K-12 Research Guide: Ford Motor Company


In 1899 Henry Ford left the only steady job he had ever had as chief engineer of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in Detroit to start an automobile company. By 1903 that first company had failed, and he had quit a second company in a dispute with his financial backers. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Ford convinced a new group of investors that there was money to be made manufacturing automobiles designed by Henry Ford. On June 16, 1903 those investors filed articles of incorporation for the Ford Motor Company. 



Henry Ford had founded two unsuccessful car companies before starting Ford Motor Company in 1903. In the early years of the company, Ford introduced a number of vehicles, Models A, B, C, F, K, N, R, S, and finally his most successful, the Model T. The Model T was easy to operate, maintain, and handle on rough roads. It immediately became a huge success.  

To keep up with demand and lower costs, Ford Motor Company adapted methods used by other industries to develop a moving assembly line for automobile production.  The assembly line was introduced in 1913.    

However, Ford Motor Company workers objected to the never-ending, repetitive work on the new line. Turnover and employee dissatisfaction were high.  Henry responded with his boldest innovation ever—in January 1914 he virtually doubled wages with the introduction of the Five Dollar Day.  The Five Dollar Day stabilized the workforce and gave workers the ability to buy the very cars they made. 

In 1919, after internal battles with the stockholders over expansion plans, Ford resigned as president and bought out the stockholders so he, his wife Clara, and son Edsel could have complete control over the company. As owner of the company, Ford focused on vertical integration, use of by-product materials, use of farm produce in industrial applications, and acquiring land to provide raw materials for production.  

Ford also experimented with decentralization through the Village Industries program, where certain manufacturing or assembly would be done in small plants scattered throughout southeast Michigan.  

Henry Ford was known for his anti-union stance, which led to many altercations with workers over the years, and in 1941 amid pressure from Edsel and Clara Ford, Henry finally agreed to sign a UAW contract.  

Though Ford was a pacifist, the company did manufacture for the war effort when the United States was involved in both World War I and World War II.  

In 1945, Henry Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, took over as president of the company. In his early years as President, Henry II is credited with modernizing manufacturing, production, and accounting to return the company to profitability. Under Henry II’s presidency the company became a publicly traded corporation in 1956. He oversaw a few largely successful vehicle introductions in the Thunderbird, Falcon, and Mustang, but also a flop in the Edsel. Henry II also championed the Ford racing program, leading the company to their successful GT40 program and wins at Le Mans. Henry II expanded and modernized plants across the US and the world and oversaw the building of the Research and Engineering campus and the new World Headquarters building in Dearborn. In 1960, Henry II stepped down from the presidency but remained Chairman of the Board until 1980, formally retiring from the company in 1982. 


Online Resources 

Ford Motor Co. Chronology, 1903-2003 

Henry Ford's Rouge 

Ford Rouge Timeline 

Ford Motor Company Personalities: The Ford Family 


Expert Sets 

The experts at The Henry Ford have carefully curated artifact sets from focus areas of our collection.  

Expert Set – The Model T & The Assembly Line 

Expert Set – Henry Ford: $5 Day 

Expert Set – Henry Ford: Post-Model T 


Example Primary Sources Available on Digital Collections 

Ford Motor Company Articles of Association, June 16, 1903 

These four pages are the original Articles of Association that established Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. They provided the company name, the purpose for which it was formed, the place of operation, the amount of capital stock, the term of years the company would exist, and the names of the stockholders. Note that Henry Ford was not president. 

Ford Motor Company (Mack Avenue Plant) 

Henry Ford's third automobile company, formed in 1903, set up shop in a former wagon factory on Detroit's Mack Avenue. Ford's small crew assembled Model A cars from components made elsewhere. Within 18 months, Ford Motor Company moved to a larger facility on Piquette Avenue. This building is a replica about one fourth the size of the original Mack Avenue plant. 

Ford Motor Company Checkbook, 1903 

Ford Motor Company's first checkbook, kept by Secretary James Couzens, shows the struggling company's transition. The bank account started with $14,500 on June 26, 1903. It sank to $223.65 by July 10 after 60 checks. Then on July 15, Ford sold its first car for $850. From then on, the balance kept increasing and the company was off and running. 

1903 Ford Model A Runabout 

After his first two attempts at commercial automobile manufacturing failed, Henry Ford found success with Ford Motor Company, established in 1903. The new company's first product, the Model A, was conventional by the standards of the day. It featured a two-cylinder engine mounted under the seat and rear wheels driven by a chain. 

1909 Ford Model T Touring Car 

Henry Ford crafted his ideal car in the Model T. It was rugged, reliable and suited to quantity production. The first 2,500 Model Ts carried gear-driven water pumps rather than the thermosiphon cooling system adopted later. Rarer still, the first 1,000 or so -- like this example -- used a lever rather than a floor pedal to engage reverse. 

Workers Installing Engines on Ford Model T Assembly Line at Highland Park Plant, 1913 

One worker at Ford's Highland Park Plant connects a Model T driveshaft to its transmission, while another lowers an engine onto the chassis using a chain hoist. This 1913 assembly line was relatively crude -- workers pushed or pulled vehicles to each station. The next year, Ford would install chain-driven, moving assembly lines to improve efficiency and increase productivity. 

Ford Motor Company Meeting Minutes Book, 1911-1919 

These few paragraphs from the January 5th meeting of Ford's Board of Directors announcing the a $5.00 a day wage for an eight hour work day brought thousands of workers to Detroit and sent shock waves through the upper echelon of the automobile industry. 

Aerial View of Ford Rouge Plant Complex, 1948 

Ford Motor Company built the Rouge Plant with the ability to create automobiles from raw materials. In this photograph, the boat docks and huge coal, iron ore and limestone bins are visible. In 1948, about 850,000 tons of ore and 2,500,000 tons of coal arrived by boat and filled these bins to be used towards building Ford cars. 

75 Year Span - Ford Motor Company World Headquarters in 1978 - First Factory in 1903 

Ford Motor Company's growth from 1903 to 1978 is illustrated by this image. At bottom is the automaker's original single-story factory on Detroit's Mack Avenue. At top is the 12-story Henry Ford II World Center, built in Dearborn in 1953-1956 to house Ford's world headquarters. Ford outgrew Mack Avenue quickly, relocating to a building on Detroit's Piquette Avenue in late 1904. 


Books and Secondary Sources  

Henry Ford: Putting the World on Wheels, Dina El Nabli (a Time for Kids Biography) 

Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill 

Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill 

Ford: Decline and Eebirth, 1933-1962, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill       


Online Databases 

Digital Collections 

Research Library Catalog 

Archival Finding Aids Database 


  • Last Updated Apr 02, 2024
  • Views 6
  • Answered By Lauren B.

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