Truly the Last Tycoons

Ford: The Men and the Machine

by Robert Lacey
Little, Brown, 778 pp., $24.95

There is a highly predictable sequence in the development of a great industrial enterprise. It begins as the reflection of the imagination, energy, and technical or other competence of some person, and it is strongly identified with a family name. But this does not last. In a generation or two, if it succeeds and expands, it becomes an impersonal bureaucracy of its top management. It is not that the offspring of the founder, reared in wealth and committed to self-gratification, are incompetent, although that is frequently the case. It is that any considerable enterprise, public or private, is an expression of organized intelligence. The large firm doesn’t yield in its complexity to the average available business brain or even to the best.

One would be embarrassed to state the obvious except that it is not fully accepted. The current head of General Motors, General Electric, General Mills, or General Dynamics yearns to feel that he is a decisive force. His public relations hands play dutifully to this wish. So, to some extent, does the public. The myth of the individual is still strong in the popular view; persons are exciting and understandable; organization, bureaucracy, is not. And the more romantic tradition in economics still cherishes and makes universal the image of the heroic entrepreneur.

Only in the harsh pecuniary reality do we accept the truth. The stock market reacts with refined indifference to the passage of command in the great corporation from one chief executive to another. No inside informer trades on confidential information to the effect that some CEO has cancer, heart trouble, corporate Alzheimer’s, or deeply preoccupying trouble with his present wife. And even the public relations people do not succeed, for, in further recognition of the reality, no one can really remember who is the current head of General Motors, Exxon, or IBM. The great names of American industry—Durant, Sloan, Rockefeller, Watson—are part of the past except as they are retrieved in modern times by philanthropy or government service.

The great exception, Dupont possibly apart, was Ford. The family and the company remained united for three quarters of a century. The history of this association, along with the family traits, events, and disasters—the nostalgic eccentricity of Henry I; the sad subordination of his son Edsel, now remembered only for the name given to that car; the marriages, divorces, family disputes and festivals, and the heavy alcohol ingestion and alcoholism of the third generation—is the subject of Robert Lacey’s book on the four generations of Fords and the company. Lacey, an Englishman, went to Detroit to write their story, and he is a historian in the Braudel, everything-must-be-included tradition. But there should be no doubt: it is a very good book.

If I’m allowed a personal note, I grew up in southern Ontario, down the lake from Detroit, in the long shadow of Highland Park and the Rouge, and I’ve read and reviewed much of the earlier Ford literature …

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Letters

It Makes a Difference October 23, 1986