Henry Ford and his First Car
One day in 1885, the twenty-three-year old Henry Ford got his first look at the gas-powered engine, and it was instant love. Ford had apprenticed as a machinist and had worked on every conceivable device, but nothing could compare to his fascination with this new type of engine, one that created its own power. He envisioned a whole new kind of horseless carriage that would revolutionize transportation. He made it his Life’s Task to be the pioneer in developing such an automobile.
Working the night shift at the Edison Illuminating Company as an engineer, during the day he would tinker with the new internal-combustion engine he was developing. He built a workshop in a shed behind his home and started constructing the engine from pieces of scrap metal he salvaged from anywhere he could find them. By 1896, working with friends who helped him build a carriage, he completed his first prototype, which he called the Quadricycle, and debuted it on the streets of Detroit.
At the time there were many others working on automobiles with gas powered engines. It was a ruthlessly competitive environment in which new companies died by the day. Ford’s Quadricycle looked nice and ran well, but it was too small and incomplete for large scale production. And so he began work on a second automobile, thinking ahead to the production end of the process. A year later he completed it, and it was a marvel of design. Everything was geared toward simplicity and compactness. It was easy to drive and maintain. All that he needed was financial backing and sufficient capital to mass produce it.
To manufacture automobiles in the late 1890s was a daunting venture. It required a tremendous amount of capital and a complex business structure, considering all of the parts that went into production. Ford quickly found the perfect backer: William H. Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen in Detroit. The new company was dubbed the Detroit Automobile Company, and all who were involved had high hopes. But problems soon arose. The car Ford had designed as a prototype needed to be reworked–the parts came from different places; some of them were deficient and far too heavy for his liking. He kept trying to refine the design to come closer to his ideal. But it was taking far too long, and Murphy and the stockholders were getting restless. In 1901, a year and a half after it had started operation, the board of directors dissolved the company. They had lost faith in Henry Ford.
In analyzing this failure, Ford came to the conclusion that he had been trying to make his automobile serve too many consumer needs. He would try a second time, starting out with a lightweight and smaller vehicle. He convinced Murphy to give him another chance, something rare in the fledgling automobile business. Still believing in Ford’s genius, he agreed, and together they formed the Henry Ford Company. Right from the start, however, Ford felt the pressure from Murphy to get the automobile ready for production so as to avoid the problems he’d had with the first company. Ford resented the interference from people who knew nothing about design or the high standards he was trying to establish for the industry. Murphy and his men brought in an outsider to supervise the process.
This was the breaking point. Less than a year after its establishment, Ford left the company. The break with Murphy this time was final. In the car business, everyone wrote Henry Ford off. He had blown his two chances and nobody was ever given a third, not with the amount of money at stake. But to friends and family, Ford himself seemed blithely unconcerned. He told everyone that these were all invaluable lessons to him–he had paid attention to every glitch along the way, and like a watch or an engine, he had taken apart these failures in his mind and had identified the root cause: no one was giving him enough time to work out the bugs. The people with money were meddling in mechanical and design affairs. They were injecting their mediocre ideas into the process and polluting it. He resented the idea that having money gave them certain rights, when all that mattered was a perfect design.
The answer was to find a way to maintain complete independence from the financiers. This was not the usual way of doing business in America, which was becoming increasingly bureaucratic. He would have to invent his own form of organization, his own business model, one that suited his temperament and needs–including an efficient team he could trust, and the right to the final word on every decision.