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The Sage of Dearborn

Without doubt, Henry Ford has had more books written about him than any other member of the automotive fraternity.

Without doubt, Henry Ford has had more books written about him than any other member of the automotive fraternity. So, why should anyone care about another book on Dearborn’s most famous son? Hasn’t this field been plowed too many times?

Thankfully, Steven Watts didn’t think so, and set off on a journey to put Ford into context. Not just with the times in which he lived and the social currents flowing through a still-young republic as it entered the 20th century, but also within the context of the fledgling industry he helped found, his family, and the broader world. Then, instead of writing a timeline-driven narrative that followed Ford along his journey, Watts divided Ford’s life and impact on the world into sections—“The Road to Fame,” “The Miracle Maker,” “The Flivver King,” “The Long Twilight”—and subsections “Emperor,” “Father,” “Bigot,” etc.—that focus on the many and conflicting roles and personalities the man possessed or created. The result is an engaging, readable, well-researched look at the man—and, in many ways, the company—that put the world on wheels. The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Knopf, $30) is one of the best and most complete histories of the man written, and adds to the understanding of Ford’s many and oft-times contradictory views and actions.

Henry Ford had many talents, though one of the most important was his genius for self-promotion. Ford took the idea of the self-made man and fabricated a narrative in which he was always struggling—and winning—against the forces that were arrayed against him. This pathological need to vanquish those who he saw as rivals eventually spilled over into Henry’s relationship with his beloved son, Edsel. For example, Edsel commissioned a new power station for the Rouge facility while Henry was in Europe, and Henry demolished it without saying a word to Edsel when the latter left the country. And this is but one example of many seemingly heartless and cruel acts father visited upon son. Yet Edsel was too much a loyal son to castigate his father, and internalized the pain as he waited to succeed his father naturally. Unfortunately, Edsel died four years before his father of stomach cancer.

The People’s Tycoon also examines the people, places, and products that either have taken on mythic status or been forgotten, and examines their contribution to the Ford legend. In doing so, Watts breaks through the ages-old propaganda and paints a picture of the Ford Motor Company that is less sanitary, but no less interesting, than the official telling approved by Henry Ford and his apologists. It is this texture, combined with Watt’s easy-to-read style, which makes this a must-have book for anyone interested in the man that put the world on wheels and the dynasty he built.—CAS