Skip to main content
A 2003 Austrian postal stamp featuring a portrait of Henry Ford

Henry Ford: Biography

Image Credit: Sergey Goryachev / | Above: A 2003 Austrian postal stamp featuring a portrait of Henry Ford

"When Ford entered the automobile business, people didn’t drive their own cars, they had drivers. And so cars were seen as this luxury item. Ford’s insight was that cars could be an everyday item."- HW BRANDS, Historian

Henry Ford is born on 30 July 1863 to an Irish immigrant father and a Michigan born mother. Raised on a farm, he soon shows his technical abilities by repairing watches and aged 16, leaves the rural life for an apprenticeship as a machinist. He marries a farmer’s daughter and briefly returns to farming to support his new family. But, in 1896, aged 33, after years of work in his back shed, he finishes his first model car, the Quadricycle. But it’s expensive to produce, and prone to break downs. Thomas Edison recognizes a fellow pioneer and encourages him to try again.

In 1901, in Grosse Point, Michigan, Ford challenges Alexander Winton, the owner of the biggest car company to a race. Alexander Winton is known as the fastest driver in America. Ford has never raced before. Ten miles later, Ford wins and becomes famous.

In 1903, Ford seeks permission of the patent holders of the automobile, the Association of License Automobile manufacturers, ALAM. One of its members is Alexander Winton. They reject his application.

Determined to carry on, Ford raises $28,000, just enough to build his first factory outside Detroit. And soon, 15 affordable cars a day are rolling off the production line. ALAM take him to court claiming breach of patent. They want royalties on every car he makes, making each car too expensive for the average consumer.

"Henry Ford was able to position himself as an anti monopolist, really in a certain way, as a kind of antithesis of the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. He is a kind of heroic individual entrepreneur, who believed in competition, who believed in developing a product and bringing it to the people." - STEVEN WATTS, Ford Biographer

The judge will eventually find in Ford’s favour, but Ford isn’t waiting for court approval.


In 1908, his third model, the Ford Model T goes on sale and demand is such even his new assembly lines can’t keep up and he stops accepting new orders. The Ford motor car is durable and light, weighing only 1,000 pounds. It 4-cylinder engine can do 45 mph.

Crucially, it costs $900 dollars, nearly half the price of its competitors. Until Ford, there were only around 8,000 hand built cars in America. They were the expensive toys of the wealthy. Now his farmer father could afford one. Prices plummet. In 1913, a Model T costs two years wages; nine years later, it’s just 3 months. By then, half of all cars in America were black Model T’s.


With Morganisation, profits are increased by eliminating competition and by reducing workers’ wages. Ford increases wages to increase his employees’ productivity and lowers costs by making a high volume of identical products which, with an assembly line approach, increases profits.

In 1914, Ford pays his workers $5 per day, double the rate of most US factories. And rather than hand craft each car one at a time, they’re assembled piece by piece by a line of workers. The assembly line changes manufacturing forever. Ford didn’t invent mass production. But he perfected it. Ford cars are built eight times faster than any other, reducing production time from 12 hours, to just one and a half.

And this innovation allows Ford to standardise the eight hour workday and the five day week. Ford is also revolutionary in paying blacks and whites the same, a staggering $5 a day, five times more than a tenant farmer in Georgia. His progressive views on race don’t extend to Jews, however, and he supports anti-Semitic propaganda.

In an attempt to end World War I, Ford plans a ‘Peace Ship’ expedition hoping an ocean liner expedition to Europe may hasten a cessation of hostilities. It doesn’t. After the war is finally over, Ford suddenly resigns from his own company and then announces that he’s starting a rival business. Fearing a slide in their shares, Ford stockholders sell. Agents are, however, all too happy to buy. It’s later revealed that the agents worked for Ford, and the whole stunt was devised to return sole ownership to the Ford family.

In 1943, Ford’s only son dies from stomach cancer. Less than four years later, aged 83, the father suffers a cerebral haemorrhage and follows his son.