Henry Ford did more than anyone to change all that. When the Model T first appeared in 1908 it was priced very competitively at $850 and 15,000 orders were secured within a few days. By 1916 you could pick one up for less than $400, and by the early 1920s Ford's factories were capable of producing two million efficient and affordable vehicles per year.
This, by any standard, was a success story but, as Vincent Curcio makes clear in his excellent new book, Ford's impact was about much more than the invention of a legendary motor car. It came down to the "democratization of prosperity" based on the concept of mass production, the mechanisms of the assembly line and a dramatically expanded consumer base. Where Ford led, others followed, and there would soon be an America brimful of cheap refrigerators, radios and washing machines.
If we stopped there, Henry Ford could look very much like a hero, at least to those who like to see the best in capitalism. Unfortunately, the story is not quite so straightforward. Ford also helped to create a woefully materialistic culture and this, to be fair, caused him no end of regret. Ford, paradoxically, was a champion of old-fashioned rural values and his era's acquisitive urban culture appalled him. More importantly, for all his gifts, Ford could be a decidedly unsavoury character. His noxious anti-Semitism heads the list of sins and has been well reported. He was also, upon occasion, a ruthless businessman: he sometimes treated fellow investors very shoddily and had few qualms about exploiting his shareholders' anxieties.
And let's not forget the complex issue of how he dealt with his employees. On paper, and if one takes a selective interpretative approach, Ford emerges rather well. In January 1914 he famously introduced a five-dollar-a-day policy for his workers — and an eight-hour day at that. This apparently generous deed was an instant hit: on the morning following its announcement, 10,000 people were queuing up for a job. Ford was also surprisingly enlightened when it came to recruitment strategies: the blind, the deaf and the disabled all had a decent shot at securing employment.
There was a darker side. Ford was set against unionisation and he, or his thugs, did everything in their power to stem its tide. There was also an incorrigibly paternalistic and moralistic aspect to the man. Early on, a "sociological department" monitored the ethical standards of Ford's employees and God help you if you chatted or whistled during your shift. As Curcio explains, life in Ford's factories was par for the course in the context of its time, even a little better than most, but it was certainly not Utopian. And when times got tough (a recurrent event in 1920s and 1930s America) Ford could be brutal: people would merrily wander home one evening and return the next morning to discover their jobs had been obliterated.
Curcio's study is winningly even-handed and well researched. We hear about Ford's triumphs but also encounter his gaffes: the ill-fated Fordlandia 2.5 million acre rubber plantation in South America, and the bizarre attempt to end the First World War by means of a "peace ship" sent to Europe. Ford, Curcio writes, was "like a hummingbird or a shark". "He had to keep moving" and we are still living with the consequences.
If you have the wit to realise the automobile was one of humanity's worst ideas then you are never going to adore Henry Ford: the man who brought the invention to the masses. If you recognise the scandal of a soulless industrial paradigm (still going strong) in which employees on the assembly line are treated as automatons, then you are unlikely to be Ford's greatest fan. But, heck, he changed the world, utterly and forever, so it will always be necessary to read about him. Curcio's splendid book offers a pithy introduction.