The Ford Century: For Motor Company and the Innovations that Shaped the World

by Russ Banham

foreword by Paul Newman

Published by Artisan

272 pages, 2003



 

 

 

 

 

A Century of Vision

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

 

Today more than ever before author Kingsley Amis seems vindicated in his belief that there once was a time when people reviewed books that they actually liked. His implication is that we shouldn't be miserable in our reading and, when reviewing, we must make serious strides to respect the artistic and moral autonomy of writers.

Russ Banham's The Ford Century: Ford Motor Company and the Innovations that Shaped the World is a masterpiece of automotive writing. Besides being technically competent, the author is never derisive of American products or industry as are so many other smug purveyors of foreign automobiles. The initially striking quality of this book is its stunningly beautiful photography. The 14 pages that lead to the first chapter embark the reader on a brief pictorial retrospective of Ford Motor Company history that culminates with a dazzling two-page panoramic picture of a maroon 1962 Lincoln Continental as it leaves a Lincoln/Mercury dealer. The book's presentation and layout demonstrate considerable respect for historical detail and biographical nuance. The six chapters that comprise the book pay close attention to Henry Ford the visionary and how the company he founded came to reflect his artistic and industrial vision.

The initial chapter traces the history of the Ford family and Henry's dislike for the toil of farm work. The Ford legacy begins, Banham writes, "with a boy who loved to take watches apart and put them back together again." This early sign of ingenuity is a significant historical anecdote because, as the author points out, in 1863 -- the year that Henry Ford was born -- only one in five Americans lived in cities. America at that time was predominantly rural. The difficulties inherent in the vast distances that separated people served as inspiration for Ford's inventiveness. Even though the book is a celebration of Ford products, technology and innovation, the work can also be categorized as a biographical study of Henry Ford, his aspirations, character, leadership and his strong will. Some readers will be reminded of Howard Roark's Promethean creative desire in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Others will perhaps reflect on the strife of the Wright Brothers and the flying machines that they created.

The Ford Century also helps in enlightening readers to an exciting period in American history filled with flexibility, promise, ingenuity and artistic integrity. Readers are also treated to a historical overview of Ford's conception and development of the assembly line and his introduction of five dollar a day wages. Banham is mindful of Ford's place in the world's automotive industry in a chapter titled "Innovation and Ingenuity." The work captures the essence of a time in American history that witnessed the quixotic leadership of such automotive figures like Henry Ford, Henry Leyland, Edsel Ford, Walter Chrysler and E.T. Gregorie. Such figures are representative of Harry S. Truman's truism that men make history, not the contrary, and that during periods with no leadership, progress of any kind stands still.

Ford's engineering marvel: the development of the V-8 engine in 1932 was possible due to the introduction of new casting technology that allowed the company to create a one-piece engine block. The importance of this industrial feat is effectively captured by two lively letters that Mr. Ford received praising the speed and power the new engine generated. What is particularly interesting about these letters is that their respective author's took time out from their tense lifestyles to show their allegiance to Ford automobiles. One of the letters is by the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Dillinger writes: "Hello Old Pal. You have a wonderful Car. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be Drive a Ford and Watch the Other Cars Fall Behind You. I can make any other car take Ford's dust. Bye-bye." Here Dillinger is alluding to Ford's slogan, "Watch the Fords Go By." And in another spirited letter Clyde Champion Barrow, better known as one half of the infamous criminal duo "Bonnie and Clyde" writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1934: "Dear Sir. While I still have got breath in my lungs, I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned, and even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8. Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow." Of course, the punctuation and spelling is solely theirs.

Following this moment of levity, the book shifts its attention to the strong artistic relationship that was forged between Edsel Ford, known simply as Mr. Edsel to Ford employees and E.T. "Bob" Gregorie, the dapper automobile stylist who served as Ford Motor Company's first design chief. The importance of this artistic partnership is perhaps best weighed in the sheer beautiful designs that the two produced. Some of the most notable examples of this aesthetic collaboration include the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, 1938 Zephyr, 1941 Ford and the majestic 1939 Continental, which has become Gregorie's trademark and the only American luxury automobile to be showcased for design excellence at The Museum of Modern Art. But also because, according to Gregorie in an interview prior to his death on December 3, 2002 at 94 years of age, Edsel Ford was the only president of an automobile company who had been so concerned with design. Edsel hired Gregorie in 1931 when the young designer was only 22 years old. He worked at Ford until 1943, right after Edsel's death. This remarkable relationship is expertly documented by Henry Dominguez in his book, Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team and Their Classic Fords of the 1930's and 1940's.

In a particularly colorful chapter titled, "Heart and Soul: Twenty-Five vehicles that generated Excitement and Inspired Passion" the author details some of Ford's milestone cars such as: The Model-T in 1908, 1928 Model-A, 1939 Mercury Eight, 1941 Lincoln Continental, the introduction of the F-series pickup in 1948, Ford's first "modern" slab-sided car in 1949, the 1955 Thunderbird and the 1956 Continental Mark II, which had a separate Ford division exclusively devoted to its development and execution. The chapter continues with the 1961 Lincoln Continental, an automobile that won the Industrial Designers Institute's award "for its overall appearance and execution" and Car Life Magazine's Engineering Excellence Award; the 1964 Mustang, a compact and versatile vehicle that enjoyed sales in excess of 500,000 by the end of its first year of production; the 1986 Taurus, which issued the first aerodynamic body, and the 1991 Ford Explorer. The book concludes with more biographical emphasis on Henry Ford as "Citizen of the World."

The Ford Century is a detailed and engaging retrospective of the major triumphs, innovations and tribulations of the Ford Motor Company. However, it would be a mistake to view this work as being solely an automotive book. Instead, special attention is paid to the people, their lives and the vision responsible for such memorable products as the 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III and the 1925 Ford Tri-Motor "Tin Goose" airplane. Of particular interest to this reader is the care Banham takes in uncovering the psyche and ethos of such visionaries. Shunning traditional notions of biography, the author instead opts for what the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset referred to as "narrative" or what amounts to a lyrical "life as drama" approach to history that attempts to view history not as colossal and objective blocks of time, but rather as inwardly lived personal stories. The main contention of viewing history as narrative is to emphasize the biographical component in any historical analysis. Banham gives the reader a clear and incisive glance at the people behind the events and products that have been passed down as history. He achieves this by allowing the characters involved to speak for themselves without interceding in the historical drama that he is describing. The author does not fall into the temptation of "reading" currently fashionable political agendas into the text. In a time when revisionist history is used in accordance with the temporary program of any given interest group, The Ford Century comes across as the trajectory of one man's vision. | January 2004

 

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.