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The father of motoring

Henry Ford revolutionized the process of auto manufacturing

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It's said that behind every good man stands a great woman. This weekend though, it's all about dear old dad.

And in the history of motoring, few would argue that Henry Ford was the founding father.

Most car owners likely know that Henry Ford was the founder of the Ford Motor Company. If you dig a little deeper into the car pool, there's probably even a few motormouths like me who can tell you that Ford was the first automaker to adopt the assembly-line manufacturing process to build his affordable and mass-produced Model T -- available in any colour the customer wanted, as long as it was black.

But, beyond those few tidbits of trivia, most people these days probably know more about Justin Bieber than we know about Henry Ford. And all this time we thought the internet was making us smarter.

According to the Henry Ford Heritage Associations website, Ford was born on July 30, 1863 in Michigan, the first-born of William and Mary Ford. Young Henry grew up on his family's farm in Springwells Township, about 12 kilometres west of Detroit, and his family was relatively prosperous -- his father was deacon at the local church, a member of the school board and a justice of the peace. But, in keeping with the times, Henry only achieved a grade six education before working full-time on the farm at age 12.

Even as a young boy, Ford's keen mechanical aptitude was already emerging. When his father game him a watch as a gift, he promptly took it apart to see how it worked. Since he didn't have the required tools to put his watch back together, he made them. A shingle nail was filed down to make a tiny screwdriver, and wooden knitting needles borrowed from his mother were whittled down into tiny tweezers. In short order, Henry's tiny bedroom became a workshop where Ford repaired the broken watches of friends and neighbours.

In 1879, at age 16, Ford grew tired of farm work and walked into Detroit without his father's consent, getting a job as a labourer at the Michigan Car Company Works, a streetcar manufacturer. But Henry's father couldn't have been too upset with his motivated son because he arranged for him to become an apprentice machinist at the James Flower & Brothers Machine Shop, where he developed a keen interest in steam power.

Henry returned to the family farm in his early 20s and, in 1888, married Clara Bryant. His father gave the couple 80 acres of farmland as a wedding gift, complete with a small "honeymoon" cottage.

Henry, however, never farmed the land the way his father had expected. He spent the next two years using a crude steam engine to cut wood for his neighbours. In September, 1891, Ford had finally had enough of farm life and shocked his family with yet another move back to Detroit, where he accepted a $40-a-month position as night operating engineer at a substation of the Edison Illuminating Company.

By October of 1892, Henry was in charge of the maintenance of steam engines in the main downtown Edison Illuminating Power Plant, where he earned $75 per month.

Intrigued by gasoline engines, on Christmas Eve 1893, with his wife and helper Clara dripping in fuel, Henry ran his first homemade gasoline engine in the kitchen of the couple's rented home on Bagley Avenue in Detroit. The tiny engine ran for less than a minute.

Ford continued to hone his mechanical skills through his maintenance position at Edison and, in the summer of 1896, built his first vehicle, the "Quadricycle", in a small woodshed behind his rented house.

In what may be the first official pitch to the Dragon's Den, Henry was invited by his boss, Alexander Dow, to attend a meeting of Edison Illuminating Company executives at Manhattan Beach in New York. At the meeting, Ford was given the opportunity to pitch his gasoline-powered automobile to Thomas Edison. While Edison usually advocated electric vehicles, he told Ford that his gasoline engine was headed in the right direction.

Edison's encouragement may have actually precipitated the death of the electric car. A second gasoline-powered Ford vehicle was completed in 1898 and, with the help of his friend and Detroit mayor William C. Maybury, Henry was introduced to wealthy Detroit lumber merchant William H. Murphy, who was treated to a 3-1/2 hour, 100 kilometre demonstration ride in Ford's crudely built gasoline-powered jalopy.

He was apparently impressed.

Funded by Murphy and several of his wealthy friends, and with Ford in the position of Superintendent (receiving a salary of $150 a month), the Detroit Automobile Company was founded on August 5, 1899. Henry Ford resigned from the Edison Illuminating Company nine days later.

The first product of the Detroit Automobile Company, a delivery wagon, was completed in January, 1900, and was demonstrated on the streets of Detroit with huge success.

Stockholders wanted more, but Henry was challenged with a number of engineering problems and his experience had never included making more than one car at a time. Several cars were produced, but quality was an issue and the final product was far too expensive for anyone other than the very rich. Ford was ultimately fired from the Detroit Automobile Company and it was officially dissolved in January 1901.

With the help of a few former shareholders, Ford continued to build cars, wisely surmising that running a successful race car would not only raise his profile but also help work out the engineering bugs.

This is surely when the phrase "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" was coined. The monstrous Ford 999 race car cleaned up at the track and, with a successful race campaign under his belt, Ford was more popular than ever.

The road to riches for Ford was long and winding, but on June 16, 1903, with $28,000 in capital, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated.

The Model T was introduced to the public five years later, on Oct. 1, 1908. It had the steering wheel on the left, a feature that every other American auto manufacturer soon copied. The car was very simple to drive, and easy and cheap to repair.

According to Wikipedia, the car was so cheap ($825 in 1908, or roughly $21,080 today) that, by the 1920s, the majority of American drivers had learned to drive behind the wheel of a Model T. Thanks to Ford's adoption of the assembly-line process, sales passed 250,000 in 1914. By 1916, a basic Model T touring car sold for just $360. (Using the consumer price index, this price was equivalent to $7,020 in 2008 dollars.)

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model T's. Production of this groundbreaking machine continued as late as 1927 -- the final total production was 15,007,034.

On Sunday, when you climb behind the wheel of your car to go visit your dear old dad, remember to take a moment to remember another important father, Henry Ford, the father of motoring.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2013 F6

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