At a Chicago bicycle show 101 years ago, Henry Ford met William “Billy” Hughson. He ended up becoming the world's first Ford dealer.
Hughson was born in Buffalo, NY, in 1869. Lured by tales of the Wild West, he went that way to seek his fortune. As head of Hughson & Merton machinery parts supply company in San Francisco, he traveled to the 1902 Chicago bike show in search of new products.
Ford, who had not yet founded his now-famous company, was there to demonstrate what looked like a four-wheel bicycle, his version of the horseless carriage. In those days, early auto makers attended bicycle and machinery shows in search of prospective dealers. Ford saw one in Hughson, who, in turn, was enthralled by Ford's product, pitch and vision.
“Hughson thought a motor carriage was as good a commodity to sell as a bicycle. He shook hands with Ford and agreed to purchase $5,000 worth of automobiles as soon as production started,” says automotive author Robert Genat.
Six months later, Hughson traveled to Detroit with the money. His timing was good as a witness to history. But he ended up passing on what would have been a wildly lucrative investment.
He arrived in time to attend the June 16, 1903 formation ceremonies of the Ford Motor Co. He had the money to buy cars. Ford had none of those to sell yet. So he instead tried to talk Hughson into investing the $5,000 in the new auto company.
Hughson was game. He checked with his partners back in California. They wired back, “You went there to buy automobiles. Now, buy automobiles!”
He bought 12, becoming Ford's first dealer. But that fateful decision cost him and his partners millions upon millions of dollars.
Still, Hughson did all right for himself as a dealer and early believer. He got all of the West Coast as his sales territory.
“At one time, there were 120 dealerships that could be traced directly to Hughson,” says Genat in his book “The American Car Dealership.”
Hughson died at age 100 in 1969. His Hughson Ford, the oldest Ford dealership in America, closed 10 years later.
Henry Ford died in 1947. His namesake company lives on, observing its 100th anniversary this month. Great-grandson Bill Ford is chairman and CEO today.
Ford's early cars were not hot products. Hughson's inventory sat unsold for three years. Automobile fever had not yet hit San Francisco. But an earthquake did in 1906. Hughson put some of his cars into service as rescue and ambulance vehicles during that disaster. It earned civic goodwill for himself and a reputation for the Fords.
It was the Model T, debuting in 1908, that put Ford on the map and changed America. Through pioneering assembly-line production, Ford built them inexpensively, underpricing the competition.
Besides the auto assembly line, one of Ford's other smart acts early on was lining up a strong dealership network. He was one of the first manufacturers to realize that as a key to survival in the fledging auto business, says Genat.
Automotive historian Mike Davis says Ford Motor Co.'s first business manager, James Couzens, more than Henry Ford himself, set up the company's first dealer distribution system.
“Couzens deserves the credit for that,” says Davis, a former Ford public relations executive. “Henry's concentration was mainly on improving the vehicle.”
Incidentally, Couzens invested $2,500 in the new Ford Motor Co. - half of what Hughson was asked to put up. Couzens made millions in dividends, then $29.3 million more when he cashed out in 1919, says Davis.
From 1908 to 1927, Ford produced 15 million Model Ts. At one time, they accounted for 50% of the vehicles on the road worldwide, notes James O'Connor, Ford's group vice president of marketing, sales and service.
“As a sales and marketing guy, let me tell you, that would be nice,” says O'Connor, who observes his 40th year with Ford on the same day it turns 100.
In the early 20th century, there were thousands of independent auto companies. Ford was just one of them. It beat serious odds by surviving this long. Ford plans a 5-day centennial celebration of its milestone this month.
Events include a Model T caravan from California to Ford world headquarters in Dearborn, MI. Journey organizers say they've been overwhelmed by offers of help and hospitality from nearly 100 Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealers along the 3,000 mile, nine-state route.
The T tour's organizers say it would have been hard without dealers' help.
The same could be said for Ford at 100.