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Henry Ford (Lives and Legacies) Hardcover – 25 Jul 2013
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Henry Ford is a brisk read, and one brimming with resonant detail. (Douglas Kennedy, The Times)
[A] succinct and illuminating narrative. (The Automobile)
Curcio's study is winningly even-handed and well researched. (Jonathan Wright, The Glasgow Herald)
About the Author
Vincent Curcio , a veteran theatrical manager-producer, is the author of Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius. A long-time car enthusiast, he divides his time between Union City, New Jersey, Paris, and the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut.
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The book has been excellently researched and contains much detail and insight. It would be hard to gather all this information from trawling the internet, so thanks Mr Curcio for doing the hard graft for us. A fascinating read for the businessman, the industrialist, and the modern historian.
In 1879 when he was sixteen Ford went to live and work in Detroit, walking the six miles from Dearborn. He was employed by the Michigan Car Company but only stayed six days, losing his job when he quickly solved a problem which senior hands had worked on for hours. Ford, not one for expressing his emotions, ruefully recorded, 'I learned then not to tell all you know'. He moved to another firm where he learned to make and read blueprints. He took a second job at a jewelers to cover his rent. He later worked for a shipbuilding company and studied typewriting, bookkeeping and mechanical drawing in the evenings. All work and no play did not turn Henry into a dull boy. He was popular with girls, never touched alcohol or tobacco, which he regarded as poisons, married in 1888 and gave his wife control of the family finances.
Although he had settled on the farm Ford never lost his interest in the development of engines to replace horses. This occurred at a time when 'remarkable things were happening in the world of science, technology, and....transportation'. It took him twelve years of trial and error to translate his thoughts into practical application. His first step was to move to Detroit and work for the Edison Illuminating Company where he quickly rose from earning $45 a month on twelve hour shift to the position of the chief engineer at $1000 a month. His ability lay in his capacity for working out in his mind how things functioned in practice. This resulted in him rejecting both steam and electricity as efficient means of transportation.
The first internal combustion engine, using gunpowder as its explosive force, was invented by a Dutchman, Christian Huygens, in 1665. Throughout the nineteenth century there were technological advancements in France. French leadership of the industry collapsed in the face of American competition in the early twentieth century owing to a lack of cheap labour, market and physical space for automobiles. Ford carried out his first test of his 'horseless carriage' in 1896 funding the venture from his own money. Ford was not an immediate success and the Ford Motor Company which was incorporated in 1903, was his third attempt. He regarded failure as 'the opportunity more intelligently to begin again'. Until 1919 when he bought out his shareholders, Ford relied on other people's financial support. He also relied on publicity, his one blind spot being that he mistakenly believed it. Philosophically Ford became convinced there was an eternal universal mind that sent 'brain wave' messages to human beings. Matter and spirit were the same thing and reincarnation meant mankind 'was the product of what he had experienced in past lives and could improve himself by tapping into the universal wisdom at the heart of the world'. What was important was that mankind was attuned to intuit whatever message the universe was sending its way.
Ford disagreed with some of his partners who wanted to concentrate on the top of the price range vehicles arguing 'the way to make automobiles is to make automobiles like another automobile, to make them all alike'. Vehicles were to be simple, standard and cheap. He achieved this with the Model T and the development of mass production. The assembly line reduced the production time of each vehicle from twelve and a half hours to ninety-three man minutes. He used the savings from economies of scale to reduce the cost of his vehicles. He continued to modify the vehicle during its production lifetime. Ford surrounded himself with highly skilled, well paid, engineers and recognized the importance of paying assembly line staff comparatively high wages. He was egalitarian in his willingness to employ anyone who worked hard. The drawback was that by dividing assembling into small tasks work became soulless and dehumanizing which Ford compensated by reducing the working day and raising wages.
Ford's paternalism included requiring non English-speaking workers to attend group language sessions either before or after their shifts. Aware of the atrocious living conditions and social habits of many in Detroit, Ford's aim was to give his employees a chance at living better lives. In addition, he was flexible enough to recognize changes in the market, replacing sameness with variety towards the end of the 1920's. As he became wealthier, however, his self-confidence turned to megalomania resulting in the dismissal of those who had contributed to his success.
Ford hated war and attributed its persistence to conspiratorial forces such as bankers and Jews. In 1918 he bought a local newspaper which published a series of Antisemitic articles later consolidated into five volumes called 'The International Jew'. It sullied his reputation and, in the wake of a court case, led to an apology and a retraction of all the attacks on Jews. However, his anti-Judaism continued in private until 1945 when he viewed the liberation of the concentration camps. This so distressed him that he fled the room and shortly after suffered a stroke. It was said of Ford he achieved wealth but not greatness. Yet there was greatness in his democratic idealism, an idealism which was marred only by his wealth. Excellent book, five stars.
This biography is a manageable length and is easy to read despite being an extremely American publication, not just in terms of the spelling but some of the phraseology. You have to remember all the way through that 'gas' is what we call 'petrol'! But the story is about a completely American man. That said, it is a remarkable story of a remarkable man who had virtually no education, was brought up on a farm and became a completely self-made industrialist on a vast scale. He was an extraordinary mixture of philanthropist and hard-nosed businessman with some completely inspired and brilliant ideas as well as some very wrong-headed opinions which nearly led him to disaster several times. He must also have had a very compelling personality to command such loyalty, and was also a huge champion of education and self-help for the under-privileged, employing handicapped and disadvantaged people at a time when no-one else would have dreamed of doing so. He gave liberally with one hand and at times took with the other pretty savagely and yet remained an American idol, nearly becoming a Senator and almost being persuaded to run for President. He had a hand in the most amazing amount of industries, many of which were a complete surprise to me and he should be remembered for many of his enterprises other than just cars. Well worth reading - and just the thing to give your Dad or brother for Christmas.
The jacket has a lovely oxymoron in the blurb 'succinctly exhaustive' and by the end you are left to wonder just who decided that the book should race over Ford's life with little depth. It seems that no original research was carried out for this biography and Ford is kept at arm's length.
Unfortunately you do come across the odd hack history expression, such as 'It took another 18 years for Daimler and Benz in Germany to make one of these engines work in a vehicle.', which not only makes it sound like they were working flat out during that time on that particular problem, but also that they worked together.
And Curcio uses the affected and nonsensical 'BCE' instead of BC. Perhaps he just wants to be seen as 'with it', but any historian willing to wipe out history for the sake of new dogma makes you wonder what else he is willing to tamper with.
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