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The genius of a farm boy

On a hot July morning 159 years ago, a boy was born to a Dearborn, Michigan, farm couple who named him Henry.

While his family’s surname wasn’t necessarily uncommon, early in the 20th century, that boy would make the Ford moniker known worldwide.

How the Model T and the legendary Fordson tractor came to be is testimony to a boy who loved mechanics but loathed labor-intensive chores.

He got his first taste of mechanical horsepower from learning to run a steam engine to help a neighbor.

Farming wasn’t in Ford’s heart, however. He left the farm at the age of 16 to work in a series of jobs before venturing into cars and tractors.

Actually, Ford didn’t reach his stride in manufacturing until he was well into midlife. He quickly made up for lost time and became an industrial giant within a decade.

Ford’s First Experiments

Ford began experimenting with engines as a young man, eventually building a self-propelled vehicle called the Quadricycle in 1896.

This simplistic machine inspired Ford not only to fashion more refined cars in the future but also to begin experimenting with tractors.

Confident of his abilities and design, he organized the Henry Ford Company in 1901. A year later, he would resign from his own company over a dispute with bankers.

This, his first firm, would go on to become the Cadillac Motor Car Company.

Undaunted by this challenge, Ford created the Ford Motor Company in 1903, which built a series of car models designated simply by the letters of the alphabet.

At first, Ford turned out only a handful of vehicles. Often, new cars were built only after the check from the previous sale cleared the bank. That soon changed in an epic manner.

In 1905, his factory was turning out 25 cars a day and employing 300 workers. By 1918, half of all cars in America would bear the Ford name and a particular model designation: the Model T.

The Model T appeared in 1908 and skyrocketed in popularity. When Ford ceased building Model Ts in 1927, more than 15 million had been sold.

Success with this car led to the creation of Ford’s Highland Park, Michigan, plant in 1910, which featured a revolutionary manufacturing concept — the continuously moving assembly line.

This Ford innovation would revolutionize the manufacturing process worldwide. Ford’s visions were always big, as was demonstrated in the creation of his Rouge River plant in 1918. When completed, this plant was the world’s largest industrial complex, housing everything that was needed to build vehicles, including a steel mill, foundries, and glass factory.

By 1927, the Rouge River plant had 81,000 people on payroll all working in a facility that covered nearly 7 million square feet.

Interest in Tractors

Ever the farm boy and mindful of the drudgery of farming, Ford began experimenting with tractors as early as 1905. That year, he completed the Automotive Plow, which was fashioned extensively from car parts.

The Automotive Plow was underpowered for farm work, so Ford set out to create a beefier machine. His engineers came up with a 5,000-pound beast of a machine resembling a steam traction engine very typical of other tractors of this time. 

Ford recognized the need to create lightweight powerhouses for the farm and ordered his engineers to come up with a smaller tractor.

Out of these efforts came a cultivating tractor that was affectionately called The Bug due to its two tanks. In addition to developing a lightweight machine, Ford also wanted a tractor that could be built on an assembly line (to lower its cost) and that employed a unitized or unit-frame chassis. His vision culminated in the 1917 launch of what would become one of the most popular tractors of all time — the Fordson.

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