In the hell-blasts and volcanic glare of Midwestern furnaces, the modern mass-produced automobile was born. Into gigantic structures in which whole city blocks could be spaciously laid out, the raw materials of five continents poured, deposited in the custody of tens of thousands of laborers who, with the hivelike monotony of worker bees, directed the resources to their appointed destinations—whether cutting table, press, crusher, or infernal oven. Alongside the stacks of virgin steel, rubber, glass, nickel, and hardwoods came used cars also, purchased in bulk, their forlorn carcasses stripped of every useful feature: Windows were carefully removed; leather was torn from seats with the heartless precision a butcher applies to the skinning of a pig; and tires were pulled from their rims, while uniformed figures wrested steering wheels from their columns with the assistance of blowtorches. Even the remnants of brass were shaved off these vehicles before their half-dismantled bodies, like naked prisoners, proceeded along the disassembly line to their place of final execution, a square chamber in which their skeletons were crushed flat in the iron mandible of unfathomable machinery—chewed, as it were, for ultimate digestion in the rippling 100-ton crucibles.
The iridescent issue of these devices—under the supervision of workmen who watched from behind the bulbous insect lenses of protective goggles—streamed forth like angry liquid sunbeams into hissing cauldrons, lacing the air with sparks; then the molten remains traveled across the cavernous works, where they spilled into a variety of molds, fanning out into panels or extruding through networks of cylindrical dies to assume the shapes of beams or rods. These apparently random industrial giblets, in the hands of legions of machinists (each meticulously trained in the perpetual repetition of a few simple procedures that finished these raw forms into useful items), would become door panels, axles, and hoods. These would in turn pass to armies of assemblers, organized in ranks, whose sole function was to perform a succession of staccato movements—to rivet, hammer, and fasten these pieces together—against a vast tableau of human toil worthy of Dante. From this frenzied activity emerged the gleaming yet drably hued coupes and sedans for which Ford Motor Co. gained fame in the early 20th century—freshly minted motorcars arisen like highly waxed phoenixes from the rubble and raw metal that only hours before lay heaped on the docks.
This orchestrated masterpiece of efficiency was the true brainchild of Henry Ford—far more so than the cars he sold. Unlike so many magnates of the industrial age, he cared little for profits as the end of his efforts: These merely furnished the means of feeding and inflating the manufacturing colossus to which he played high priest, and which he loved above all else. The Models A and T and their descendants were the offspring of that great love; but the American icon reserved the better portion of his passion for the grand processes he invented and perfected, then reinvented. A kind of indifference to the nuances and character of the products themselves informed his attitude toward them: They should be produced cheaply, quickly, and uniformly to the highest standards of quality the velocity of production would permit. Yet he remained strangely impassive to their personalities or appeal; if Henry Ford chose to make black and blue cars, the public, he decreed, would buy them black and blue (an oversight that eventually allowed struggling competitor Chevrolet, which marketed a rainbow palette, to gain a foothold in sales by catering to the popular taste). The engines—and the wheels they turned—served largely as precursors to the much larger and more fateful engine (mechanical, yes, but also logistical and financial) that truly became the lasting legacy of his genius. If Ford—a brilliant adapter of others’ ideas—can be said to have invented anything himself, it is our present concept of mass production.
While the “father” of the modern automobile’s burgeoning factories before and after the Depression provides for us today the readiest metaphor for the ultimate achievements and failures of the Industrial Revolution, purists among us may contend that Ford and his practitioners subsumed rather than advanced an industry whose origins were of an altogether different nature. The automobile, as Rolls-Royce, Allard, Mercedes-Benz, and Bentley understood it, was a finely tooled work of art that, though useful, transcended in form and action its simple function of carrying us from place to place. Our 12 “Car of the Year” contenders (see “Car of the Year 2004,” page 60) reassure us that this credo, at least—if not all of its exemplars—escaped Mr. Ford’s crusher.
Senior Vice President, Editorial