THE HYPE ABOUT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT HUMAN OF the 20th century left no doubt about so many people's contributions to humanity.
Producing and marketing automobiles is acknowledged as America's most prolific industry with one of every eight jobs in the U.S. connected to this giant.
Also, there is no question as to the impact of the automobile on the demographics and culture of the U.S. It is safe to assume American suburbia happened because of the automobile.
I got to thinking, if the influence of the automobile industry was so widespread, it would be fitting to select a person who was most responsible for making the automobile so user-friendly.
But that's a tough one.
Henry Ford is the most obvious name. He put America on wheels. He created the manufacturing assembly line. It lowered the cost of production, making Model Ts affordable to millions of Americans.
Also he was a pioneer in paying automobile workers a generous wage ($5.00 a day), supplying the money so his workers could buy Fords.
True, he was a production genius. However, his character was flawed by despotic acts that detracted from his genius.
Primarily, the man was an avowed bigot who allegedly gave financial support to anti-Jewish organizations and treated many of his employees with disdain and disrespect. He made his son Edsel's life miserable under the guise of wanting to protect him from "the shady characters in the business."
Edsel was the buffer in many incidents where the father was acting irrationally. One incident occurred when Henry fired the entire accounting department because he believed accountants were "parasites."
Edsel re-hired the entire group the following day with no protest from his father.
Another time a group of engineers took the liberty of making minor changes in the Model T while Henry was traveling in Europe. When Ford saw the sample car he walked around it, tore off one door, then the other and subsequently smashed the windshield, tore out the rear seat then bashed in the roof with his shoe.
For several years Ford resisted the six cylinder engine (Ford continued using an antiquated four cylinder engine) declaring, "A cow has only four teats." This stubborn refusal to update his cars to a six-cylinder engine cost Ford leadership in the marketplace as Chevrolet quickly captured thousands of sales with its six-cylinder engine and hydraulic brakes.
Like other despotic rulers, Henry Ford had his hatchet man. Ford's was Harry Bennett, an ex-boxer. He performed Henry's thug-like tasks like union busting and physically controlling the foremen on the assembly lines.
One story is recounted of a long-term engineer who had fallen into disfavor with Mr. Ford. He charged Mr. Bennett with the responsibility for getting rid of this employee.
Mr. Bennett asked the engineer if he could locate a peculiar noise under the hood of his car. In order to diagnose the sound the engineer lay prone on a front fender while Mr. Bennett drove the car. He drove out through the factory gate, making a violent turn that threw the engineer to the ground and sped back through the closing gate barring the engineer from ever returning to his job.
Mr. Bennett was also enlisted in Ford's ill-conceived campaign of "toughening up" Edsel. In this regard Mr. Bennett harassed and second-guessed Edsel every chance he got.
Edsel was a kind, considerate executive who spent much of his work day righting the ugly personal actions of his father. Edsel died of stomach cancer when he was 49 years old. To many observers Edsel's early death could be attributed to a broken heart at the hands of a loving, but terribly misguided father. That's certainly what Edsel's wife thought.
Henry Ford's production genius was a God-bestowed gift that permitted him to build and sell cars unequaled in his time. However, he's far from my choice for the automotive man of the century.
His use of thugs like Harry Bennett who carried out Ford's cruel desires, his treatment of his son Edsel, his financial support of bigoted organizations reflect an emotionally disturbed person.
If the automobile industry had been allowed to progress without the likes of a Lee Iacocca there would be no Chrysler who has made such an exemplary comeback.
If there had not been a W. Edwards Deming, who developed a program for quality control, the auto industry might still be building junk instead of high quality products.
Those are just two examples of automotive men of the century. There are dozens more who have improved the face of the American automobile industry without paranoid behavior and thug-like lieutenants.
Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.