Alternate History: What If Henry Ford, and Not Edsel, Had Died Young?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997

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

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

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

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

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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6 of 25 comments
  • Schmitt trigger Schmitt trigger on Jun 13, 2013

    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.

  • Geeber Geeber on Jun 13, 2013

    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.

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    • Prentz Prentz on Oct 21, 2018

      Agreed, the only way that Edsel could have handled it was working with the executives he's pictured with in Henry's office in that 1912 photo. That group may have been hard to manage for a young Edsel, but they were certainly a capable group! Just a few years later, even by 1914, Edsel could have done it but in 1912 Ford Motor just wasn't strong enough to handle Henry's death.

  • Fred As a British Car Fan I liked them, but then I sat in one and changed my mind. I like the unique looks of the newer ones.
  • FreedMike Not much to look at, but these were sweet to drive.
  • EBFlex Ford finally making a good decision although they should shut down their EV operations and investment all together. Why lose that money too?
  • Mike Lol. This is the king of suvs. And its made by GM.Why is everyone trashing it?Top of its its class for a quarter century.
  • Frank Drove past there last week, plant has a huge poster of a bronco on the outside. I was thinking "Is that where they build the new broncos?" I know they use to make the Edge and that other mundane SUV there but I believe both have been canned.