Episode 71: Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 71: Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company

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Henry Ford, considered a giant of industry, founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903, which is today the fifth largest automaker in the world. Ford factories operate on six of the seven continents.

Henry Ford was born in 1863 near Detroit, Michigan. Even though his father was a farmer, as a boy, Henry was more interested in mechanics, and he created his own machine shop. At age 15 he built his first steam engine.

Although Henry Ford did not have a formal education in mechanics or engineering, he became a machinist’s apprentice in Detroit. He later worked with steam engines, and he joined Thomas Edison’s company as an engineer around age 28. He soon became chief engineer. In fact, Thomas Edison became his mentor and friend.

Later that year he built his first gasoline-powered engine and built his first car three years after that. At age 36, he left Edison’s company and started his first automobile company with business partners. That company failed, but Henry Ford did not give up. He built several successful race cars and founded a second auto company, which he later sold.

A year later, he founded the Ford Motor Company, which is the automaker that exists today. The first car made there was the Model T. It was not the first car sold in the US, but it was the first one to be affordable to most people. It was easy to drive and repairs were cheap.

Language note: In the early days, people called automobiles “horseless carriages”. The Model T’s nickname was “Tin Lizzie”.

Henry Ford’s success was due to his business ideas. Although he did not invent these ideas, he was the first to use them so successfully. The most important idea was the moving assembly line, which is used in most auto factories today. Another good idea was that he paid workers very well, and they only had to work 40 hours a week. Therefore, he kept the best workers. He believed that business people had a responsibility to make life better for workers.

By 1918, about half of all cars in the US were Model Ts. All Model Ts were black. In his autobiography, Ford said you could have any color “so long as it is black”. The reason was that black paint dried quickly and kept the assembly line moving. When Model Ts stopped being built in 1927, over 15 million of them had been made.

A second model, the Model A, was introduced in 1927. Ford’s son, Edsel, had the idea for this car. It was much more luxurious than the Model T, which competed with General Motors’ cars. With these two models, the Ford Motor Company became a huge industrial giant.

Henry Ford was a pacifist, which means he was against war. He believed that a good economy would make war unnecessary. But, despite all his good ideas, Ford was also a firm anti-Semite, which means he didn’t like Jewish people. He blamed them for the world wars and other problems. In fact, Adolf Hitler gave Ford the highest award Nazis gave to a foreigner. Ford also ran an anti-Semitic newspaper called the Dearborn Independent.

Ford’s son, Edsel, ran the company from 1919 to 1943 when he died. Henry Ford came back to run the company for another two years, although he had bad health problems and was not a good leader. Then his grandson, Henry Ford II, took over. Henry Ford died in 1947, age 83. The Ford family still has control of the company, although it is now public.

You can visit the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It has items that Henry Ford himself collected, as well as other Americana, such as a copy of Edison’s lab.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.