1949 Ford: The Car That Saved a Company.
At the height of World War II, a cornerstone of America's "Arsenal of Democracy" was crumbling. After Ford Motor Company CEO Edsel Ford succumbed to cancer at the age of 49 in May 1943, his father, 80-year-old company founder Henry Ford, had come out of semi-retirement to run the firm. But that proved too much for the elder Ford to handle, and Ford Motor Company became increasingly dysfunctional. Founded in 1903, Ford Motor Company had grown, over four decades, from a single small factory to an enormously complex global manufacturing company headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan. At its pinnacle in the 1920s, Ford held 61 percent of the U.S. automobile market and sold more than 1.5 million Model T automobiles annually. But, by the mid-1930s, competitors Chevrolet and Plymouth were relentlessly eroding Ford's customer base, and in 1940, its market share fell to 20 percent, the lowest in 30 years.
In July 1943, Edsel Ford's son, 25-year-old Henry Ford II, was released from the U.S. Navy and sent home to Michigan to take the helm of the family enterprise. He officially became president of Ford Motor Company in September 1945.
Ford II inherited a company hindered by processes mat had been patched together over decades of meteoric expansion and a subsequent period of drifting. Entrenched executives engaged in internal bickering, which festered under company leaders whose power had lain in their access to the elder Henry Ford. The firm was clearly not prepared to cope with the postwar future.
As difficult as the challenges were, other circumstances presented a moment of golden opportunity for young Henry Ford II. For three years, Ford Motor Company had been dedicated to war production. Now that the war was over, the peacetime reconversion to civilian automobiles would provide a unique window to introduce new ideas, new methods, and new policies.
The "Best and Brightest" Go Job Hunting
While Henry Ford II sought to define the future of Ford Motor Company, U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Colonel Charles B. "Tex" Thornton was also considering his postwar prospects. During World War II, Thornton had organized and led the USAAF's Statistical Control Office, also known as "Stat Control." Formed in early 1942, the organization was staffed by 3,000 specialists who tracked and managed the flow of people, aircraft, parts, supplies, and finances that supported America's air war. Stat Control contributed much to the Allied victories in Europe and the Pacific--but with the war over, many of its services would soon no longer be required.
Thornton believed that a group of ten of the "best and brightest" Stat Control experts, led by him, could sell their services as a team to a major corporation in the postwar period. The nine men he chose to join him were Wilbur B. Andreson, Charles E. Bosworth, P. Edward Lundy, Robert S. McNamara, Arjay R. Miller, Ben D. Mills, George B. Moore, Francis C. "Jack" Reith, and James O. Wright.
The ten Stat Control experts were of exceptional intelligence and drive. Graduates of prestigious universities, they had studied the applications of statistics in business environments at Harvard Business School or similarly ranked institutions. Each was a well-tested and wartime-proven "architect of fact." A brochure offering the team's services was mailed to more than a hundred major corporations, but only one--a company the job seekers agreed they did not want to pursue--showed serious interest.
It was George Moore's father who suggested that Thornton's team try Ford Motor Company. Soon after sending a boldly worded telegram directly to Henry Ford II, Thornton was invited to Dearborn to discuss his group's potential with the young executive.
Ford II told Thornton that he was determined to recast his company as an "up-and-coming corporation with new management and new ideas." For that to happen, he said, he needed to know the truth of things, and he felt he could not trust the data he was receiving from the management he had inherited. Thornton responded that his group's unwavering maxim was "No decision is better than the facts upon which it is based." He spoke of how their educations and accomplishments gave his men the potential to greatly benefit a large corporation such as Ford Motor Company.
Impressed, Ford II invited Thornton's team to meet with him at the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn. In early January 1946, eight of the ten men, still in USAAF uniforms, traveled to Michigan--Mills was away on official business, and McNamara was recovering from illness. During their meeting, Ford II reiterated his need for factual statistics and cost-benefit analyses, and the USAAF officers' terse and frank responses told him everything he needed to know. Ford II decided to hire them all.
Laying Foundations for Change
The ten former Stat Control experts started at Ford Motor Company on February 1, 1946. Their employment reportedly quadrupled the number of college graduates within Ford's executive ranks. Three of their number would be gone within two years, while those who remained would become changemakers and leaders as they rose to senior executive roles within the company.
During their first months in Dearborn, Thornton's men served as "special assistants" to Henry Ford II. They asked countless questions as they documented and absorbed how Ford Motor Company functioned and malfunctioned. Soon, they were known as "Quiz Kids," a nickname likely inspired by a popular quiz show heard weekly on the WXYZ Detroit radio station. The group's tactful probing revealed bottlenecks, deadwood, and disconnects everywhere. They calculated that Ford Motor Company was losing up to $10 million a month, even as it took in nearly $1 billion a year.
Most of the team was subsequently tasked with developing fact-based recommendations for automobile programs, facilties, and finance, including corporate investments. Applying their wartime experience, the men strove to eliminate non-productive overhead, establish channels of responsibility, and build lines of communication. Ben Mills, for example, negotiated timetables with department heads and demanded they sign commitments to meet the agreed-upon schedules. In their new role, the "Quiz Kids" became known as "Whiz Kids," a moniker previously associated with the University of Illinois' basketball team.
At first, things were going well for Tex Thornton. But Ford II, determined to decentralize his company, soon brought the well-seasoned Ernest R. Breech over from General Motors and placed him in the chain of command between Thornton and himself. Aggrieved by the unanticipated loss of direct access to Ford II, Thornton pushed back aggressively. It was a losing battle. Thornton left Ford Motor Company in May 1948, following the departures of George Moore and Wilbur Andreson, who had already left on their own accord.
After Thornton's exit, Breech's executive assistant, Lewis D. Crusoe, named Robert McNamara, Edward Lundy, and Arjay Miller as his assistants. Each had a teaching background, which helped them spread their Whiz-Kid ideology throughout the company.
Jack Reith, the only Whiz Kid who possessed a true passion for cars, was soon named manager of Ford Division product planning. Reith took exception when he learned the company intended to discontinue its optional V-8 engine, a Ford exclusive among low-priced cars since 1932. The rationale was that Chevrolet and Plymouth did just fine offering only six-cylinder engines and that the standard Ford engine was a well-regarded "inline-six," so why did Ford need a V-8?
Reith and an assistant, Chase Morsey, countered that argument with surveys showing that both dealers and young buyers loved Ford's V-8 engines. They calculated that the V-8, a $100 option, cost the company only $16 more to manufacture than the inline-six. Thus the V-8 engine remained an option for what would become one of Ford Motor Company's most unforgettable automobiles--the 1949 Ford.
The 1949 Ford Is Born
The 1949 Ford was the first new automobile designed by Ford Motor Company since the outbreak of World War II. Because Ford had suspended civilian production during the war and simply updated its prewar models between 1946 and 1948, the "Forty-Niner," as it was colloquially known, would put a new product face on Henry Ford II's reborn company.
The new 1949 Ford had to be recognizable as a Ford automobile but look nothing like the cars it replaced. It had to be completely modern but not too futuristic. Most of all, it needed to outshine the postwar Chevrolets and Plymouths that were sure to appear that same year.
The malaise that befell Ford Motor Company in the wake of Edsel Ford's death did not spare its styling section, which had long been his special domain. The 1949 Ford was the first Ford automobile designed without Edsel Ford, whose design tastes were widely admired, since the Model A in 1927.
Before his death in 1943, Edsel Ford and his chief stylist, E.T. "Bob" Gregorie, had begun designing two cars to replace the 1942 Ford, the final model released before the company halted civilian production during World War II. One was larger and the other smaller than the 1942 Ford. Both models were being tooled for postwar production when Ernest Breech arrived from General Motors in June 1946. Breech concluded that neither car would make a good Ford, and Engineering Chief and Head of Design Harold T. Youngren agreed. Although time was very short, Youngren told the company's engineers and designers to "start from scratch!" The larger Ford design ultimately became the 1949 Mercury, while the smaller car reached production as a French Ford Vedette.
As Ford Motor Company stylists set out to design a more conventionally sized postwar automobile, Breech invited independent designer George W. Walker to also submit a styling proposal that would give Ford II and senior executives an alternate choice. Fortuitously, it was just then that Richard Caleal, an experienced designer and native of Lansing, Michigan, called at Walker's studio looking for work. Caleal had just been let go by Studebaker after helping design the Indiana automaker's first postwar car. Walker promised Caleal a job--but only if he could create an acceptable styling model for a secret client on an extremely tight deadline.
Accepting the challenge, Caleal returned to his home in Mishawaka, Indiana, and immediately began molding a quarter-scale clay styling model on his kitchen table. Studebaker stylists Bob Bourke and Holden "Bob" Koto and a trio of clay modelers assisted Caleal by moonlighting on the top-secret rush project.
After Caleal delivered his quarter-scale model to Detroit, Walker studio designers Joe Oros and Elwood Engel began translating it to a full-size model. They tweaked the Caleal model as they worked, raising the roofline slightly to increase headroom, squaring off rounded wheelhouses, and revising the deck lid shape to accommodate taller objects. Walker's men worked in the Ford Motor Company engineering building, where Bob Gregorie and his stylists were at the same time constructing their full-scale 1949 Ford proposal. The two teams shared clay modelers, equipment, and perhaps some ideas.
Both 1949 Ford proposals had a modern look, with gently squared-off "slab sides" that eliminated the protruding fenders of earlier cars. Before the 1949 Ford was released, several independent automakers had produced slab-sided 1947 or 1948 models. Those cars, however, were more rounded than the Ford, especially at the rear.
On December 11, 1946, Ford II and his operating committee viewed both full-scale models. Caleal's smooth and relatively unadorned design was unanimously favored and chosen to become title 1949 Ford. Some say it was Ford II himself who suggested turning the model's oval taillights from vertical to horizontal--a change that helped set the new car apart from its competitors. Joe Oros had already added the centered grille "spinner" that gave the 1949 Ford its memorable frontal identity. The simple and well-tailored lines of the Walker-Caleal model fit well with emerging postwar trends in architecture, furniture, and fashion.
According to Bob Gregorie, Ford II showed the winning model to his grandparents. After viewing it, his grandfather Henry Ford's only concern was that a farmer's upright milk cans might not fit in the trunk. A few months later, on April 7, 1947, Henry Ford--"the man who put the world on wheels"--passed into history.
Following established tradition for studio heads, George Walker took full credit for the design of the 1949 Ford. He did, however, later hire Richard Caleal as a Ford Motor Company designer. Caleal's central role in the creation of the 1949 Ford came to light much later. In 2009, three years after his death, Caleal, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants, became the first Arab American inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Soaring Into the 50s
The Whiz Kids helped Ford Motor Company get the 1949 Ford into production in time for its June 1948 introduction. Newly styled 1949 Chevrolet and Plymouth models--neither as modern as the slab-sided Ford--were released months later. Ford advertisements had pledged a car-starved nation in the immediate postwar period that "There's a Ford in Your Future." For more than 1.1 million Americans, the 1949 Ford delivered on that promise.
Early in 1949, Ford Motor Company split its manufacturing and sales operations into two divisions--Ford Division and Lincoln-Mercury. "During the year, the Company strengthened its organization by further advancement of [a] long-range decentralization program begun after the war," the industry publication Ward's Reports noted. Decentralization paid off. In 1955, a revitalized Ford Motor Company booked its best sales numbers since 1923 and banked a record $437 million profit. In one of the most competitive years in industry history, the company's market share exceeded 28 percent.
By 1955, Whiz Kids Robert McNamara and Jack Reith were managing Ford Division and Mercury, respectively. Styling consultant George Walker was finally brought into the company to direct car and truck styling operations. On the last day of 1955, Ford Motor Company committed to a billion-dollar investment in growth. The future looked rosy. But it typically took up to three years to get a new car from ideation to production--and even Whiz-Kid analytics could not reliably predict market influences that far ahead.
Conceived amid the industry hubris of 1955, Ford Motor Company's 1958 Edsel reached showrooms just in time to confront a perfect storm of market resistance. A sudden economic recession; growing consumer interest in smaller, more efficient cars; and the sobering implications of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite orbiting overhead combined to slam the brakes on car sales in 1958 -- especially of those chrome-bedecked and gadget-laden offerings in the Mercury and Edsel price ranges.
For Jack Reith, the storm was a personal disaster. His space-age-themed 1957 Mercury had failed to take off, and he had pushed hard for the 1958 Edsel. Those perceived missteps led to his departure from Ford in 1958. Two years later, he died by his own hand.
"Following the [Edsel] debacle, Ford Motor Company went on to record extraordinary successes," author Tom Bonsall wrote in his 1983 Edsel history, Disaster in Dearborn. The six Whiz Kids remaining at the company contributed to those successes. McNamara led the way, utilizing the ill-fated Edsel's factory to build a new and very successful Ford--the compact 1960 Falcon.
The Whiz Kids Remembered
In November 1960, Robert McNamara became President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, succeeding Henry Ford II and becoming the company's first president from outside the Ford family. Within two months, he left to become U.S. Secretary of Defense under newly elected President John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, McNamara continued as Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson. Disillusioned by the Vietnam War, he departed politics in 1968 and subsequently served as CEO of the World Bank from 1969 to 1981.
Arjay Miller rose through finance executive ranks to become President of Ford Motor Company in 1963. He left in 1968 to become dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Miller outlived all the other original Whiz Kids, dying in 2017 at the age of 101.
After serving as Ford Motor Company's chief financial officer for 12 years, Ed Lundy retired in 1979. Whiz Kids biographer John Byrne wrote that Lundy "recruited followers by the thousands and rotated them through the company... They spread the Whiz Kids' gospel to companies far beyond Ford."
Jim Wright was group vice president and general manager of Ford Division when he retired in 1963. Ben Mills retired in 1971 as vice president of Ford Worldwide Supply. Charles Bosworth was director of purchasing for Ford Division when he retired.
David Halberstam, a most astute chronicler of post-World War II American culture, has called the original Whiz Kids "the most gifted management team of the [twentieth] century, purveyors of a new managerial art in American industry." Detroit Free Press reporter Louis Cook put it more succinctly in 1960: "They could find out where the money went, and what it bought."
The Whiz Kids' accomplishments are still venerated in today's Ford Motor Company, which continues to operate globally from its Dearborn headquarters. And, 70 years after its introduction, the 1949 Ford is still celebrated as one of the most significant models in the automaker's 115-year history.
By Terry V. Boyce
Automotive author and historian Terry V. Boyce resides in Mount Clemens. His byline has appeared in numerous publications over the past five decades.
Caption: The sleek design of the 1949 Ford.
Caption: The ten "Whiz Kids" (pictured in the front row) in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1946.
Caption: The 1949 Ford boasted a new "modern design" for the automobile industry.
Caption: A stylish 1949 Ford as advertised by the Ford Motor Company. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company.)
Caption: Ford advertised more than just the body of the 1949 Ford--the interior, too, offered a modern feel.
Caption: The rear of a 1949 Ford shows the final horizontal taillights, which had changed from Richard Caleal's original vertical design.
Caption: "Whiz Kid" and former president of Ford Motor Company Robert McNamara, pictured as U.S. Secretary of Defense, c. 1961. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||Ford Motor Company|
|Author:||Boyce, Terry V.|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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