Thursday, November 10, 2011

January 12, 1904 – Automobile Enthusiast Henry Ford Dies in Crash

Atop the frozen Lake St. Clair near Detroit, Michigan, USA, automobile engineer Henry Ford died when his experimental Ford 999 broke through a spot of unseasonably thin ice. The car flipped at speeds estimated beyond ninety miles per hour, and Ford was instantly killed.

Ford had already built an illustrious career in engineering and was gathering investors for his newly incorporated Ford Motor Company. He had begun on his own farm and sawmill and, in 1891, accepted a job at the Edison Illuminating Company. In 1893, the same year as the birth of his son, Edsel, Ford was made chief engineer, which gave him the resources to experiment with gasoline engines and culminated in the invention of his Ford Quadricyle in 1896. With Edison's encouragement, Ford continued to develop his machine and in 1899 left to found his own company. The initial Detroit Automobile Company did not meet Ford's standards, and he later began again with Alexander Malcolmson, taking in a partnership with the Dodge brothers, whose company produced parts.

As part of his self-publicity, Ford drove his latest automobile design, the "999", which he had perfected from the old model created alongside bicyclist Tom Cooper. It had won races in the past, and Ford meant for it to be a display of his capabilities at setting a new land speed record far and above that made by William Vanderbilt in his internal combustion Mors at seventy-six miles per hour over one kilometer. Although the new record was estimated, it was partially considered out of respect of the late Henry Ford, though L'Automobile Club de France did not recognize it at all as the run had taken place on a frozen lake.

Despite Ford's disaster and numerous other birth pangs, the automobile industry blossomed across the world. Ford's company would shift ownership to the Dodge brothers, who eventually sold the automobile component and put in manufacturing with other Detroit automobile companies such as Olds and Buick before starting their own car line. Other countries such as France, Germany, and Britain manufactured their own automobiles, though America would take up a lead in numbers overall. The growing middle class in America was able to support more of the luxury of an automobile while much of the world transitioned from the horse and buggy to trains. The car remained a badge of wealth, costing between $2000 and $3000, a large amount as the average annual salary in 1910 was $750. Even more expensive luxury cars such as those from Cadillac would cost as much as $5000 by 1920.

Through the Twenties, manufacturing improved and many Americans purchased their cars on credit only to lose them as the Great Depression began. Much of the United States continued using horses, bicycles, and the cheaper motorcycle, but the manufacturing burst of the 1940s set the groundwork that after World War II just about anyone could afford an automobile. Just as prefabricated houses became widely available, so did the many varieties of American cars. Internationally, the American car would continue its lead into the rebuilding of Europe, though every nation seemed to have its own variety.

By the '50s when the industrial sector managed to cross over into mass production of cheap cars, however, the wartime perfection of the rail system and air travel did not leave much interest in long-range driving. President Eisenhower was able to secure some funding for his Interstate Highway System, but the roads would be rarely used by the public who preferred the ease of passenger travel. Cars, meanwhile, were typically saved for leisure on day-trips or commuting for those who lived outside of cities' widespread mass transit systems. Counter-culture beatniks and later hippies popularized the “road trip”, but it would be another generation before it could be considered a family activity.


In reality, Henry Ford's test run was impeccable, and the car went onto a racing tour that spread his name across the country. Ford would be instrumental in the making of the modern world with his Model-T, introduced October 1, 1908, as “a car for the great multitude.” At only $825 initially and as cheap as $360 in 1916, by 1927 over fifteen million Model-Ts had been produced. Ford also helped introduce the moving assembly belt, which revolutionized manufacturing. While severely anti-union, Ford believed in high wages and benefits for employees, hiring and keeping the best workers to maximize efficiency.


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  2. In Budding Young Oil Tycoon Dies in Crash we explore a similar scenario where John D. Rockefeller boarded the the New York Express (in our time line, he missed boarding in Cleveland by a few minutes).

  3. This would have a world wide impact as the Steam Lorry industry of the UK was adversely impacted by the many American war surplus trucks that flooded the market in 1919-1920. Removing Ford and his cost cutting mantra means those army trucks will be purchased in much smaller numbers because the prices will be much higher. The ripples from that would mean substantial changes in gasoline demand in both Europe and North America where Rockefeller was able to save his wealth by switching from Kerosene to Gasoline refining as electricity got rid of flame based lighting in homes. No mass automobile and truck production means much lower fuel demand and hard times for the petroleum industry for a generation instead of just a few years.


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