hard labor that had to be performed on a daily basis.

      Henry viewed his Model T and his tractors as means by which farmers could improve their standard of living and end their isolation. Prior to the advent of the Model T, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for farm families in the Midwest and West to endure an entire winter without seeing another person outside of their household.

      • 0 avatar
        DIYer

        I remember listening to a Paul Harvey segment about Henry Ford, that his mother had to struggle on the farm working with horses and mules, often while pregnant. His mother died young shortly after giving birth to her eighth baby. A devastated 12 year old Henry vowed that when he grew up and became a machinist, he would build a car to replace the horse, and trucks to replace the mule. Ford grew ot hate animals and love machinery.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Diego Rivera was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, muralists of the XX century.
    Unfortunately, like many artists of his era, he became enamored with the socialist utopia.

    Diego was also incredibly stubborn. His refusal to remove Lenin in a mural located -of all places- at the Rockefeller Center, after lengthy pleas from his patrons, caused the mural to be demolished.

  • avatar
    geeber

    As others have noted, if Henry Ford I had died at 49 (in 1912), his son would have been too young to take over the company. The company wasn’t fully owned by the Ford Family at that time, and it’s doubtful that the investors would have handed over control to a 19-year-old Edsel, regardless of his status as Henry’s son.

    If Henry had died at 59 (1922) or even 69 (1932), that opens up more speculation. The Ford Motor Company was a privately held company by the early 1920s, and Edsel would have been old enough to take charge.

    Edsel would undoubtedly have made sure that Fords and Lincolns stayed abreast of technological advancements offered by GM and Chrysler. Ford wouldn’t have lagged the industry in adopting hydraulic brakes, and would have offered independent front suspension sooner than 1949. Whether Edsel would have approved the 1932 V-8 is a good question.

    I also doubt that Edsel would have chosen to wait until 1939 to introduce Mercury. The medium-price market was recovering from its Depression lows by the mid-1930s, so I imagine that he would have pushed for Mercury’s introduction before 1939.

    Edsel probably would have reached an accommodation with the UAW prior to 1941. Without Harry Bennett, there most likely wouldn’t have been a Battle of the Overpass, and with Edsel willing to reach an agreement with the new union, much of the rancor that marked organizing efforts of the auto industry would been avoided, at least at Ford.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      I thought Edsel was the champion of the V8 engine and had to sell it to Henry.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        That’s interesting – I had never heard that. Henry hated in-line six-cylinder engines, and Chevrolet’s adoption of one in 1929 did nothing to change his views regarding that configuration. It was my understanding that Henry pushed for the V-8 to “leap frog” Chevrolet, but left the styling of the 1932 models to Edsel.


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