Military Officers Swooped In and Saved Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford, left, often took trips with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. This photograph, circa 1924, signed by Ford, sold for $1,195 at a June 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1968, General Curtis LeMay was the vice presidential running mate with American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. This unlikely duo snagged 46 electoral votes and five states with almost 10 million popular votes. This was the last time a third-party candidate won a state.

During World War II, LeMay had implemented a controversial bombing campaign in the Pacific. It was during this time that future Ford Motor Company President Robert McNamara was busy analyzing U.S. bomber efficiency and effectiveness, especially the B-29 command of General LeMay, as part of a team headed by Colonel Tex Thornton.

LeMay and McNamara would cross paths again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the war in Vietnam.

During the late war years of the 1940s, the Ford Motor Company was struggling to remain viable. President Edsel Ford, son of founder Henry, died of stomach cancer in 1943 and the board made the mistake of bringing back an ailing Henry Ford in an act of desperation. The company was losing $9-10 million a month and the Roosevelt administration had considered nationalization to keep vital war materials flowing.

In 1945, Edsel’s son Henry Ford II was discharged from the Navy and the board quickly named him president of Ford. However, the company he inherited was still a shell of a corporation badly in need of modernizing its production, establishing financial controls and building an organization.

In a stroke of genius, Tex Thornton decided to market his staff of nine wartime officers to corporations that were reconverting from military to civil production. After all, his colleagues were part of a management science operation within the Army Air Force and, without a doubt, were the most talented managerial team of the century … young men who had gained 25 years of experience in just four years.

Thornton sent a cable to young (28) Henry Ford II and after an impressive interview, Ford hired the group with salaries ranging from $10,000 to $16,000. Bob McNamara was the second-highest paid and he took over finance at Ford. This is the group that became the famous “Whiz Kids” (although internally they were called “Quiz Kids” since they were always asking “Why?”). The Ford Motor Company would never be the same, fortunately, and slowly started catching up with rival General Motors.

One amusing anecdote involves The Edsel Show, a live one-hour television special designed to promote Ford’s cars. It aired on Oct. 13, 1957, and featured Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. The show drew great reviews.

Clooney received one of the new Edsels as a gift and after the show, she and Henry Ford were walking together when she went over to get in. The door handle came off in her hand, so she turned and said, “Henry, about your car…”

Quality control was still en route to Dearborn, Mich., but arrived after the Edsel’s funeral.

More about Robert Strange McNamara, who became Secretary of Defense in 1961, in future posts.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

None of the Chevrolet Brothers Benefited from Company’s Enduring Success

Car Passing a Buggy, Chevrolet ad illustration, 1925
Original ad illustrations, like this piece for Chevrolet titled “Car Passing a Buggy,” 1925, by Lawrence L. Wilbur, are popular with collectors.

By Jim O’Neal

One of the most recognizable emblems is owned by Chevrolet. It was quickly called the “bowtie” for its unique design, but the origin of the company, its name and invaluable trademark is a complicated story not well known.

The Chevrolet family had their beginning in Switzerland, where the father was a watchmaker. This is where the highly accomplished mechanic, designer and racing driver, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, was born on Christmas Day 1878. In 1887, the family moved to France, where Louis’ brothers Gaston and Arthur were born.

Chevrolet_firstbowtie_1913
Chevrolet first used its “bowtie” emblem in 1913.

The brothers became obsessed with bicycle racing, a first-tier sport in France. One story is that American playboy-sportsman Willie Vanderbilt encouraged them to move to America where their skills would be more appreciated ($$). Louis went first and was soon followed by Gaston and Arthur, who joined Louis to work on French cars, fixing flats and eventually becoming factory racecar drivers for Buick.

Enter William C. Durant, who was busy buying car companies to add to the General Motors portfolio. According to one biography, he had an agreement to buy Ford, but only if Henry kept the rights for motorized farm equipment (Henry was spooked by a patent suit claiming invention of the automobile). Fortunately for Ford, the banks would not provide financing – “The industry is too risky” – and he went on to become a giant in the car industry instead of farm equipment.

After a financial panic in 1910, the GM board ousted Durant, at least for a while.

So Durant convinced Louis Chevrolet to found a new car company, the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, but they parted ways when Durant added a cheaper version that Louis thought was demeaning. Louis proceeded to sell his stock and, in an all-time blunder, left his name with the company and decided to focus on racing again.

He managed to finish 7th in the 1919 Indy 500, but it was Gaston who turned out to be a phenomenally good race driver. When Gaston finished first in 1920, he became the first driver in the history of the race to go the full distance without making a tire change. However, his fame was short-lived. Six months later, at age 28, in November 1920, he died in a fiery crash with Eddie O’Donnell at the Beverly Hills speedway in a race for the “Speed King of the Year.”

Gaston’s death resulted in the brothers leaving racing, although Louis continued to design engines for Ford. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum features a memorial dedicated to the many accomplishments of Louis-Joseph Chevrolet. Fittingly, he was inducted into all four major automotive Hall of Fames.

Durant eventually used his stock in Chevrolet to buy General Motors again and the Chevrolet brand is still alive, although none of the Chevrolets benefited from its long enduring success.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].