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Ford Motor Co.: Cult of the Personality

Any list of the most influential personalities in Ford Motor Co.'s history is bound to include the two giants, Old Henry and The Deuce Henry Ford and Henry Ford II, respectively. Beyond them, the list becomes reasonably debatable. This is my list, based on nearly 50 years of writing, and 25 of them inside Ford. To understand Ford, you have to recognize that from day one the company has been ruled

Any list of the most influential personalities in Ford Motor Co.'s history is bound to include the two giants, Old Henry and The Deuce — Henry Ford and Henry Ford II, respectively.

Beyond them, the list becomes reasonably debatable. This is my list, based on nearly 50 years of writing, and 25 of them inside Ford. To understand Ford, you have to recognize that from day one the company has been ruled by the “cult of the personality.” At Ford, the unquestioned authority of the strong CEO too often meant loyal legions of palace attendants on one hand and, on the other, a notable lack of management job security, regardless of merit.

HENRY FORD, 1863-1947

The founder of the company personified the transition from rural agricultural to urban industrial life that typified virtually all auto industry pioneers.

Henry Ford made his place in history with his single-minded vision to produce a reliable, economical means of transportation for the common man and his undaunted persistence. His insistence on being the one and only boss, winning the Selden patent case, the moving assembly line, the $5 workday, his building of the world's largest industrial complex at the Rouge, his elimination of other stockholders — all were mere steps toward his goal.

More than any other person, Henry Ford put the world on wheels beginning with the Model T in 1908. He invented not the car, but the worldwide auto industry.

The subsequent years were marked by numerous falls from grace. Old Henry allowed the company to fall to third place in industry sales. He cruelly demeaned his only child, Edsel. He embarked on a quixotic peace mission in 1915 and fought union organizers all the way to the Supreme Court in 1941. Later, Ford was singled out as a bigot for his support of anti-Semitic writings in a Ford-owned broadsheet in the early 1920s — despite having Jewish business associates.

JAMES COUZENS, 1872-1936

This Canadian was a clerk in Alexander Malcomson's Detroit coal yard in 1902 when Henry Ford came to solicit investors after two failed automotive ventures.

With $2,500 for 25 shares, Couzens became one of the original stockholders and was assigned by fellow investors to keep an eye on Ford's activities and their money. Thus he became the business manager for the nascent Ford Company and, in addition to keeping the books and paying bills, is credited with developing the sales distribution scheme that built the company's volume.

Couzens quit the company in 1915 in a dispute with Henry. Already active in politics, Couzens was elected Detroit mayor in 1918. Along with the Dodges and a few other stockholders, he sold out to Old Henry in 1919 for $29.3 million. Couzens was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1922.


This Danish immigrant joined Ford as a pattern maker in 1905 at the Piquette Plant and became production chief. He survived 40 years of Henry's quirky management. He was one of the few Ford managers who held a formal title — executive vice president.

He applied mass production to the manufacture of B-24 bombers at the Willow Run plant for World War II. Fired from Ford in 1944, he became president of Willys-Overland, where he authorized development of the postwar civilian Jeep and Jeep station wagon, predecessor of today's SUVs.


Most historians credit Edsel Ford (1893-1943) with being the soul of Ford, but his widow Eleanor saved the company.

Old Henry was nearly 80 years old and senile when son Edsel died prematurely in 1943. Even before, he had put running the company in the hands of his Rouge henchman and sycophant, Harry Bennett. The Federal government, dependent on Ford's defense production for the war effort, released Henry Ford II from active duty as a Navy officer to help keep the company together.

When Old Henry resisted handing over the company to his grandson, daughter-in-law Eleanor threatened to put her Ford stock on the market. Old Henry was aghast at the thought of outsiders again having a hand in his company, so he gave in to her demand and relinquished control to Henry Ford II.

HENRY FORD II (1917-1987)

There was little reason to expect much from pudgy playboy Henry Ford II. He'd dropped out of Yale to marry a New York socialite. There was hope, though, when he joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor.

He rose to the challenge when, at 25, he was called back from the service to grasp the reins of the failing family enterprise. Counseled by uncle-in-law Ernest Kanzler, he put together a new management team loyal to him and not his grandfather.

He rebuilt Ford by looking outside for expertise. He hired a group of ex-Air Corps statistical control officers — known as the Whiz Kids — and landed experienced executives from General Motors.

Under Henry Ford II's guidance, the company was saved. Successes piled up, marred only by the Edsel car stumble. Ford regained second place in the industry. Young Henry became a respected statesman. He broke new ground in union relations.

But as he aged, “the Deuce” became his own grandfather, quixotic. Two marriages failed. His earlier keen judgment about managers seemed to slip. He hired, then fired, Bunkie Knudsen — “things just didn't work out.” The same fate befell Lee Iacocca.

ERNEST R. BREECH (1897-1978)

This accountant had become president of Bendix, a GM affiliate, at World War II's end. Young Henry recruited Breech in 1946 to handle cost control. Ford was losing $10 million a month at the time.

As the new Ford executive vice president, Breech then hired executives he knew around GM. Under Breech, Ford again became profitable and built competitive cars and trucks. Young Henry advanced him to chairman of the board and, in 1956, the company went public.


Little-known outside company circles, Ed Lundy was the longest-lasting Whiz Kid, reaching the rank of vice president. Lundy's influence was arguably greatest of the 10 Army officers recruited because of his tenure and his training of hundreds of financial officers for Ford and, as it turned out, numerous other major corporations.

LEE A. IACOCCA (1924-)

Super-salesman Lee Iacocca is undoubtedly the best-known person from the auto industry whose last name is not Ford. He started as a manufacturing engineering trainee at the Rouge in 1946. He represents the third group of future executives hired by Young Henry right after World War II.

It took Iacocca 10 years before he gained the attention of Ford headquarters and won promotion to the major leagues in Dearborn. His seat-of-the-pants instinct for dealer and customer wants propelled him upward meteorically. He was named vice president and general manager of Ford Division in 1960, where he became — with staff help — the “father of the Mustang.” Iacocca was named president of Ford North America in 1970. But Henry Ford II never quite trusted Iacocca and fired him in 1978. He went on to save Chrysler Corp.


Don Petersen became the first Ford top executive whose background was largely in product development. Petersen is credited with the “jelly bean” design introduced in the early '80s that gave the company styling leadership with such cars as the Taurus. According to media gossip, Petersen came into conflict with the Ford family and was forced into early retirement in 1989.


Although not the senior member of the Ford family's fourth generation, Bill Ford was anointed in the 1990s to be its titular head. Upon his shoulders has fallen the mantle of restoring the company's reputation and fortunes.

He quietly worked his way through management development positions after joining Ford in 1979. From 1995 to 2001 he withdrew from active management in the company to oversee his father's football team, the Detroit Lions. At family behest, he took the company helm as chairman and CEO following questionable mismanagement by former CEO Jacques Nasser.

Since then, he has demonstrated his ability to run the company competently well into its second century.

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