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The History of the Ford Motor Company

The History of the Ford Motor Company

By BZR 0 Comment March 29, 2019

Henry Ford – early years

Henry Ford was born in Dearborn Michigan in 1863 and grew up on the family farm that was located outside of Detroit. At the age of 16 he walked into Detroit and obtained work at the Michigan Car Company Works which built streetcars. His father then arranged for him to train as an apprentice machinist. In 1881 he worked for a brief time for the Detroit Dry Dock Company. In the next year he returned to his father’s farm operating a neighbour’s steam traction engine and then worked at repairing these types of engines. In 1891 he moved to Detroit and took a position as a night operating engineer at a substation of the Edison Illuminating Company. In the following year he was responsible for the maintenance of the steam engines in the main Edison Illuminating Power Plant.

Although he was working with steam engines, Henry became increasingly interested in gasoline internal combustion engines. This led him to experiment with diffierent designs. He successfully operated his first simple one-cylinder gasoline engine in 1893.


1896 – His first automobile – the Quadricycle

In 1896 he built his first automobile. He called this vehicle the Quadricycle as it was a frame fitted with four bicycle wheels. Norman Rockwell later depicted Henry building his quadricycle in a painting he produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company (see image at left). The Quadricycle was built in a shed at the back of the Bagley Street house where Henry and his wife lived. When it was ready to run he found that it was too wide to fit through the door. He was so eager to take it for a test run that he smashed bricks out of the wall to get it out.

Early in the morning of June 4, 1896, Henry took his new automobile for a test drive through the streets of Detroit. Initially it ran smoothly but after a few blocks it stalled due to some ignition problems. Nevertheless he was pleased – after years of 1896 Henry in his quadricyclework he had achieved his goal of building a working automobile. This was not the first gasoline automobile to be produced but it was the first of a long line of Ford automobiles and the start of Henry’s remarkable career as a automobile manufacturer. The Quadricycle was powered by a four stroke two-cylinder engine. It was built on a steel frame with no body. The dash was made of wood, and the seat was covered in green cloth with metal arms. It had a very primitive clutch and tiller steering and Henry fitted it with a bicycle lamp and an electric bell.


1899-1901 The Detroit Automobile Company

Shortly after building his Quadricycle Henry had the opportunity to meet Thomas Edison who offered encouragement to Henry in his efforts to develop his gasoline automobile. Henry began working on an improved version of his car and started to consider the possibility of manufacturing gasoline automobiles. He completed his second1900 delivery wagon vehicle in 1898. With the assistance of the Detroit Mayor he met with local businessmen to discuss the financing of this endeavour. Henry took a local lumber merchant named William Murphy on a long drive in his car and convinced him to become a financial backer. With the funding provided by Murphy and his colleagues the Detroit Automobile Company was founded in 1899 with Henry Ford in the position of Superintendent.

The first product that was produced by the Detroit Automobile Company was a delivery wagon. This was completed in January 1900. It was demonstrated through the streets of Detroit and was well received. However Henry had only ever produced one vehicle at a time. This was too slow for the investors who were pushing for a variety of vehicles and were expecting to see profits in the short term. Several vehicles were produced but there were problems with the quality of the vehicles and the selling price proved to be too high. The company was wound up and officially dissolved in January 1901.

1901-1902 Henry’s first race cars (Sweepstakes, “999”) & The Henry Ford Company

Undaunted by these initial setbacks, Henry had noticed that other automobile pioneers had gained publicity and established their reputation by engaging in early automobile races. He, therefore, set his sights on building a successful race car. With help from his friends including some of the investors in the Detroit Automobile Company he built a lightweight 2-cylinder race car.

The racer, now known as “Sweepstakes” produced 26 horsepower and was completed in mid-1901. Henry drove the racer at the Grosse Pointe equestrian track in a race against another early automotive pioneer Alexander Winton. While Henry drove the racer his friend Ed Huff hung onto the running board and helped to balance the car as it took the curves. Although his car was less powerful than his rival’s racer, Henry won the race as Winton had to retire after problems with his car. The reward for winning the race was a cut-glass punch bowl and a $1000.

More importantly, the race win brought Henry the attention and publicity he desired. On the back of Henry’s enhanced reputation, Murphy and other backers of the Detroit Automobile Company formed a new company called The Henry Ford Company on November 30 1901. Henry was named Chief Engineer. The initial aim was to build a light-weight roadster to be sold at a price of around $1000. However, Henry still retained his interest in racing. Although some of the owners of the new company disapproved, Henry worked with his staff on the design of a new race car.

This time it was a substantial 4-cylinder racer – the famous 999 racing car. Tom Cooper contacted Ford and requested that he build him a racing car. On March 10th of 1902 Ford left the company. When he departed, Murphy and the other backers took charge. With the assistance of Henry Leland they reorganised the company under a new name, the Cadillac Automobile Company.

999 Ford racer in 1902Henry arranged with Cooper to build two racers – the “999” for Ford and the “Arrow” for Cooper. Both of these cars were named after fast express trains of the period. When the 999 was ready to race, neither Ford or his colleagues wanted to take on the onerous task of driving it. It was a big and powerful racer for its time – it developed around 80 horsepower. Barney Oldfield was recruited to drive the car and won the Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup that was held at Grosse Point on October 25, 1902. This success further enhanced Ford’s reputation. The race was the beginning of a successful motor racing career for Oldfield who had easily beaten his competition which had again included Alexander Winton. Oldfield went on to become the most famous American race car driver of his generation.

1903 Formation of the Ford Motor Company & Production of the Model A Ford

1903 Model A FordIn 1902 the well known Detroit coal dealer Alexander Malcomson had discussions with Henry about the manufacture of a lightweight vehicle of simple design. They entered an agreement to build this automobile with Henry effectively working as an employee. The first example of the automobile that Malcomson called the “Fordmobile” was designed and built before the end of the year. This first model produced by the Ford Motor Company became known as the Model A Ford and was a 2 cylinder car of simple design. It was manufactured by assembling a variety of parts purchased from various suppliers. This was a common practice at the time and many automobiles of this period shared common parts.

mack avenue Ford factory The operation was shifted into a building on Mack Avenue in Detroit in May 1903. They entered an agreement with various component suppliers including the Dodge brothers. After running into some difficulties with raising sufficient funds additional backers invested in this new enterprise. During a meeting on June 15 of 1903, at the suggestion of Malcomson, the name of the company officially became the “Ford Motor Company”. On June 16th Articles of Association were filed. At the time there were twelve stockholders.

1903 Model A Ford advertisement with this third automobile company Henry Ford finally achieved the success he was seeking. He was now 40 years of age. At first, the new company struggled as it began operations with a subscribed capital barely sufficient to purchase the parts to begin operations. At the start, the company would purchase parts and components on a 30-day cash basis and then build as many cars as possible in that time and sell them as quickly as possible. Through this practice, the company was able to raise the working capital to meet the 30 day bills, pay the rent and staff and even realise some profit which could be reinvested in order to grow the business.

The Model A was powered by a two-cylinder engine. Final drive was by a single chain to the rear wheel and it featured a steering wheel – a rarity at the time when most vehicles were still fitted with tiller steering. It was a basic two-seater that could be converted to a four-seater tonneau model by adding a rear seat. The engine was fitted under the front bench and produced 8 hp. By producing this little car the Ford Motor Company was able to build a profitable business and compete successfully with the other automobile companies for marketshare. Within 3 months the fledgling company was on its feet and by the end of the year it was firmly established.


1904 The introduction of the Model B and Model C Ford

Model C Ford 1904 The Model C of 1904 was an updated version of the Model A. It had more modern styling and a slightly larger 2 cylinder engine that delivered 10 hp. The wheelbase of the Model C Ford was 6 inches longer than the Model A. The Model A had a hood/bonnet at the front but this was purely ornamental as the engine was still located beneath the front bench. The Models A and C were produced next to each other for a period and the Model A could be purchased with the Model C engine making it a Model AC. The Model C sold for the same price as the Model A – $850 as a two-seater and $950 as the four seater tonneau model. From 1904 to 1905 approximately 800 Model C Ford cars were produced.

1905 Model B Ford The company produced a new type of automobile in 1904. Designated the Model B it was designed as a more luxurious touring car. At this time Ford produced 2 types of vehicles – the smaller car (the Model A then its successor the Model C) and the larger Model B. The Model B was the first Ford car to have a front-engine layout. The 4-cylinder engine produced 24 hp. The price was $2000, more than double that of the smaller Ford. The last of the Model B cars was sold in 1906 and during that time a total of 500 were produced. Sales were predictably slower than the smaller, cheaper Ford car. The successor to the Model B was the Model K.


1905 The launch of the Model F Ford.

Model F Ford The Model F Ford was introduced in 1905. It continued the model line that began with the Model A but was a larger and more luxurious car than the Model A or C. It had a four seater body with running boards and a 4 cylinder engine. The engine was still located under the front seat and the wheelbase was some 6 inches longer than the Model C. It was sold for $1000-1200 and was continued in production until 1906. A total of approx 1000 were produced. The demise of the Model F ended Ford’s first model cycle that had commenced with the Model A.

1906 Model K Ford and the Model N Ford

Model K FordThe year 1906 saw the introduction of the 6 cylinder Model K Ford – the automobile that many regard as Ford’s first failure. The car targeted the luxury market. The car was equipped with a large 6 cylinder engine and a two speed planetary transmission. The chassis had a 114 inch wheel base and could be ordered with a two seater (roadster) body or four seater touring body. The car did not sell as expected. It was expensive (priced at $2500 to $3000) yet it fell short of the quality expected for a car in this price range and there were ongoing problems with the engine and transmission. The Model K was produced from 1906 to 1908 and around 900 were produced.

The problems that the company suffered with this car were such that Henry swore never to attempt to produce another 6 cylinder car. Indeed when the company finally did adopt an alternative to the 4 cylinder engine in 1932 it turned to the V8 as the new engine. The technical problems with the car also influenced Henry’s thinking about the type of automobile that they were producing. While most US companies were trying to match the European producers by producing expensive and complicated luxury cars, Henry became convinced that a simple automobile for the masses would be the key to success for his company. As a result of the failure of the Model K, Alexander Malcomson who had been a champion of producing luxury cars, left the company. This opened the way for Henry Ford to become the major shareholder and president of the company in 1906. He was then free to pursue his idea of producing a reliable and affordable car for the masses – the strategy that culminated in the design of the Model T Ford.

Model N Ford The other Model introduced in 1906 was the Model N. This car provided evidence of the direction that Ford was to follow in subsequent years. It was a relatively small and affordable car that was priced at less than half the price of the Model F. It featured an inline 4 cylinder engine that was located at the front of the car and was far more modern that the old flat twin engines that Ford had been using in the smaller models. It produced 15 hp. The car was reliable, easy to drive and proved very popular. A total of 7000 were produced between 1906 and 1908. Most were sold with a two-seater body. The success of this car helped to establish the reputation of the company as a manufacturer of inexpensive yet reliable automobiles.


1907 The Model R and S Ford

Model S FordThe Model R and S Ford cars were updated versions of the Model N. The Model R had the same engine and chassis as the Model N with minor changes. The body was somewhat larger. The Model R was produced for a short period in 1907 – from April to October and around 2500 were produced. The Model S Ford was also essentially an updated version of the Model N. It featured bodywork that was somewhat more elaborate than that featured on the Model N and R. The Model S was sold from 1907 to 1909, with a total of around 3750 produced in this period.


History of the Ford Motor Company from 1908 to 1953

The period from 1908 to 1953 was remarkable time for the Ford Motor Company. The overwhelming success of the Model T Ford established the company as the leading automobile manufacturer of the era. The Model A and flathead V8 vehicles were also successful. You can read about these Ford models in the other sections of our website by clicking on the links below. These sections of the website also contain information about the original Model T Ford, Model A Ford and early Ford V8 parts, tools, books and dealership items that we have for sale.

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