When Henry Ford II died in September, it seemed an era passed with him. Henry II, or Hank the Deuce as he was sometimes called, embodied the swaggering flamboyance of an earlier industrial era, when great families ruled the great companies with autocratic splendor and caprice, unchallenged by outside directors, shareholders, government bureaucrats, unsatisfied consumers, corporate raiders or anyone else.
With exquisite timing, Peter Collier and David Horowitz have arrived with a new book examining America’s most famous and capricious industrial family, the Fords. Family is the operative word there. Don’t look to Collier and Horowitz for analysis of the fundamental changes that have shaken the American automotive industry over the past 20 years. Unlike David Halberstam, who used the history of Ford as a metaphor for declining American competitiveness in his recent best seller “The Reckoning,” Collier and Horowitz refer only briefly to the challenge of the Japanese auto makers.
Their interests lie elsewhere. With their previous books on the tribulations of the Rockefeller and Kennedy clans, Collier and Horowitz established themselves as our premier chroniclers of American dynastic tragedy. And they find plenty to work with in this tale of three generations of piquant Fords--prickly old Henry, as cold and hard as a Model T on a winter morning; his son, sensitive, doomed Edsel, destroyed by his father’s obsessive refusal to pass the reins of power; and pudgy, unfocused Henry II, the unlikely savior, who redeems the company for his martyred father.
The authors themselves compare this story of intergenerational strife to “the morally infected realm of Shakespearean history cycles.” If that’s a bit much, the Ford saga has at least as much bathos, melodrama, scheming, sex and boardroom confrontation as a good episode of “Dallas.”
Much of the story is familiar, but the authors tell it with verve and abundant skill; they’ve obviously done this kind of thing before. The first acts are dominated by Henry Ford, the quirky genius whose tinkering produced the Model T and ushered in the modern world from which he spent the rest of his life recoiling. Obstinate, out of touch, increasingly irrational, in the long twilight of his reign Henry Ford almost wrecked the company that he founded.
Unquestionably, he wrecked his son Edsel, who bore the impossible responsibility of bending his father to a changing world. In Collier and Horowitz’s hands, Edsel is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon, a sort of tragic poet miscast as a baron of business. (He seems a little like Bobby Ewing, the good brother on “Dallas,” too.) Edsel’s “rebellions were small,” the authors write, but in the insular suburban world of the Detroit auto men, even such a minor indiscretion as an interest in modern art was enough to set him apart as an adventurous bohemian. At Ford, his attitude toward the business was no less forward-looking. As the austere Model T lost ground through the late 1920s to competing models that offered more comforts, Edsel fought with Henry to introduce such recent innovations as the self-starter and hydraulic brakes. More fundamentally, he struggled to impose on the chaos at Ford the type of modern management structure that undergirded General Motors. Edsel won some of these battles but lost more, and the struggle destroyed his health. He died young, unfinished, unfulfilled, worn down by the hard rock of his father.
It fell to Edsel’s son Henry II (with an assist from his mother, Edsel’s widow, and her 41% share of the stock) to finally liberate the company from old Henry’s withered and withering hand. To Collier and Horowitz, Henry II is a larger-than-life figure. They find plenty of chaos in Henry II’s chaotic life--an excessive fondness for alcohol, an ugly predilection for drunken, leering passes at women. They even find time to repeatedly suggest that Henry II’s second wife did more with Imelda Marcos than shop for shoes.
But Henry II ultimately emerges from their portrayal as an industrial titan who not only rejuvenated the company but in the process avenged his father and restored his family’s honor against all pretenders to the throne. In this telling, Henry’s heralded dismissal of Lee Iacocca from Ford stands as the final triumph of a grounded, centered man who knew his talents and limitations over a grasping, hopelessly egotistical arriviste whose ambition deluded him into believing that he could snatch the company from the man whose name was on the building.
Summing up Henry II’s career, the authors compare him to Prince Hal, King Henry, Falstaff and Odysseus. Based even on the sympathetic portrait in this book, it’s hard to swallow such a fulsome eulogy. Yet for all his manifest faults, Henry II persevered and eventually fused the company with his own identity as surely as his grandfather had. He may not have been a savior, but he was a survivor, and there is some measure of triumph in that too.