Running a car company has to feel a little dull once you’ve become one of the richest people on the planet. But your wealth gives you options. You could buy a media platform, for instance, where you might bully a marginalized group or forge new friendships with fringe characters. Sharing half-baked views on international affairs works, too; when you’re this rich, even your most reprehensible takes get serious attention.
But be warned: All of this might be fun for you, but it could spell disaster for the car company that generated your riches in the first place.
I’m talking, of course, about Henry Ford, the founder of the car company that bears his name. It would be hard to overstate his influence over corporate America and the national zeitgeist a century ago—or the damage he ultimately inflicted on both his company and the country.
The resemblance to a certain publicity-craving, South Africa–born billionaire is more than fleeting.
But there are some important differences, especially in their early years. Unlike Elon Musk, Ford did not grow up rich (he was raised on a farm in rural Michigan). Ford met his wife and loyal companion, Clara Jane Bryant, when he was 20; he called their wedding “the greatest day of my life.” Musk’s romantic and family life is more, um, complicated. And only Ford actually founded the car company that made him one of the most famous people in the world. (Thanks to a lawsuit settlement, Musk is allowed to call himself a co-founder.)
Ford’s business accomplishments are the stuff of legend. In the early 20th century, he brought to car manufacturing two transformative ideas: interchangeable parts and the assembly line. Together, they turbocharged his company’s production rates, enabling Ford to reduce the price of its flagship Model T by more than two-thirds between 1908 and 1925, when it cost $260 (about $4,400 today). At one point, over half of all cars in the world were Model Ts.
Musk, for his part, is credited with making electric vehicles cool instead of dorky. Starting with the release of the Roadster in 2008, Tesla’s sales of electric cars have dwarfed those of its competitors. The company has capitalized on several innovative business tactics, such as selling directly to consumers, issuing over-the-air software updates, and offering house calls from vehicle technicians. Tesla has loosely followed Musk’s famous 2006 “master plan” of designing high-end EVs before moving down-market with more affordable models. (That said, Tesla—unlike Ford—has not come close to producing a true vehicle for the masses, unless you count the $46,000-plus you’ll pay for a Model 3 before incentives). At age 50, Musk was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2021.
Ford, too, seemed to be on top of the world when he turned 50 in 1913, as the Model T was transforming the country. His 1914 promise of a $5 workday drew thousands of young men from Midwestern farms to Detroit, helping to make Ford himself a topic of national fascination. He became the recognizable face of the automobile industry, producing a wildly popular product that suggested a thrilling future of transportation. According to Heather Barrow’s book Henry Ford’s Plan for the American Suburb, Ford pooh-poohed transit, claiming that subways would eventually be used to park cars. That suggests yet another parallel with Musk, who once said, “I think public transport is painful. It sucks.” Thus far, his vision of subterranean, autonomous tunnels has produced a single 1.5-mile track used by Las Vegas conference attendees who ride inside Teslas—with human drivers.
But then Henry Ford’s life took a grim turn toward bigotry. In 1918 Ford bought a local newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Jews were fleeing pogroms in Europe, the paper published a torrent of vicious antisemitism, such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a series titled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” According to Steven Watts’ book The People’s Tycoon, the resulting backlash included condemnation from former presidents William Taft and Woodrow Wilson and at least one Ford dealership (in Iowa) ending its relationship with the company.
Musk, for his part, bought Twitter last year and now wields it as a weapon against “the woke mind virus.” Transgender people have been a frequent target; Musk tweeted that “pronouns suck,” and last month the San Francisco Chronicle accused him of “leaning into transphobia.” Musk’s politicization of Twitter and embrace of the right seem to be taking a toll on Tesla’s business, much as disgusted Jews once refused to buy Fords.
And then there are international affairs, an area where Musk has recently dabbled disastrously. Here, too, Henry Ford did it first.
Given Ford’s loathing of Jews, his affinity for Nazi Germany is hardly surprising. In 1938 Ford became the first American to accept the Third Reich’s top honor for a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle. The warm feelings were reciprocated: Hitler at one point kept a portrait of Ford in his office, calling him “my inspiration.” In his book, Watts describes how Ford did everything he could to keep the United States out of World War II, including authoring articles touting isolationism and joining Charles Lindbergh in the infamous America First Committee that blamed the United Kingdom and Jews for trying to drag the U.S. into war. Ford infuriated the Roosevelt administration by reneging on an agreement to manufacture engines for Great Britain; only after Pearl Harbor did Ford quietly change course, converting the company’s factories for wartime production.
Musk, too, has developed warm relations with some of the most despicable people of his era. Since buying Twitter, he has invited Nazis back to the platform, where he has also engaged in friendly banter with Vladimir Putin’s top allies. (“Epic thread!!” he recently tweeted in response to former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s New Year’s predictions, which included a civil war breaking out in the U.S.) A few months ago Musk proposed a “peace” plan for the war in Ukraine that received praise from the Kremlin but condemnation from virtually everyone else. Like many on the far right, his disdain for Dr. Anthony Fauci seems to border on obsession.
With Tesla shares tumbling 65 percent in 2022, Musk’s growing involvement in media and politics has done his car company no favors. With much of his wealth comprised of Tesla stock, Musk recently became the first person in history to lose $200 billion. His company’s lead among EV makers once seemed insurmountable, but not anymore.
A century ago, Ford’s carmaking dominance faded along with its founder’s focus on his core business. For years, Henry Ford resisted calls to overhaul the Model T. When he finally did, launching the Model A in 1927, it was too late; Ford had already ceded market share to competitors like General Motors and Chrysler. The company’s struggles continued during the 1930s, when Henry Ford relied on a private police force to battle workers trying to unionize. (Musk, too, has shown no love for organized labor.)
It was only in the 1940s, as Henry Ford’s behavior became increasingly erratic and the company’s finances teetered, that he was finally forced to hand over the reins. He could now fill his time with an array of passion projects that ranged from watchmaking to farming to constructing Greenfield Village, his collection of historic American buildings that included Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop.
As for Musk? Now might be a good time for him to focus on a few hobbies, too.
Lucas Peilert provided research assistance.