Out now: the Autocade Yearbook 2024
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Out now: Autocade Yearbook 2024

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Henry Ford decided to have another crack at building cars in 1903 with 12 investors, including the Dodge brothers, and popularized, but did not invent, the idea of the mass-produced automobile when he launched the Model T in 1907. Rapidly expanded into new countries through the 1910s and 1920s. Production eventually ramped up to a million a year and by 1919, Ford produced half of all cars in the US, and 40 per cent of all cars in the UK. However, the utilitarian approach of the Model T was outmoded by the 1920s as buyers sought glamour, and the low-priced Chevrolet overtook the Ford. It acquired Lincoln in 1922 but the Model T became more anachronistic. Ford shuttered its plants for months while it worked on a T successor, revealing the Model A in 1927. The Model T had sold 15 million, holding the record for the most produced automobile until well after World War II.

Following General Motors’ lead in providing a car for each socioeconomic bracket, Ford established Mercury as a mid-priced brand in 1938, but then lent itself to the war effort, when it made the Willys Jeep and Liberator aircraft, using the same mass-production techniques. Liberators were being turned out at nearly one an hour, as opposed to one a day at Consolidated Aircraft.

Ford family control continued postwar; while Henry Ford had assumed day-to-day operations after the death of his son Edsel in 1943, Henry Ford II took over in 1945. Ford II took the company public in 1956, and Robert McNamara, one of the Whiz Kids who later became Secretary of Defense in the US, became president in 1960.

Ford’s international operations proceeded to grow postwar, especially Ford of Britain which grew to become a market leader by the 1970s. Some operations were sold, such as Ford of France, to Simca; while Ford of Australia grew on the back of the Falcon family car in the 1960s. Ford of Europe was created by merging the British and German operations.

While successful in its home market with the Thunderbird, Ford could not match GM for glamour in affluent 1950s America, and a short-lived flirtation with safety features just did not appeal. The Edsel launch of 1958 is still considered a marketing disaster and synonymous with automotive failure: Ford lost $350 million on the car and the division set up to produce it. However, the compact 1960 Falcon proved to be a success. The 1964 Mustang, priced at a low $2,368, became the biggest hit for the company, with 22,000 sold on the first day and 418,812 in its first year—cementing Ford general manager Lee Iacocca’s reputation as a guru.

Glamour was the order of the day and the 1960s saw Ford use the halo effect of the Mustang successfully. The Australian Falcon, and the European Capri and Cortina all benefited. Ford of Europe developed the Escort, Capri, Taunus, Cortina, Transit and Fiesta to achieve considerable success, although Ford was caught off-guard with the fuel crises and was slow to downsize in the US. It was also hit by a scandal involving the Ford Pinto’s weakness in rear-end collisions, earning it a reputation for explosions in such events. A full-sized car, the Ford LTD of 1979, was on a platform that would ensure the company’s presence in that market into the 21st century.

Ford took a 25 per cent stake in Mazda in 1979, which it subsequently increased, and gained access to front-drive engineering from the Japanese firm. Asia-Pacific Fords were often twinned with Mazdas for years, as well as the 1990 Escort in the US.

The American side caught up with the play by the 1980s with a drive for quality and Ford looked more global as a corporation. The Escort and Taurus proved to be successful there, while Ford popularized the aero look kicked off by the Audi 100 that decade with its Sierra, Tempo and Thunderbird models. By the turn of the decade even the boxy Australian Falcon had gone aero.

Ford acquired Aston Martin and Hertz in 1987, and Jaguar in 1989. The 1990s saw Ford continue steadily with acquisitions under president Jac Nasser: Volvo in 1999, Land Rover in 2000 and the Rover brand in 2006. However, Ford’s own financial troubles (a $12·7 billion loss in 2006) saw divesting of divisions such as Aston Martin in 2007 and Jaguar and Land Rover, along with the Rover marque, in 2008 to Tata. Ford also gave up control of Mazda, sold Volvo to Geely in 2010, and shut Mercury in 2011. It also exited manufacturing in Australia and Brazil.

q.v. Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln


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