The Evolution of Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company was incorporated in 1903 but can trace its history back to 1896 with Henry Ford’s first automobile. In those 123 years, the company has revolutionized automobile manufacturing, supported the American efforts in two world wars, created iconic vehicles like the Model T, Thunderbird, Mustang and Bronco and even helped NASA get to the moon.
In addition to making cars, the company has been involved in almost every form of motorsport from Formula 1 to Off-Road Baja racing. Here are the paramount points of history from the company’s long and illustrious lifespan from 1896 to its 100th anniversary in 2003.
1896 – The Quadricycle
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, built his first automobile in June of 1896. He called it the “Quadricycle” as it used four bicycle wheels. Powered by a two-cylinder engine producing four-horsepower and driving the rear wheels, the Quadricycle was good for a heady 20 mph, thanks to it’s two-speed gear box.
The very first Quadricycle was sold for $200. Ford sold an additional two more before Ford Motor Company was founded. Henry Ford bought back the original Quadricycle for $60, and it presently lives in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
1899 – Detroit Automobile Company
The Detroit Automobile Company (DAC) was founded on August 5, 1899, in Detroit, Michigan by Henry Ford. The first vehicle, completed in 1900, was a gasoline-powered delivery truck. Despite positive press, the truck was slow, heavy and unreliable.
DAC closed in 1900 and was reorganized into the Henry Ford Company in November of 1901. In 1902, Henry Ford was bought out of the company by his partners, which included Henry Leland, who would quickly reorganize the company again and turn it into the Cadillac Automobile Company.
1901 – The Duel
After the Detroit Automobile Company closed Henry Ford was in need of investors to continue his automotive ambitions. In order to raise his profile, attract financing and to prove that his cars could be a commercial success, he decided to enter a race promoted by the Detroit Automobile Club.
The race took place on a one-mile dirt oval horse racing track. After mechanical issues plagued the field of cars, the race started with only Henry Ford and Alexander Winston taking the start. Henry Ford would win the race, the only one he would ever enter and collect a $1000 prize.
1902 – The Beast
The 999 was one of two identical race cars created by Henry Ford and Tom Cooper. The cars had no suspension, no differential and a crude pivoting metal bar for steering mated to a 100-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine that displaced 18.9 liters.
The car won the Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup, driven by Barney Oldfield while setting the course record at the very same track Henry Ford had won at the previous year. The car would go on to win many times over its career, and, with Henry Ford behind the wheel, would set a new land speed record of 91.37 mph on an ice-covered lake in January of 1904.
1903 – Ford Motor Company Incorporated
In 1903, after successfully raising enough investment, the Ford Motor Company was founded. Included in the initial stockholders and investors were John and Horace Dodge, who would go on to start Dodge Brothers Motor Company in 1913.
During the formative years of Ford Motor Company, the Dodge brothers supplied the complete chassis for the 1903 Ford Model A. The Ford Motor Company sold the first Model A on July 15, 1903. Before the debut of the iconic Model T in 1908, Ford produced the Model A, B, C, F, K, N, R, and S.
1904 – Ford Canada Opens
Ford’s first international plant was built in 1904 in Windsor, Ontario Canada. The facility sat directly across the Detroit River from the original Ford assembly plant. Ford Canada was established as a completely separate organization, not a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company, to sell cars in Canada and also throughout the British Empire.
The company used patent rights to produce Ford vehicles. In September of 1904, a Ford Model C was the first car to roll out of the factory and was the very first car produced in Canada.
1907 – Ford’s Famous Logo
The Ford logo, with its distinctive script, was first created by Childe Harold Wills, the company’s first chief engineer/designer. Wills used his grandfather’s stencil set for the font, which is patterned after the type of writing taught in schools during the late 1800s.
Wills worked on and helped with the 999 race car, but was most influential on the Model T. He designed the transmission on the Model T and the detachable cylinder head of the engine. He would leave Ford in 1919 to start his own automobile company, Wills Sainte Claire.
1908 – The Popular Model T
The Ford Model T, produced from 1908 to 1926, is a car that revolutionized transportation. During the early 1900s, cars were still rare, expensive and terribly unreliable, the Model T changed all of that with a simple, durable design that was easy to maintain and affordable to average Americans. Ford sold 15,000 Model T’s in the first year.
The Model T was powered by a 20-horsepower four-cylinder engine with a two-speed plus reverse transmission driving the rear wheels. Top speed was somewhere between 40 – 45 mph, which is fast for a car that doesn’t have brakes at the wheels, only a brake on the transmission.
1909 – Ford of Britain Founded
Unlike Ford of Canada, Ford of Britain is a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. Ford had been selling cars in the U.K. since 1903 but needed a legitimate production facility to expand in Great Britain. Ford Motor Company Limited was established in 1909 and the first Ford dealership opened in 1910.
In 1911, Ford opened the Trafford Park assembly plant to build Model T’s for the foreign market. Six-thousand cars were built in 1913, and the Model T became Britain’s top-selling car. The following year, the moving assembly line was integrated into the factory and Ford of Britain could produce 21 cars per hour.
1913 – The Moving Assembly Line
The assembly line in automotive manufacturing has been around since 1901 when Ransom Olds used it to build the first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved-Dash. Ford’s great innovation was to create the moving assembly line, which allowed a worker to do the same job over and over again without having to move from his position.
Before the moving assembly line, a Model T took 12.5 hours to build, after the moving assembly line was integrated into the factory, the build time per car dropped to 1.5 hours. The speed at which Ford could build cars allowed them to continually drop the price, allowing more people to afford to buy a car.
1914 – The $5 Workday
When Ford introduced the “$5 Per Day” pay rate, it was double what a typical factory worker earned. At the same time, Ford changed from a nine-hour workday to an eight hour day. This meant that the Ford factory could have three work shifts per day instead of two.
The increase in pay and the change in the work day meant that employees were more likely to stay at the company, had more free time, and could afford to purchase the cars they produced. The day after Ford announced the “$5 Day,” 10,000 people lined up at the company’s offices hoping for a job.
1917 – River Rouge Complex
In 1917 Ford Motor Company began construction of the Ford River Rouge Complex. When it was finally completed in 1928, it was the largest factory in the world. The Complex itself is 1.5 miles wide and one mile long with 93 buildings and 16 million square feet of factory floor space.
The factory had its own ship docks and more than 100 miles of railroad tracks run inside the buildings. It also had its own power plant and steel mill, meaning that it could take all the raw materials and turn them into vehicles within a single factory. Before the Great Depression, the River Rouge Complex employed 100,000 people.
1917 – The First Ford Truck
The Ford Model TT was the first truck made by the Ford Motor Company. Based on the Model T car, it shared the same engine but was equipped with a heavier frame and rear axle to be able to cope with the work that the Model TT was expected to perform.
The Model TT proved to be very durable, but was slow, even by the standards of 1917. With the standard gearing, the truck was capable of 15 mph, and with the optional special gearing, 22 mph was the recommended top speed.
1922 – Ford Purchases Lincoln
In 1917, Henry Leland and his son Wilfred founded the Lincoln Motor Company. Leland is also famous for founding Cadillac and establishing the personal luxury automobile segment. It’s somewhat ironic that two of the most famous luxury automobile brands in the United States were founded by the same person, with the same goal of building luxury automobiles, ended up as direct competitors for over 100 years.
Ford Motor Company bought the Lincoln Motor Company in February of 1922 for $8 million. The purchase allowed Ford to compete directly against Cadillac, Duesenberg, Packard and Pierce-Arrow for a share of the luxury automobile market.
1925 – Ford Produces Airplanes
The Ford Trimotor, so named because of its three engines, was a transportation aircraft designed for the civil aviation market. Very similar in design to the airplanes of the Dutch Fokker F.VII and the work of German airplane designer Hugo Junkers, the Ford Trimotor was found to have infringed upon the patents of Junkers and was barred from sale in Europe.
In the U.S., Ford built 199 Trimotor planes, of which about 18 are believed to survive to this day. The first models featured Wright J-4 engines with 200-horsepower and the final variant came equipped with 300-horsepower engines.
1925 – The 15 Millionth Model T
In 1927, Ford Motor Company celebrated an incredible milestone, the construction of the fifteen-millionth Model T. The actual car was built as a touring model; four-door with a retractable top and seating for five people. Its design and construction is very similar to the very first Model T of 1908 and is powered by the same four-cylinder engine with two forward and one reverse gear.
On May 26, 1927, the car rolled off the assembly line driven by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son, with Henry riding shotgun. The car currently lives at the Henry Ford Museum.
1927 – The Ford Model A
After the fifteen-millionth Model T was built, Ford Motor Company shut down for six-moths to completely re-tool the factory for a brand new car, the Model A. Production ran from 1927 to 1932 with almost 5 million being built.
The car, amazingly, was available in 36 different variants and trims, from a two-door coupe, to convertible, to mail truck, and to wood-paneled delivery vans. Power came from a 3.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 40-horsepower. Mated to a three-speed transmission, the Model A was capable of 65 mph.
1928 – Ford Founds “Fordlandia”
In the 1920s, the Ford Motor Company was searching for a strategy to avoid the British monopoly over the supply of rubber. Rubber products are used for everything from tires to door seals to suspension bushings and numerous other components. Ford negotiated with the Brazilian government for 2.5 million acres of land, to grow, harvest and export rubber, in the State of Para in northern Brazil.
Ford would be exempt from Brazilian taxes in exchange for 9% of the profits. The project was abandoned and relocated in 1934 after a number of problems and revolts. In 1945, synthetic rubber reduced the demand for natural rubber and the area was sold back to the Brazilian government.
1932 – The Flathead V8
Even though the Ford Flathead V8 was not the first production V8 motor available in a car, it is perhaps the most famous and helped start the “hot-rod” community jumpstarted America’s love affair with the engine.
Developed first in 1932, the Type 221 V8 displaced 3.6-liters, was good for 65-horsepower and was first fitted to the 1932 Model 18 car. Production ran from 1932 to 1953, in the U.S. The final version, the Type 337 V8, produced 154-horsepower when fitted to Lincoln’s cars. Even today, the flathead V8 remains popular with hot-rodders for its durability and ability to produce big horsepower.
1938 – Ford Creates The Mercury Brand
In 1938, Edsel Ford founded the Mercury Motor Company as an entry-level premium brand that slotted between the luxury cars of Lincoln and the basic cars of Ford. The Mercury brand is named after the Roman god, Mercury.
The first car Mercury produced was the 1939 Mercury 8 Sedan. Powered by the Type 239 flathead V8 with 95-horsepower, the 8 cost $916 new. The new brand and line of cars proved popular and Mercury sold over 65,000 vehicles in their first year. The Mercury brand was discontinued in 2011 after poor sales and a brand identity crisis.
1941 – Ford Builds Jeeps
The original Jeep, named after “GP” or “general purpose,” was initially designed by the Bantam company for the U.S. Army. At the start of WWII, it was believed that Bantam was too small to be able to build enough Jeeps for the military, who had requested 350 per day, and the design was supplied to Willys and Ford.
Bantam designed the original, Willys-Overland modified and improved the design and Ford was chosen as an additional supplier/producer. Ford is actually credited with designing the familiar “Jeep Face.” By the end of WWII, Ford had produced just over 282,000 Jeeps for military use.
1942 – Retooling For War
During World War II, most of American manufacturing was allocated to produced equipment, munitions, and supplies for the war effort. In February of 1942, Ford stopped all civilian car manufacturing and began producing a staggering amount of military equipment.
Ford Motor Company, at all facilities, produced over 86,000 complete airplanes, 57,000 airplane engines, and 4,000 military gliders. Its factories made Jeeps, bombs, grenades, four-wheel-drive trucks, airplane engine superchargers, and generators. The giant Willow Run Factory in Michigan produced B-24 Liberator bombers on an assembly line that was 1-mile long. At full production, the factory could produce one airplane per hour.
1942 – Lindbergh and Rosie
In 1940, the U.S. Government asked Ford Motors to build B-24 bombers for the war effort. In response, Ford built a massive factory with over 2.5 million square feet of floor space. During that time, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh served as a consultant at the plant calling it, “The Grand Canyon of the mechanized world.”
Also at the Willow Run facility was young female riveter named Rose Will Monroe. After actor Walter Pidgeon had discovered Mrs. Monroe at the Willow Run Plant she was chosen to appear in promotional films for war bond sales. The role made her a household name during WWII.
1954 – The Ford Thunderbird
First unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in February of 1954, the Ford Thunderbird was initially conceived to compete directly against the Chevrolet Corvette, which debuted in 1953. However, the marketing at Ford touted the car’s comfort and convenience features over the sportiness of the chassis.
Despite the focus on comfort, the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette in its first year with just over 16,000 sales compared to the Corvette’s 700. With 198-horsepower from its V8 and a top speed of just over 100 mph, the Thunderbird was a capable performer and more luxurious than the Corvette at the time.
1954 – Ford Begins Crash Testing
In 1954, Ford started to prioritize the safety of their cars. Being concerned about how the cars and the occupants managed a vehicle crash, Ford began to conduct safety tests with their vehicles. Ford’s cars were crashed into each other to analyze their safety and learn about how they could be made safer.
These tests, along with countless others from other vehicle manufacturers, would lead to dramatic improvements in vehicle safety and the survivability of car crashes. Three-point safety belts, crumple zones, airbags, and side-impact protection are all innovations that came about through crash testing automobiles.
1956 – Ford Motor Company Goes Public
On January 17, 1956, the Ford Motor Company went public. It was the largest initial public offering (IPO) in American history up to that time. In 1956, the Ford Motor Company was the third largest company in the U.S., behind GM and Standard Oil Company.
The IPO of 22% of the Ford Motor Company was so big that over 200 banks and firms were included and involved. Ford offered 10.2 million Class A shares at an IPO price of $63. By the end of the first day of trading, the price per share had risen to $69.50, which meant the company could be valued at $3.2 billion.
1957 – Ford Introduces The Edsel Brand
In 1957 the Ford Motor Company introduced a new brand, Edsel. Named after Edsel B. Ford, the son of founder Henry Ford, the company was expected to increase Ford’s market share in order to compete with General Motors and Chrysler.
Unfortunately, the cars never sold particularly well and the public perception was that the cars were over-hyped and overpriced. Controversial design, reliability issues and the start of an economic recession in 1957 all contributed to the downfall of the brand. Production was ceased in 1960 and the company closed as well. In total, 116,000 vehicles were produced, which was less than half of what the company needed to break-even.
1963 – Ford Attempts to Buy Ferrari
In January of 1963, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca planned to buy the Ferrari Company. They had wanted to get involved with international GT racing and figured that the best way to do that was to purchase a well-established, experienced company.
After much negotiating, a deal was struck between Ford and Ferrari for the sale of the company. However, at the last minute, Ferrari pulled out of the deal. Much has been written and speculated about the deal, the negotiations and the reasons, but the net result was Ford Motors left empty handed and formed Ford Advanced Vehicles in England to build a GT car, the GT40, that could beat Ferrari at Le Mans.
1964 – The Iconic Ford Mustang
Introduced on April 17, 1964, the Mustang is perhaps Ford’s most famous car, next to the Model T. Initially built on the same platform as the compact Ford Falcon, the Mustang was an instant hit and created the “pony car” class of American muscle cars.
Known for being affordable, sporty and infinitely customizable, the Mustang changed the game when it came to American muscle cars. Ford sold 559,500 Mustangs in 1965 and in total, over ten million as of 2019. One of the biggest draws of the Mustang has always been its customizability and the upgrades that are available from the factory.
1964 – Ford GT40 Debuts At Le Mans
A year after a failed attempt to buy Ferrari, Ford Motor Company brought their “Ferrari Fighter”, the GT40, to Le Mans. The car’s name comes from Grand Touring (GT) and the 40 derives from the height of the car, 40-inches tall.
Powered by a 289 cubic inch V8, the same as used in the Mustang, the GT40 could surpass 200 mph at Le Mans. Teething issues with the new car, instability and reliability problems took their toll during the 1964 Le Mans race and none of the three cars that entered finished, giving Ferrari another overall Le Mans win.
1965 – Ford And The Race To The Moon
In 1961, Ford Motor Company purchased electronics manufacturer PHILCO, creating PHILCO-Ford. The company provided Ford with car and truck radio receivers and produced computer systems, televisions, washing machines and a large array of other consumer electronics. In the 1960s, NASA contracted with PHILCO-Ford to build the tracking systems for the Project Mercury space missions.
PHILCO-Ford was also responsible for design, manufacture, and installation of “Mission Control” at NASA’s space center in Houston, Texas. The control consoles were used for the Gemini, Apollo moon missions, Skylab and the Space Shuttle missions until 1998. They are preserved for their historical significance at NASA today.
1966 – Ford Wins At Le Mans
After two heart-breaking years of a motorsports program designed to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford finally delivered in 1966 with the MKII GT40. Ford stacked the field in the race by entering eight cars. Three from Shelby American, three from Holman Moody and two from UK based Alan Mann Racing, a development partner in the program. Additionally, five privateer teams entered MKI GT40s, giving Ford thirteen cars in the race.
The MKII GT40 was powered by the larger 427 cubic inch V8 producing 485-horsepower. Ford won the race finishing 1-2-3 with the number 2 car winning overall. This was to be the first of four consecutive Le Mans victories.
1978 – The Incredible Exploding Pinto
The Ford Pinto, a name that will live in infamy for all of eternity, was a compact car designed to counter the gaining popularity of imported compact cars from Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun. It debuted in 1971 and was produced until 1980.
The poor design of the fuel system resulted in several incidents in which the the fuel tank could rupture in a rear-end crash and catch fire or explode. Several high-profile incidents resulted in lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and one of the largest automotive recalls in history. The publicity and costs nearly ruined Ford’s reputation as a car manufacturer.
1985 – The Ford Taurus Changes The Industry
Introduced in 1985 as a 1986 model, the Ford Taurus changed the game for American made sedans. Its rounded shape differed significantly from the competition, earning it the “jelly bean” design nickname, and started an era of increased attention to quality at Ford.
The aerodynamic design made the Taurus more fuel efficient and ultimately led to a design revolution in American car making. Both General Motors and Chrysler quickly developed aerodynamic cars to capitalize on the Taurus’ success. In the first year of production, Ford sold over 200,000 Taurus’ and the car was named the 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
1987 – Ford Buys Aston-Martin Lagonda
In September of 1987, Ford Motor Company announced the purchase of famed British automaker Aston-Martin. The purchase of the company likely saved Aston-Martin from bankruptcy and added a high-end luxury sports car company to Ford’s portfolio. Ford set about modernizing the way that Aston-Martins were produced, opening a new factory in 1994.
Previous to Ford’s ownership, Aston-Martins were largely built by hand, including the bodywork. This added expense and reduced the number of cars that could be produced. Ford owned Aston-Martin until 2007 when it sold the company to a group led by British motorsports and advanced engineering company, Prodrive.
1989 – Ford Buys Jaguar
At the end of 1989, Ford Motors began buying up shares of Jaguar and was fully integrated into Ford’s business by 1999. Ford’s purchase of Jaguar, along with Aston Martin was lumped into the Premier Automotive Group, which was intended to provide Ford with upscale luxury vehicles while the brands received modernization and production help from Ford.
Under Ford’s ownership, Jaguar never made a profit, as the models that were introduced, such as the S-Type and X-Type, were lackluster and thinly disguised Ford sedans with a Jaguar badge. Ford ultimately sold Jaguar to Tata Motors in 2008.
1990 – Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer was the SUV that was built to battle the Chevrolet Blazer and the Jeep Cherokee. Introduced in 1990 for the 1991 model year, the Explorer was available as a two-door or four-door and equipped with the German-made Cologne V6. Amazingly, the Explorer holds the distinction of being the very first four-door SUV produced by Ford.
The Explorer is perhaps best known for the Firestone Tire controversy of the late 1990s. Under-inflated tires, as recommended by Ford, likely led to tire tread separation and a large number of accidents. Firestone was forced to recall 23 million tires after 823 injuries and 271 deaths.
2003 – Ford Celebrates 100th Anniversary
The Ford Motor Company celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2003. Despite Ford producing vehicles all the way back to 1896, the Ford Motor Company, as we know it today, was founded in 1903.
In its long history, the company has contributed to revolutionizing car ownership, modernizing the assembly line, advancing factory worker quality of life, helped in two American war efforts and created some of the most influential and iconic vehicles in the history of the automobile. Today, Ford stands as one of the great automobile manufacturers the world has ever seen.