There’s perhaps no single person more associated with the automobile than Henry Ford. Ford is credited with bringing the car to the masses, which transformed driving from a pastime for the rich into an integral part of daily life for millions of people. Just imagine what the world would look like without the mass adoption of the car as basic transportation: We wouldn’t have countries crisscrossed by freeways, there’d be fewer suburbs (and those that did exist would cling to the city center) and no one would ever have to be trapped in a long drive-thru line at lunch (come to think of it, there wouldn’t be drive-thrus at all!). But, while Ford brought the car to the people, he did not invent the car.
Most historians credit Germany’s Karl Benz with inventing the automobile, though a number of people had been working on self-propelled vehicles around the same time. Benz, whose namesake car company, Mercedes-Benz, builds ultra-luxury cars that bear little resemblance to the original cars Benz himself worked on, developed a gasoline-powered three-wheeled vehicle in 1885. By 1889, Benz had a working commercial vehicle, the Model 3, which he exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair.
People do seem to like crediting Ford with innovation — the assembly line is often falsely attributed to him, too. And while he didn’t invent either the car or the assembly line, he did something that’s arguably even more important: He combined (and perfected) assembly-line manufacturing and car building.
By 1896, Ford had built his own automobile, and he completed a second prototype in 1898. He started two car companies that failed before creating the Ford Motor Company in 1903. What set the Ford Motor Company apart from his earlier efforts is that this time, Ford didn’t just want to build cars — he wanted to build a lot of cars. Many early car companies were owned or run by former coach makers. Coaches were built by hand, slowly, by master craftsmen. By applying the same principles of coach building to cars, these manufacturers kept automobiles expensive and out of the reach of most buyers.