Henry - A Life of Henry Ford II

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by Walter Hayes. 285pp. 9 3/4″ x 6″. Weidenfield and Nicholson, 91 Clapham High Street, London, SW4 7TA £18.95.

The late Henry Ford II, taking over the mighty Ford Car Company established by his famous grandfather, had a very different task to accomplish, fraught with intrigue and setbacks, as he strove to keep it a family business. No-one is better able to tell his story than Walter Hayes, who did so much to establish Ford competition activities in this country, who obtained the finance for the successful Cosworth F1 Ford V8 power unit at a difficult time, and who became Vice-Chairman of Ford of Europe before his retirement,

Hayes reckons that between 1976 to 1986 alone he spent 1952 hours — more than 80 full days — in aeroplanes travelling for the Ford Motor Company, flying well over 1,000,000 miles on Ford business. Henry Ford II covered greater distances, round the world, looking after his affairs. Accompanying him on many such journeys, Hayes got to know Henry very well indeed and his biography of this versatile, powerful, yet endearing industrial leader is compelling reading. Hayes’ earlier newspaper editorship no doubt contributes to his crisp, concise style. Although I usually rate a motoring book by the detail it affords the reader, Henry contrives to tell a great life story without any boring asides. It is, of course, far more than a motoring book, and it will have a wide public. It reflects American, even world, history and politics including the Middle East, as it unfolds, and although it does not profess to deal with the technical aspects of Ford cars, and only thrice mentions Model T, I found it quite irresistible.

Hayes’ comparison of General Motors’ with Ford’s business methods confirms a long-held view, the enormous pains taken to decide on the best name for the ill-fated Ford Edsel, with the poet Marianne Moore consulted, are a revelation, and Hayes’ account of how Ford viewed and finally killed off, its “Total Performance” concept and of how the GT40 was pruned to the much needed and vaunted Le Mans victories, are just fascinating and essential additions to the broader canvas. The book fully achieves its purpose, that of showing how almost alone, Henry Ford II took on the enormous task of reforming his great Motor Empire, engaging and sometimes sacking many well known top executives, like Bunkie Knudsen, Ernie Breech, John Bugas, etc, with Lee Iacocca prominent among them. Private papers and other documents aided Hayes’ work, but mainly his book is alive because he worked close to the controversial Henry Ford II. So the private pleasures of the man, Henry’s three marriages, his houses, yachts, his taste in cars, all this and more, come over interestingly and informatively in this very welcome book. The author admits to “dining out” on his friendship with Stirling Moss and DSJ, but is in error in saying their Mille Miglia win at record speed with the Mercedes-Benz was the last in the series. It was in 1955 and the event lasted until 1957.

There have been many previous Ford histories, some short, one very long, but I have read none so compulsively, enjoyed any other as much as this one. Henry II’s dedication seems to me to be still rubbing off on Ford products, which lead sales in the UK, have introduced to the customer advanced features such as 4WD and antilock braking with no noticeable service setbacks, and which continue to appeal alike to sporting and competition drivers and daily travellers. 100% reliability from three XR 4x4s helps personal opinion here, as you knew I would feel compelled to say!

Hayes’ book is in my view destined for a very wide readership; I could extract many interesting items to embellish this review, but that is unfair to any author. Let me, therefore, just strongly recommend it. The 34 pictures from Ford family archives are also excellent and, to conclude, Walter’s comments on a visit with his family to see Alan Bennett’s play Getting On is a splendidly succinct view of declining moral standards. WB