In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.
In the past few years, the woods around Detroit seemed to be full of writers. First, it was the world’s least competent dope broker, Mr. John Z. De Lorean, who attracted them, then Mr. Lee Iacocca, by his own admission the most gifted executive in the history of the automobile. However, Mr. Iacocca himself wrote such a rouser of a book that several authors then decided to try their luck with books about his former employer, Mr. Henry Ford II. Now the Ford books are hitting the stands, and it’ll only be a short time before we get a new round of Iacocca books in response.
It has been a rather unattractive brouhaha, all things considered, with contending writers saying rude things about each other and friends of the subjects choosing sides. It is the sort of New York/Paris literary nastiness that seldom occurs in a smoke-stack town like Detroit, but when it does it gives a lot of folks a new lease on life.
If you grew up, as I did, in the shadow of Detroit, you grew up with all kinds of myths about the Ford Motor Company and the family that owned it. When I peddled the morning Free Press during World War II, my route was a chunk of town shaped roughly like a slice of pie–half a mile wide along Main Street, half a mile deep down Ten Mile Road, then back diagonally along the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks to Main Street and the original starting point. My bike was an ancient Sears Roebuck hand-me-down with a Musselman coaster brake that I never understood and splines in the front fork worn so badly that the bike and I almost never went where the handlebars pointed. So I walked. I can’t remember the names of all the streets I plodded along during those years, but there were eight or nine of them, and since we lived in a blue-collar town, subscribers for a morning paper were few and far between.
Sometimes customers’ houses would be a block apart, giving me plenty of time to fantasize as I folded each paper and prepared to throw it onto somebody’s roof or into their bushes. In one fantasy, I was parachuted into Germany to free my Uncle Jim who was in a prison camp there. In another, the woman who supervised our church youth group melted into my arms and resolved a number of mysteries that had been troubling me for the past couple of years.
My most reliable fantasy, however, involved Henry Ford I’s gorgeous daughter. I had no idea whether or not the old man actually had such a daughter (he didn’t), but no matter. In my fantasy she was my age, and she looked like a cross between Shirley Temple in her early prime and the woman who supervised our church youth group. This golden-haired, nubile young bud would burst out of a house on Kenilworth Avenue just east of Main Street and gaily, unwittingly, run beneath the wheels of a huge transit-mix cement truck.
In a flash, I would shuck off my carrier’s bag and sprint to her aid, snatching her from the jaws of death at the last possible instant. As I comforted her, having assured myself that she was unhurt–hem, hem–I would be interrupted by her stricken father, old Henry Ford himself, who had seen the whole thing and who wanted me to have her hand in marriage, an all-expense-paid college education, and a 1941 Mercury convertible, as my richly deserved reward.
On some predawn paper-route mornings she taught me all the stuff I’d been hoping to learn from the woman who supervised our church youth group. On others, she helped me equip the Mercury with a special intake manifold with two Stromberg 97s, a set of aluminum heads, headers, and Hollywood mufflers that were real quiet at low rpm and had a nasty blat to them when you stood on it.
I had no idea that the original Henry Ford was crazy as a loon by that time of his life, nor did I know the awful story of his never-ending campaign to crush every hope and dream his son Edsel ever had. I now know that he would have been a lousy father-in-law, and that I was probably better off without him. By the time I went to work at the Ford Highland Park plant in June of 1949, old Henry and his desperately unhappy son had both gone on to their rewards, about which, in the old man’s case, I’ll bet you wouldn’t want to know.
I had grown up listening to my father’s friends and men from our neighborhood talk about life in the Ford plants. I knew a bunch of guys my age who went to the Henry Ford Trade School, guys who’d actually machined their own Johansson gauges–“joe-blocks,” they were called–as part of the Trade School curriculum. I knew all about bloody fights between UAW organizers and company goons. (At our house, the union was always the bad guys.) I personally knew men who’d been slugged by Ford foremen for smoking in the can, or not moving fast enough. Our contributor David Grath (“Eighty-Six Cars,” June ’86) remembers that if your father saw you slouched in a chair, reading a book, he’d say, “Boy, be glad you don’t work out to Ford’s. Everybody stand on his feet all day out there–even the draftsmen and the engineers.”
Somehow, I don’t think either of these Ford books has captured the automobile industry, the Ford Motor Company, or the Ford family, from my point of view. None of them will write about the guy who ran past our house in his underwear one Sunday morning, throwing his watch at me when I stepped off the porch to see what he was up to. It turned out he was a foreman at Ford whose house–not far from ours–had been firebombed and whose wits had simply deserted him at the thought of such a thing.
We can now safely assume that John Z. De Lorean wouldn’t recognize the truth if it walked up and offered to sell him a can of talcum powder, and we’ll probably never know the inside skinny about Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II. Never mind, I’m just glad that I didn’t have to save that hypothetical Ford heiress from the Indescribable Awful and wind up a member of the Ford family as a result. I couldn’t have taken the pressure.