But the story of Ford is above all a business story, and Brinkley tells it well. Richest of all is the astounding rise of Ford from its formation in 1903 to its commanding place in American industry 20 years later, to which Brinkley devotes nearly half of Wheels for the World. Henry Ford’s success was far from certain in 1903. Ford had already started and folded two auto companies, and had shown no gift for management, much less for empire building. Competitors such as Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Packard were already well established and successfully producing cars. Yet by 1911, Ford had built a quarter of all the cars sold in the world — and was building them at a rate of 200,000 per year by 1913. In 1921, the 5 millionth Model T was manufactured. By 1924, Fords accounted for nearly 60 percent of all automobiles made in the U.S. — as the 10 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line.
That triumphant ascent to the zenith of American industry was followed by a plunge in the mid-1920s that nearly put the company out of business, as it missed market opportunities that General Motors was quick to exploit. Ford Motor has repeated that pattern — giddy rises in profits and market share, followed by sudden tailspins toward bankruptcy — many times in subsequent decades, right up to the present day. Wheels for the World concludes in 2002 — the second year in a row in which Ford had posted large losses — with the company trying to massively restructure its global operations under the direction of William Clay Ford Jr., CEO since late 2001 and great-grandson of the company founder. “The good news for Ford Motor Company,” concludes Brinkley, who interviewed the new CEO several times over a five-year span, “is that something about Bill Ford Jr. promises he’s up to the job.”
Bill Ford Jr. gave Brinkley broad access to the company’s archives. To his credit, he said he wanted this centennial story told “warts and all.” He got it. Wheels of the World is unblinking in examining some of the company’s dark days, such as its irresponsible — even criminal — behavior in designing and selling the Pinto in the early 1970s. The car, Brinkley shows, had a basic design flaw, of which executives were aware, that made it liable to explode in flames in even a mild rear-end collision. The flaw originated because styling took precedence over safety; engineers’ efforts to fix it were squelched in order to save money, and at least 59 people, possibly many more, burned to death as a result.
Wheels for the World also takes a hard look at Henry Ford himself. Much about Ford was admirable. The reasons he succeeded against long odds, as Brinkley tells it, were his single-minded vision of the automobile as a cheap, simple, and durable machine that could be sold in vast quantities, his fanatical determination to reduce costs and cut prices, his knack for envisioning and configuring efficient manufacturing processes, and his ability to attract and motivate brilliant architects, engineers, and businessmen. But the warts are ugly ones. Brinkley demonstrates that Ford was a liar and a hypocrite who cheated some of his initial investors and partners, and shows how he tormented his only child, Edsel, throughout his life — capped by his failure to visit as his son lay dying, at age 49, of a rare stomach ailment. And for all the advancements Ford championed in raising employee pay and decreasing hours worked (including both the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week), he also ordered or countenanced underhanded and sometimes violent anti-union activities.