Behind the familiar Ford blue oval is some odd and interesting history. Here are 10 weird facts about Henry Ford and the company that bares his name.
It was 120 years ago today that Henry Ford’s patent for a motorized carriage was first approved. That little snippet of Ford trivia inspired us to take a look back at some more obscure Ford facts from perhaps the most storied and influential of all American automakers. Here are ten weird facts you didn’t know about Ford.
It’s well known that Ford raised the wages of his employees to $5 a day, then double the national average wage. Ford had said at the time, he wanted to ensure that his employees made enough money to afford the very cars they built. But not just anyone was eligible for this $5 wage. To qualify you had to be an upstanding employee whose rectitude mirrored his productivity. In order to verify the moral fiber of employees, the company created the Ford Sociological Department in 1914 and, at its height, employed some 200 investigators empowered to snooped into nearly every aspect of employees’ lives, making unannounced home visits.
Expectations from the Ford Sociological Department included keeping a clean house and ensuring the education and robust health of one’s children. They also extended to such things as spending and drinking habits, marital status, patriotism, and even English language fluency. The latter was supplemented by a Ford English School that included graduation ceremony wherein employees would dress in the garb of their native countries, walk through a giant “American Melting Pot” prop on stage and emerge in Americanized suits and waving US flags. Thus was Ford’s particular (and peculiar) notion of assimilation.
Ford didn’t limit itself to automobiles. The company got into the airplane business in 1924 when it bought the Stout Metal Airplane Company. Some of their projects, like the Ford Trimotor, were fairly successful, while others, like the Ford Flivver, a personal aircraft prototype, proved less so. Ford never successfully scaled their airplane division and was out of the aviation business by the mid-1930s. They would, however, return to building planes, including the B-24 bomber, during WWII.
As part of the promotion for their new car, Ford put a Mustang on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City. This involved disassembling the car into four large pieces small enough to be lifted in the building’s elevators, and then reassembling the car on the 86th floor. The company did the stunt a second time in 2015.
At the behest of then President Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford ran for Michigan’s US Senate seat in 1918. Though a lifelong Republican, Ford, a noted pacifist, ran as a Democrat partly in support of Wilson’s vision of a League of Nations. Ford lost the election to Truman Newberry by just 4,500 votes. However, Newberry was found to have violated Michigan’s campaign financing laws, overspending the limit of $3,750 by some $500,000 during the primary election. As a result, Ford contested the election and Newberry was found guilty of campaign violations. The resulting appeal wound up before the Supreme Court, where the court found in favor of Newberry in a 5 to 4 decision, ruling that Congress lacked standing in the case. Under pressure, Sen. Newberry resigned from office in 1922.
Henry Ford worked for Thomas Edison at the Edison Illumination Company in Detroit, starting there at the age of 16. Ford would eventually rise to chief engineer at the company, on 24-hour call to keep the lights on in Detroit. He and Edison became fast friends, and it was with Edison’s encouragement that Ford struck out on his own to pursue his vision of a motorized carriage. The two would stay life-long friends, going so far as having neighboring vacation homes in Fort Myers, Florida.
Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile (that was Carl Benz). Nor did Ford invent the assembly line, already used in everything from breweries and flour mills to meatpacking plants. However, Ford’s significant innovation was in applying a moving assembly line to the production of automobiles. This change, implemented in 1913, reduced the time the company took to build a single car from 12 hours to just one and a half hours.
It’s well known that Ford built vehicles for both WWI and WWII. In the former case, Model Ts were outfitted as field ambulances, trucks, and even artillery transports. In the latter case, Ford built all manner of military hardware including tanks, trucks, airplanes (like the B-24 bomber), generators, and even gliders.
What you might not have heard was Ford also built jeeps. That’s right, Ford manufactured Willys Jeeps. Though Willys had won the military contract, they were too small a company to be able to fulfill all the Army’s needs. Therefore, using the Willys design, Ford produced some 300,000 jeeps for the war effort.
Jim Morrison was the Lizard King, a poet, lead singer of The Doors and certainly not a motorhead. In fact, Morrison owned only one car, a 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, a gift from his record company. One story goes that the frequently inebriated Morrison had crashed the car into a telephone pole and left the car, walking to a bar to continue his evening’s drinking. When he finally returned for the car, it was gone. Morrison failed to follow up, and the car eventually sold out of impound. Another version has it that the car was left at LAX and eventually towed and sold. Whichever is true, the whereabouts of Morrison’s Shelby Mustang appears lost to history.
Supply chains aren’t just a contemporary concern. Back in the late 1920s, Ford was seeking a cheaper and more consistent source of rubber for their cars. The proposed solution was a rubber plantation in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. Known as Fordlândia, the plantation included significant housing for the local workers. Ford’s penchant for paternalistic moralizing extended to the management of the plantation, which banned alcohol, tobacco, soccer, and even women from the town. Upriver, an additional settlement with bars and brothels was established by locals to service the needs of workers. Even so, resentments grew among the workers. Managing the rubber trees proved no less of a challenge. As the trees had been planted too densely, they became subject to disease and infestation. There was even a worker rebellion 1930 reportedly sparked by the bad food at the company cafeteria. These and other difficulties persisted until Ford abandoned the plantation in 1934. Though a ruin for decades, Fordlândia has recently been repopulated and is reportedly now home to some 3,000 inhabitants.
At Henry Ford’s request, Edison’s son Charles captured the inventor’s last beath in a glass test tube as a keepsake for his longtime friend. Thomas Edison’s last breath is displayed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.