Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2004 Issue

Henry Ford: Hell on Wheels

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Henry would die in 1947 but he had been absent from the management of the company for many years. His son Edsel, the next generation of Fords, predeceased him in 1943 without ever escaping from the shadow of his famous father. Edsel's death opened the way for a young Henry Ford II to assume control of the business in 1945 and he would see the company through to the 1980s. Under his tenure the Thunderbird was introduced in 1955, the Edsel in 1959 and the Mustang during the mid-1964 car year. He would also be in charge when back-ended Pintos began to explode.

The final 25 years of this Ford history have a different tone from the first 75. It's as if the men, and they are virtually all men Brinkley writes about, are listening and he seems to take pains to be excessively polite. It does not really detract from the book but it is noticeable. Henry Ford is not spared but more recent people are. It's as if the story is sung in noticeably different chords. And the unions which became a factor in the 1930s and a dominant element in the 1970s have absolutely no DNA in this account. Nevertheless it is a worthwhile read for those with an interest in the 20th century generally and business history specifically.

Certainly Henry Ford was a giant of the 20th century. Few others have had a greater impact on mankind in any century. He almost single handedly created the American middle class by making transportation affordable, by paying higher wages simply because he could afford to, and by later reducing the work week to give his employees more time to enjoy their lives and more people a chance to work. He was an American original and the tapestry of the American experience is not complete without his threads. I recommend this book. He was to put it succinctly: hell on wheels.

Wheels for the World by Douglas Brinkley. First published in 2003. Available in hardcover and paperback on the net and in the bookstores around the world. 764 pages + 93 pages of acknowledgments, notes, selected bibliography and index.

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