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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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