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Henry Ford's 'Wheels for the World'

<I>Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress</I> by Douglas Brinkley
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<I>Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress</I> by Douglas Brinkley

Shortly after Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, America and its landscape began to change in dramatic ways. The popularity of an affordable, mass-produced automobile spawned the first road atlas, the first motel, the first shopping center, and the first parking garage, says Douglas Brinkley, who has just completed Wheels for the World, a book about Ford -- the man and the company. And the car gave Americans the freedom to travel whenever and wherever they wanted.

"America's never been the same," the author tells NPR's John Ydstie. "We've become addicted to gasoline and automobiles have become an extension of ourselves."

Henry Ford was shrewd enough to see women as "the great consumers of America," and he tailored the Model T toward them, Brinkley says. "If the man was going to be working these 40- or 50-hour workweeks, that gave the woman the time to do the shopping, to be the one who perhaps bought the Model T or the family car, and he won a lot of women over to his product by doing that."

But as much as he was an innovator -- creating the first movable assembly line and paying workers $5 per day so they could make enough to afford the cars they built -- by the 1920s Henry Ford refused to see that the design of the Model T had failed to keep up with the times, the author says.

Company designers snuck behind Henry Ford's back to come up with a new vehicle. "They were desperate to do away with the T," Brinkley says. "It was meat and potatoes in a world that was looking for soufflés in cars." Henry Ford stumbled upon their prototype and "circled it like an angry cat." In a rage, he grabbed a giant pick ax and "just started ripping into it," Brinkley says.

Henry Ford never liked the idea of luxury automobiles, unlike the executives who ran General Motors. They were sure customers would pay more for stylish cars that made them feel good.

"Henry Ford never really changed," Brinkley says. "The times changed. He had his moment when he had his cutting edge in industrial philosophy and General Motors surpassed him and they've been playing catch-up with GM ever since."

The Ford Motor Co. is celebrating its 100th birthday this month.

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