Most corporate histories and biographies of corporate chieftains are unsatisfying books. One reason is that their authors — usually journalists — often have to research and write in a hurry and have limited access to company sources and records. Another is that the stories of most companies and business leaders simply aren’t compelling enough to sustain a reader’s interest over several hundred pages. A tech merger gone awry? A catfight at a publishing conglomerate? The rise and fall of an already forgotten dot-com? All that most people will ever want to know about most such stories will fit pretty neatly within the five to 10 pages of a magazine article.
Douglas Brinkley’s Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903-2003 (Viking Penguin, 2003) is an exception. A noted historian (director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans) and prolific writer (14 previous books written, coauthored, or edited), Brinkley spent six years working on Wheels for the World and had free rein to rummage through the Ford Motor Company archives. Better still, he is both a Ford nut and a car nut. As a boy in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio, Brinkley made annual field trips to the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., 55 miles away. He befriended a local Ford dealer, who had been Henry Ford’s chauffeur during the Depression, and wrote a school paper about their relationship — his first attempt at history. And while pursuing his academic studies, he read not only everything he could about Ford, but also enthusiast magazines like Car & Driver and Road & Track.
Ford Motor is also an exception — a company whose history is so rich and fascinating that even a fat tome like Brinkley’s (764 pages) can tell it only in part. Many of the dramatic episodes at Ford that claim but a chapter or two in Wheels for the World — from the Shakespearean fights for control of the company to its wars with the U.S. government, the Japanese, and General Motors — could support books of their own, and in many cases they have. The literature on Ford is already as wide and deep as Lake Michigan, including such notable contributions as Allan Nevins’s exhaustive three-volume Ford, published by Scribner between 1954 and 1963; Robert Lacey’s much-admired Ford: The Men and the Machine (Little, Brown & Co., 1986), and David Halberstam’s superb The Reckoning (Morrow, 1986).
Given that legacy, it’s worth asking what Brinkley brings to the party. The answer is that he does exceedingly well at what he set out to do — to tell the story of Henry Ford and his company in a single, reader-friendly volume. For anyone steeped in the Ford literature, Wheels for the World is unlikely to impart much new information. The book doesn’t seem to be advancing brand-new theories about the company and the man, either. But Brinkley knows how to marshal his vast material, and how to use literature and pop culture to make the story come alive. Even the most bleary-eyed devotee of automotive history probably doesn’t know that the Beach Boys’ 1964 hit record Fun, Fun, Fun (till her daddy takes the T-Bird away) was based on a true incident. Brinkley tosses out that fact in a passage explaining the T-Bird’s success, noting that the song, imprinted in the minds of tens of millions of baby boomers, “has done more to enshrine the Thunderbird in automobile history than all of Ford Motor’s advertising campaigns combined.”
The story of Ford Motor and its creator is woven tightly into the larger story of America in the 20th century, and Brinkley is good at illuminating the patterns in this larger tapestry. His book is, in part, a social history of America’s love affair with the automobile, as it moves from the country to the city to the suburbs, and from the buggy to the three-car family. He quotes authors as varied as Booth Tarkington, Edith Wharton, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Jack Kerouac, and Elmore Leonard along the way. Writing about the environmental backlash in the 1970s that turned many Americans against the automakers, he quotes novelist Joyce Carol Oates’s 1978 description of Ford’s mammoth River Rouge plant: “An industrial slum” with “porous smoke rising heavy and leaden — pale as a giant’s limbs, the sickly air heaving in gusts, sulfuric blooms whipping in the wind.” Wheels for the World tells, in similarly interesting ways, the stories of American industry’s role in the world wars, the coming-of-age of the trade union movement, and the rise and demise of the city of Detroit.