The Ford Motor Company is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. American inventor Henry Ford formed the company on June 16, 1903 in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford went on to design a car, the Model T, and a production method - the auto assembly line - that helped transform the way people worked and traveled. An extended celebration of the centennial comes to a climax June 12-16 at Ford headquarters in Dearborn.
The flashy T-Bird, or Thunderbird, the Beach Boys sang about is one of many Ford-built cars to capture the popular imagination. Over the decades, those cars have inspired road tours and nostalgic fan clubs, and centennial spokesman Jon Nens says they'll be featured attractions at the celebration.
"We'll have over 3200 classic cars that will be on the property," he said. "People are coming here from all over the world. We have one gentleman driving from Argentina in a 1952 Ford. We have enthusiast cars from all over the place, Model As, Model Ts, Mustangs, Thunderbirds. Not only do we have classic cars, but today's current cars will be here. The centennial is really about our products and our people, and the pride that surrounds our feeling about being 100 years old."
Those people include not only the Ford family-which still leads the company after several generationsbut Ford employees and fanatical fans like Joss Sanderson. He's a long-time lover of Model Ts who organized a month-long motorcade from California to Michigan, a distance of almost 5,000 kilometers. Forty-three Model Ts, some around 90 years old, are taking part. The group has traveled about 56 kilometers an hour, mostly on minor highways and country roads, and they've had their share of mechanical breakdowns. But speaking from Sioux City, Iowa, Joss Sanderson talked about why it's so much fun to take a leisurely drive in a Model T.
"If you go down the road at 35 miles an hour, yesterday, my wife and I saw pheasants. We saw a beaver actually walking by a pond. So you get to see things you wouldn't ordinarily see," he said. "And we have everybody in every single town walking out, waving their hands. They had an event in Sioux City, one of our largest towns at about 60,000 [people], and that event was attended by some 2000-3000 people."
Such responses don't surprise Russ Banham, author of an illustrated history called The Ford Century.
"The word 'Ford' is the second most recognizable brand name in the world after Coca-Cola. There are stories of rusted Model Ts found in Mauritania and the hills of New Zealand."
The Ford company began building Model Ts in 1908. They were such an instant hit that the company soon started producing them assembly-line style, with each worker installing the same part in car after car," he said.
Russ Banham says Henry Ford's goal was to produce affordable vehicles for everyday people.
"When Henry Ford started the company back in 1903, one in 1.5 million Americans owned a car," he said. "Ten years later, one in 800 owned a car, and it was likely a Model T. Cars when he started his company cost $3000. The Model T in 1914 cost $260. So truly for the first time, average income-earning Americans could own a car. Young men and women growing up on farms now had opportunities open to them that heretofore did not exist. People who lived in the increasingly squalid cities now had refuge. They could go out in the country. Soon after this we had roads and motels and burger joints - and welcome to the world as it is today."
By the mid 1950s, that world also included TV commercials, where Ford and other companies unveiled each year's new models and designs.
But if Ford became linked to some of the most popular vehicles of the 20th century, it was also tied to some of the biggest disasters. Some failed because they were proven unsafe on the road, others because drivers just didn't like the way they looked. One of the company's most infamous flops came in the mid 1950s with the Edsel, named for Henry Ford's son.
"It was a victim of what many considered to be a very poor design. It had what was called a horse collar grill. The car started with mechanical defects. It had a push button transmission and that broke down," he said. "The sad irony is that the car was named for Edsel Ford, who was a brilliant car designer, so one of the great car designers had one of the ugliest cars ever named after him."
Ford and other American automakers faced an even bigger crisis two decades later, with growing American concern over fuel efficiency and air pollution.
"The Japanese were able to build inexpensive cars that had efficient fuel mileage. Ford and GM and Chrysler were late to that game, I'm afraid," he said. "It was really not until the 1986 Ford Taurus that the company was able to make a rebound. There were some serious questions about whether or not the company would make it. But that car was the turnaround carcompletely new look, new engine, and just captured the public's heart."
In the 1990s, still other new vehicles have captured the public's heart.
Big, heavy trucks are growing in popularity, and Ford spokesman Jon Nens says The F series pick up is now the company's most popular product worldwide. As it celebrates its centennial, Ford is also showcasing what it hopes will be the next major trends, including the Ford MA concept car. Jon Nens says drivers assemble it themselves.
"It comes as a kit, and you can tailor it to look and have the kind of equipment you want. And if you want two seats in it, you can put two seats in. If you want four seats you can have four in. If you want it to have a top it has a top. If you don't you don't," he said. "And it's made from all recycled products, and the power train is very friendly to the environment."
The Ford Company will hold other centennial events throughout the year, ending on December 17 at in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. That's where Wilbur and Orville Wright had their first successful airplane flight, also in 1903. The Wright brothers were friendly with Henry Ford, and the Ford Company has sponsored a traveling flight exhibit for the Wright centennial. The joint celebration will be a reminder of the year that one obscure inventor started an auto company, two others took a plane ride, and launched a new era of travel.