By on July 20, 2015
Henry Ford as a young man, circa 1883

Henry Ford as a young man, circa 1883

One of my editors once described researching a topic as “falling down a rabbit hole.” Four hours later, you end up far afield from the 1963 Whizbang X500 you started with. You never know what you’ll discover that could be new to you or your readers.

While tracking down details on the 1:10 scale 1939 Lincoln Continental styling model that sat on the desk of Edsel Ford —whose idea the Continental was — I heard a great story involving his father, Henry, and the clay modeler, Larry Wilson, who later discovered Edsel’s Continental clay styling model forgotten in storage.

It’s a true story about a 15-year-old boy who took a train ride to ask Henry Ford for a job and, as far as I know, it’s never been published before.

It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of Henry Ford’s fame. It’s also hard to separate fact from PR fiction that was spun in Henry’s interest by Ford Motor Company’s Publicity Department, but some of it was, at least, partially true. (For instance, it’s said the post office once delivered a letter to Henry Ford that had no address, just the industrialist’s photograph from a newspaper clipping glued to the envelope.)

FoMoCo’s PR machine cultivated the image of Henry as everyman, so the idea that a 15-year-old boy might think he could travel across the country to meet him wasn’t as silly as it might sound today. Also, a 15 year old in the mid to late 1930s likely grew up a bit faster than today’s precious little snowflakes. After a prolonged Great Depression, young people were probably a bit more self reliant then, too.

Anyhow, the way his friend, automotive historian and collector Samuel Sandifer, tells the story, Larry Wilson spent his entire career as a clay modeler for Ford Motor Company after being hired by Henry Ford himself.

Growing up far from the Motor City, Wilson desperately wanted a career in the auto industry. Using what materials and tools he had at his disposal — tin cans, hammers and tin snips — he had made two fairly realistic scale models of 1938 Ford sedans. Perhaps he had read Edward Thatcher’s 1919 do-it-yourself guide, “Making Tin Can Toys“. Those self-reliant youths of yore made a lot of their own toys. People still make model cars (and other models out of metal cans) for pleasure and for profit.

From Edward Thatcher's how to make tin toys

From Edward Thatcher’s “Making Tin Can Toys”

Wilson set off on his journey to Dearborn.

Taking a train first to Chicago and then to Dearborn, he somehow managed to talk his way into the executive offices at Ford’s headquarters and found himself in front of Henry Ford’s personal secretary.

“Who are you here to see?” she asked him.

“I’m here to see Mr. Ford,” he replied earnestly.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No.”

“Well,” his secretary told young Wilson, “Mr. Ford is a very busy and important man and he doesn’t just see people without an appointment. If you’re looking for a job, I can give you directions to the employment office.”

Dejected, Wilson departed, but as he started down the hallway, in the other direction was walking a thin, older gentleman wearing a straw hat.

The man stopped Wilson and asked  him, “Young man, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to see Mr. Ford.”

“Henry Ford?” the older gentleman asked.

“Yes,” Larry replied, “Henry Ford.”

“Well that’s me. Why did you want to see me?” the industrialist asked.

Wilson unwrapped his two tin models and told Ford of his dream of making cars. Impressed with the quality of the work, and perhaps reminded of his own youthful enthusiasm, Ford hired him on the spot as an apprentice model maker.

Though you might think the story is apocryphal, the protagonist is identified by name and the story teller is someone with some credibility as an automotive historian. It also has a ring of truth. At the age of 16, Jack Telnack, who later headed Ford design, got an interview with Ford advanced styling head Alex Tremulis because of his interest in becoming a car designer. Tremulis told him to go to design school and then gave Telnack his first job when he graduated. A number of designers working for General Motors and other domestic automakers got their starts as teens competing in GM’s Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild model making competition.

After Henry Ford hired him, Larry Wilson would go on to spend his entire career as a clay modeler in Ford’s styling department. Once, while going through some stored materials, he came across the contents of Edsel Ford’s personal office, removed after his 1943 death. Among those artifacts was Edsel Ford’s personal 1:10 scale model of the original Lincoln Continental, sculpted by Gene Adams, the clay modeler who worked with stylist Bob Gregorie on the Continental’s design. It wasn’t quite the first model of the Continental — that one was sculpted by Gregorie and Adams over an existing Lincoln Zephyr model — but it was likely used to develop the bumpers and trim on the production car. The fact that it was the personal property of Edsel Ford gives it unmatched provenance.

Wilson eventually passed the model to Sandifer, where it is part of what is likely the largest collection of styling studio scale models anywhere.

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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31 Comments on ““I’m Here to See Mr. Ford” – A Detroit Story...”


  • avatar
    Syke

    Times were different back then. As was an individual’s self-sufficiency. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that we’ve lost a lot of virtues that used to be common.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      Thus spake every aging human since the dawn of recorded history.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        But tatted-up 300 lb. high-school sophomores who can’t read or speak beyond ghetto patois *are* something new, at least in the US.

      • 0 avatar
        Pig_Iron

        @PeriSoft: I’m sure you didn’t mean to be dismissive in your response. But I have to agree with Syke, and for this reason… It has been my observation that a lot of the problem has to do with “credential creep”.

        What used to require an apprenticeship, then required a professional license, then a college diploma, then full university degree, then a master’s degree, and then constant accumulation of credits to maintain the license.

        It seems to me that Big Ed has now brainwashed employers to believe that employees without a raft of letters after their name are unfit to sweep the floor.

        George Washington apprenticed for and became a master land surveyor – today he would be wholly unqualified – Has the land changed? No, of course not, nor have the fundamentals for the profession; only the demands imposed to earn the right to practice. It’s no wonder young people start their lives buried in student debt.

        • 0 avatar
          RideHeight

          “It’s no wonder young people start their lives buried in student debt.”

          Only the best ones. The rest are buried in fat, family dysfunction and certainty of entitlement.

        • 0 avatar
          lot9

          Right On!

        • 0 avatar
          lot9

          We do not let our kids to grown up today. Heck, got 35 yr men acting like 16 yr olds. Wanting the latest video game and or tattoo. Women are asking where did the men go? We got Man_Boys.
          We used to call them young men. Fact is, WWII, 20s yr old were commanding bombers and squadrons of men.
          Now, we see people hanging onto being a teenagers, pre-adults and finally men, when they may be in their 30s.
          Our Education system, has not help us to become adults or a better Nation. The universities have become a Loan Office, to borrow money, sorta like these title loans places.
          They will not promise you any great education, but will keep adding worthless courses for you to take so they can keep their staff employed. And get more govt. monies.
          We have become so helpless,many men can not change the oil in their autosor a flat tire, if they had to.
          But they got degrees.

        • 0 avatar
          VolandoBajo

          Yet to a certain extent there is a bias against people with advanced degrees in industry as well.

          I returned to engineering school after I finished my post-collegiate studies in beer and women, in my later twenties. This was just about the time that colleges were looking for ways to steer professors off the tenure track, long before most undergrad courses were taught by adjuncts.

          My first year physics professor in a well-known northeastern engineering school was quite sharp and knowledgeable, even though he as not quite on a par with the tenured professor who taught the Honors section of Advanced Physics the next year.

          And he had just gotten the word that although he had done nothing wrong, and had kept up his part of what the bargain had been when he began his educational and teaching career, that there would be no tenured position available in physics that year or in the foreseeable future.

          And he related to us about his job search. When he included his doctorate in his resume, he elicited almost zero interest.

          At the behest of a recruiter, he tried leaving off the doctorate. Result, several interviews, but no offers in the down economy of the mid-seventies.

          Finally, he decided to leave of both his Master’s and his Doctorate, and he got more interviews, and multiple job offers, one of which he was taking at the end of that school year.

          It wasn’t the only enlightening information I got out of my education, but it certainly was one solid piece of it.

          Perhaps to be a tenured professor of music, as Jack’s brother has pointed out on their shared personal website, may not only require a Ph.D., it may only gain you one lottery ticket in a large pool.

          But for many talented STEM grads, both then and now, what is wanted is not a person who might qualify as smarter and more educated than the people who could choose to hire him or her, or not, but rather someone smart enough to do the work, but only under the guidance of ever flatter middle management structures.

          Obviously an understandable self-defensive position to take, but not one that is in the best interest of either shareholders or the country.

          The reason that Dilbert has become such a popular cartoon, and remained popular for so long, is not because it is so preposterous, but because it is so precisely true.

          And although blue-collar reality may be a Simpsons world, the world of professionals who can actually do things is increasingly exactly a Dilbert world.

          If the protagonist of this story had arrived in Detroit freshly minted with a degree from, for example, Rhode Island School of Design, and the person he had run into in the hall had been the head of the design department, who had no formal education, but was in charge of all design, instead of it being Ford himself, I wonder if the same warm reception would have occurred, or if the young man would have been sent packing, without so much as a referral to the employment office, as a defense mechanism for the status quo.

    • 0 avatar

      America used to PRODUCE more than it consumed.

      Now we consume more than we produce – and the only way we can continue is because what is produced is produced by SLAVE LABOR in impoverished Asia and other 3rd world countries.

      There’s only less-than-320 million Americans. When we sacrificed our FACTORY PRODUCTION to ASIA we basically doomed ourselves to be slaves to multi-national corporations.

      JOBS are at the base of our economy.

      Without JOBS, we can’t buy houses.

      Without housing stability we can’t raise families. We can’t maintain wealth. We have nothing to pass down to our children but debt.

      This country has been betrayed and sold-out by traitors.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” – Socrates

        • 0 avatar
          Pig_Iron

          @PrincipalDan
          I can’t speak for your region, but I find I’m impressed by the Millennials. By and large, I’ve found them smart, hard working, and careful with their money. Maybe growing up in the great-recession had some impact, but they don’t seem to take things for granted like the Gen-Ys seem to.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            @Pig_Iron, I was giving an example of “Thus spake every aging human since the dawn of recorded history.” Even Socrates who history has remembered as a bit of a “rebel” bemoaned the young people.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            A lot of millennials I manage do everything right except birth control. I’m watching good young people doom themselves.

            But this is still a church-goin’ region.

          • 0 avatar
            Pig_Iron

            @PrincipalDan
            You bet! He was a rebel right up to the end.
            ;-)

        • 0 avatar
          John Marks

          “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

          Marcus Tullius Cicero
          3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

            -Mark Twain

          • 0 avatar
            VolandoBajo

            @pch101

            Re: Mark Twain, and the ages of 14 and 21.

            I had seen the same thing quoted, though I had always (several times) seen the ages as 16 and 20. Otherwise, identical…

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        We can bemoan the loss of industry all day long, but how many people are willing to pay through the nose at the checkout counter to keep factory jobs here?

        Good question…and it’s not as simple as BTSR wants to make it out to be.

        Unfortunately, I think we created an unsustainable economic model after World War II, based on the assumption that no one could produce goods as efficiently as we could. That made sense for a long time – the rest of the world was either too primitive or too screwed up by WWII to really compete. No way that would last forever…and we’re paying the price for that now.

      • 0 avatar
        tonycd

        Agreed, bigtruck.

      • 0 avatar
        pragmatic

        B-movie

        [vimeo 10139610 w=640 h=360]

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Point taken…but then again, if it takes plunging the country into a severe depression that caused staggering amounts of human misery, all to make 15-year-olds self sufficient, I’ll pass, thanks.

      There are other ways.

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      Yesterday’s kid teaching themselves to make models is today’s kid teaching themselves to write a successful app.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    It was a different time truly. At the turn of the 20th citizens still showed up at the White House thinking they might get to see the President face to face. Heck I’ve heard stories from elderly residents of Washington DC talking about pulling up under the White House porch to raise a convertible top when getting caught in a sudden downpour.

    A 15 year old expecting to get to see Henry Ford face to face is completely plausible.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      I advocate eliminating the personal armies that protect our highest elected officials. If these people were subject to interacting with the same public they “serve”, their decision processes would be significantly different. In fact, the candidates would probably be significantly different as well.

  • avatar
    RedRocket

    Why start and end a story about a scale model without showing a picture of the model in question?

  • avatar
    Carl Kolchak

    Ronnie, this is a great article and thanks. It must be difficult to write about a man like Ford, who was such an anti-Semite. A young man I worked with wrote a paper in H.S. abut that subject. Per him , the teacher was not to thrilled.
    As for where this comments went, I have a place I see in my memories. It is the intersection of North, Grand and Kostner in Chicago’s West side. At one time there was within eyesight: Factories for Zenith Televisions, Helene Curtis (Suave) shampoos, Continental Can (where my father worked for 33 years) and Schwinn Bicycles. There was also Pepsi bottling plant and one of the largest Jewel Food stores in the area. Today. the Jewel and Pepsi plant are boarded up, Zenith and Schwinn are part of brands in Korea, a Walmart stands where Continental Ca stood and Helene Curtis is long gone. Where once there were good paying jobs and properity now lies poverty. Welcome to the New Millenium??

    • 0 avatar
      lot9

      Our trade agreements and Congress has destroyed the income of the working class of this nation, unless you are in the wealthy class.
      All these trade pacts like Nafta and others just let countries bring in anything and encourages companies, to NOT build in this Nation. Just look at the auto companies that recently announced that they are going to Mexico. No Nafta and they would have built here.
      We are losing our sovereignty as a Nation with these give away trade agreements.
      The USA just lost a case in world court that we can not put the origin of the meat that comes into this country, on the package for the consumer.
      We have done away with jobs, benefits and even with degrees, no jobs.
      We are creating a new class of poor people that will soon be retiring. Except they will not have any money to retire and too OLD to work, even if jobs were available.

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        As increasing financialization of the U.S. economy sets in, we will follow in the footsteps of the U.K., in terms of socioeconomic structure, with an increasingly smaller true middle class, larger (service oriented) working and working poor class, much larger poor class (increasingly subsidized by transfers), and a top 1/2 percent (not 1% as is mistakenly alluded to commonly in media) that becomes increasingly wealthier in nominal and real (relative) terms (*the top 10%, excluding the very top 1/2% as mentioned, will be brutalized in terms of higher taxes relative to income, also).

        • 0 avatar
          andrewa

          Deadweight,
          I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head about the US following the same path as the UK (workshop of the world) but without the support systems that allowed the UK to pioneer and invent (though they sometimes had to be developed in the US) so many things. Will China be to the US what the US was to the UK?

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