DEARBORN, Mich. - Henry Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line, but his influence on those and other innovations laid the foundation for a company that, in a sense, put the world in motion and changed America forever.
Ford will always be linked to the Model T, which was first produced in 1908 and eventually became the symbol of low-cost, reliable transportation. The Model T helped establish a company that survived the Great Depression and two world wars and has remained around long enough to mark 100 years in business on June 16.
But Henry Ford’s legacy rides on much more than four wheels.
Ford’s use of the assembly line for mass automotive production and his $5-a-day wage changed American society, creating jobs for immigrants and minorities who flocked to Detroit and spawning a new segment of the population that could dabble in the markets Ford helped establish.
‘‘Henry Ford is the most revolutionary figure of the 20th century in American life,’’ says historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the recently released book, ‘‘Wheels for the World — Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress.’’
‘‘He’s responsible for turning our working class into the middle class and understanding that cars weren’t luxury items.’’
Beyond culture, Brinkley credits Ford with influencing world history itself.
Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, says the outcome of World War II would have been uncertain if Ford had not honed the mass-production process when he did. Ford Motor Co. and other automakers contributed mightily to the war effort by producing bombers, engines and other war machinery.
From a sociological perspective, Ford and his company changed the way we live and work. By raising wages and shortening the work day, he created greater wealth and leisure time for his employees while boosting productivity and establishing a new class of consumers.
As a businessman, Henry Ford was an American icon, known for his inventiveness and vision. He shunned booze and cigarettes, and his idea of a good time might have included dancing a polka or camping with close friends Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and their families.
Yet he also had a well-known dark side, publicly stating that Jews had caused World War I, manipulating the banking industry and creating their wealth at the expense of hardworking Americans, according to Neil Baldwin’s 2001 book, ‘‘Henry Ford and the Jews — The Mass Production of Hate.’’
Through it all, the company continued to produce the vehicles that, as many are fond of saying, ‘‘put the world on wheels.’’
But more than products, Ford made icons for American life. The Model T was the first car for the masses. The Thunderbird was fun, the Mustang was youth, the Lincoln was wealth. And, just as not everything works out in life, Ford had the Edsel, symbol of failure.
These days, Bill Ford Jr., who was born 10 years after his great-grandfather Henry’s 1947 death, finds himself trying to guide the company out of one of its most dire periods. The automaker lost $6.4 billion in the past two years. Its share price has fallen from $30 four years ago to around $10 today, and its overall U.S. market share has declined for the past seven years.
But the automaker’s place in the fabric of the community it helped create is no less apparent.