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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 429

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This is the grave of Edsel Ford.

Born in 1893 in Detroit, Edsel Ford’s father was one of the worst human beings this nation has ever produced. Henry was also one of the most important. Edsel could never escape the shadow of his father’s brutality and general awfulness. Of course he followed his father into the automobile business and had some good ideas. In 1915, Edsel became secretary of the company. Henry, perhaps the least flexible thinker in American history, had decided on the Model T and by god that was not going to change. Ever. It wasn’t surprising that as the auto industry developed, Ford began to be completely outclassed by GM, as people who could afford wanted something fancier than the stodgy old Model T. Edsel saw this too. His dad didn’t like it at all, but he went out and bought Lincoln in 1922 to bring in a showier model to the Ford repertoire. Even switching to the Model A was really, really hard for him and only happened because of the financial desperation the company was entering once people started buying other cars. Edsel was critical to the development of the Model A, helping to design the body and pushing for the vehicle to have four-wheel mechanical brakes and a sliding-gear transmission. The Model A revitalized Ford.

None of this led Henry to treat Edsel with even basic decency. Henry routinely humiliated Edsel in public, verbally brutalizing him in private. Henry loved him, to the extent he could really love anything, and they never even came close to breaking, but it was an abusive relationship. Over time, as Henry aged and was more concerned with hating Jews and hiring armed thugs to beat up union organizers than moving his company into the future, Edsel became company president, bringing the Mercury line into the company and developed both the Lincoln Zephyr and Continental on his watch. Henry also hoped that hanging around with those thugs would toughen Edsel up. During World War II, Edsel took over even more of the decision-making, going all-in on war production, with the goal of producing one B-24 bomber per hour.

Edsel also became a major benefactor of the arts, commissioning Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit Industry Murals that is in the Detroit Museum of the Arts, one of the most remarkable pieces of art in the 20th century. That so many capitalists and elites, in both Mexico and the U.S., were paying Rivera to produce openly leftist art has always amused me. He also helped finance Richard Byrd’s flight over the North Pole in 1926 and Byrd named a range of mountains he discovered in Antarctica after Edsel.

But Ford also became sick during the war with one of the worst possible illnesses–stomach cancer. It killed him quickly, in 1943. He was 49 years old. In 1957, Ford Motor Company honored Edsel by creating the Edsel line of cars, but they were disastrous. After his death, Henry wanted to name Harry Bennett, the ex-boxer who led his squadron of thugs, as company president, but the family vetoed him and when they found a secret document that eventually would give Bennett the power he wanted, they burned it. That was Henry Ford in a nutshell.

Also, Edsel’s son William Clay Ford is arguably the single worst owner of a professional sports team in American history. I’m sure Lions fans need that reminder.

Edsel Ford is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan, along with his wife Eleanor, who was a major philanthropist in the Detroit area until her death in 1976.

If you would like this series to visit other auto executives, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alfred Sloan is in Laurel Hollow, New York and William Durant is in the. Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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