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Books and Authors: New Ford Book Tells Story of Tragedy and Triumph

October 30, 1987

DETROIT (AP) _ The story of Henry Ford, his descendants and the company he founded, as told by biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz, is part bitter tragedy and part heroic triumph.

The tragedy revealed in ″The Fords: An American Epic″ is the toll the company took on the family while the triumph, which grew out of Ford’s destruction of his son, Edsel, comes at the end of grandson Henry Ford II’s four-decade effort to free the company and the family from each other.

In the three years they spent on their third dynastic biography - the first two were ″The Kennedys″ and ″The Rockefellers″ - Collier and Horowitz sought the man beneath the image of Henry Ford II, a search Ford himself concluded only at the end of his career.

″By the end of this I wanted to capture the quintessential truth of this guy,″ Collier said. ″The image he started his professional life with - boorish vulgarian, or an oafish sort of overweight, self-indulgent kid - that never really left him and (Lee) Iacocca very adroitly calls up that image and plays on it in his book. That was really far from the truth.″

Ford died Sept. 29 at the age of 70.

While not a flattering portrait, the book does show his well-publicized split with Iacocca, former Ford president and current Chrysler Corp. chairman, in a new light. It is seen through the prism of Ford’s goals for the company and his fears of a usurper such as Harry Bennett, from whom he wrested his birthright at the end of World War II.

Bennett had muscled his way to become the elder Ford’s confidante and took over the company when Ford died. Henry II was 26 and in the naval reserve at the time. By 28, he ousted Bennett and assumed control of the company.

The book, the third recent look at the Fords, came out this month and followed Robert Lacey’s ″Ford: The Men and the Machine,″ a somewhat gossipy examination of the family and David Halberstam’s ″The Reckoning,″ which compares the Japanese and U.S. auto industries by tracing the histories of Ford and Nissan.

″This man’s life is unintelligible unless you understand what went on inside that company,″ said Horowitz, who first worked with Collier in the early 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley. And Ford’s accomplishment has not been fully understood.

″Henry realized that he had to purge the company of the family. That was his work, that he would be the last Ford to rule by right or even begin to rule by right.″

Collier added: ″The buck stops with Henry II’s generation. .. . They are the ones that are connected by these viscous strings to this primal tragedy, this primal crime and retribution involving Old Henry, Edsel, who was the pivotal figure in this story, and then (Ford II’s) generation which has been reacting both to the old man and to their father’s fate.″

The narrative traces the original Henry Ford’s rise and then his deterioration, when his refusal to surrender control of the company to Edsel nearly destroyed it and likely contributed to Edsel’s death at age 49. Edsel’s oldest son, Henry Ford II, was awakened by the humiliation, misery and death of his father. He took over the company and brought in professional managers who helped him salvage it from Old Henry’s incompetence and restore it to profitability.

But in his desire to make Ford into another General Motors Corp., he jumped at a scheme to add three divisions to Ford’s two - Ford and Lincoln-Mercury - in two years, starting with the Edsel division. The first Edsel car was a failure, losing Ford $350 million in 1957, and the plan disintegrated.

It also cost Henry’s brothers, Benson and William Clay, any real participation in the company. In his eagerness to build the company, Henry allowed his brothers to be shunted aside by more ambitious and political outsiders. Among the three brothers, ″it wasn’t survival of the fittest so much as survival of the Fordest,″ Collier said.

The company recovered from the Edsel debacle, but the younger Henry gave up his dream of matching GM and instead began looking for the elements of life he felt he’d lost out on in shouldering his family’s burden.

After two divorces, he found happiness with Kathy DuRoss Ford. When he resigned from his last Ford post in 1982, he left behind a public company run by professional managers, immune to destruction through the misguided whims of a single regal leader, including himself, his descendants or Iacocca.

″He endured but also at the end of his life there is a triumph,″ Collier said. ″He had that dogged sense of picking his way through the minefields of life and doing a good job of it, an honest job with real integrity.″

End Adv for Fri AMs Oct 30

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