Story of the Week

Posted: 11.05.2017
Looking back at Henry Ford II and his legacy
By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection

 

Henry Ford II

 

There are many names who have helped advance Ford Motor Co. in its nearly 115-year history. One of those great names was Henry Ford II (1917-1987) who was able to make a great contribution to not only Ford’s great heritage but to the automotive industry as a whole.

Henry Ford II was founder Henry Ford’s grandson, one of four children from Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Like others in the Ford family, Henry II was destined to play a role in the family business. Before doing that, however, he went into the Ivy League having enrolled in the prestigious Yale University. While traveling aboard the famous Queen Mary ship, he met and later married Anne McDonnell in July of 1940. After the marriage, a younger Henry Ford went to work at the Ford Rouge Plant and it was there that he learned the automotive manufacturing process from the bottom up. Later he was transferred to the dynamometer rooms for more automotive technical training.

Henry and Clara Ford with grandson, Henry Ford II.

 

As his journey would continue, Henry II would take up a career with the Navy Commission in the spring of 1941. He was assigned to general administrative work as an assistant to the director of Naval training for the ninth naval district. But after his father’s death in 1943, Henry II was released from the Navy and returned to his home at the Ford Motor Co. By the time Henry II returned, WWII was ending and auto manufacturers were reverting their factories after producing machines of war as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great Arsenal of Democracy.

On Sept. 21, 1945, Henry Ford was elected Chief Executive a mere 17 days after his 28th birthday. It did not take long for Mr. Ford II to conclude that the company’s fundamental weakness was in its management structure. Ford badly needed a systems and technology upgrade.

Henry II was also looking toward the future for new products. Under his direction and great leadership, a new research department was established and the engineering department had been expanded for future automotive projects. In 1946, Forbes Magazine wrote this about Henry II, “Not satisfied with resting on his family’s laurels, young Henry Ford is carving his own niche, is daily demonstrating his capabilities as head of the huge Ford Empire.”

Cover of Time Magazine, 1946

 

The young executive represented more than 130,000 Ford employees from those those working on the line at the famous Rouge Plant to executives in the board room. Henry II resolved to find solutions for the company’s major problems on the manufacturing side while also producing new and stylish cars such as the great looking Mercury and Lincoln cars being run off the line during that era.

In his spare time, he hustled around the country visiting as many Ford dealerships as he could. Another one of Henry II’s plans was bolstering dealerships by including them in overall company strategy going forward.


Ford introduced a newly redesigned 1949 model that made waves in the domestic market and was highly admired and enjoyed by the motoring public. The smooth, modern slab-sided body was mounted on an all-new chassis. This was the year for the big change within Ford Motor Company with a new direction of Ford products.

The 1950s represented a very prosperous decade for Ford. Henry Ford II was only 28 when the mantle of the empire was placed on his shoulders. Those who worked with him in those days said he had a “natural aptitude” for management according to a Sept. 24, 1957 article from the Detroit News.

Ford Brothers looking at the Ford Research Center display model

 

Henry II focused on new innovations and research to help drive the company forward collaborating with progressive thinking associates and advisers. This group developed new and exciting trends such as the engineering development laboratory which was one of the first eight units that became a part of Ford’s Research Center. On July 13, 1960, Henry Ford became Chairman of the Board.

In conclusion, Henry II’s legacy is etched in not only in the great cars created under his watch such as the Ford Falcon and new Mustang designs, but also in his work to modernize internal operations. For 35 years, he ran the great American company founded by his grandfather. Today, Henry Ford II will always be a part of our American automotive heritage.

 

 

The Ford Brothers: Henry II, Benson, William; source: Detroit News, 1951


For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area.

Bibliography: 

Finlay, Bob. “Men of achievement Henry Ford II” Forbes magazine December 1, 1947.

“Henry Ford II his creed responsibility for both labor and management” Time magazine February 4, 1946. Volume XLVII.

Banham Russ & Newman Paul. “The Ford Century Ford Motor Company and the innovation that shaped the world” 2002 by Ford Motor Company.

Wegmann F. Earl. “Henry II gets his start at 2; big boss at 28” Detroit News Tuesday September 24, 1957.

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