Ford showed mechanical aptitude at an early age and left (1879) his father's farm to work as an apprentice in a Detroit machine shop. He soon returned to his home, but after considerable experimentation with power-driven vehicles, he went (1890) to Detroit again and worked as a machinist and engineer with the Edison Company. Ford continued working in his spare time as well, and in 1896 he completed his first automobile. Resigning (1899) from the Edison Company he launched the Detroit Automobile Company.
A disagreement with his associates led Ford to organize (1903) the Ford Motor Company in partnership with Alexander Malcomson, James Couzens (who devised and oversaw the company's successful early business and accounting procedures), the Dodge brothers, and others. In 1907 he purchased the stock owned by most of his associates, and thereafter the Ford family remained in control of the company. By cutting the costs of production, by adapting the conveyor belt and assembly line to automobile production, and by featuring an inexpensive, standardized car, Ford was soon able to outdistance all his competitors and become the largest automobile producer in the world. He came to be regarded as the apostle of mass production. In 1908 he guided his chief engineer Harold Wills in the design of the Model T; nearly 17 million cars were produced worldwide before the model was discontinued (1928) and a new design—the Model A—was created to meet growing competition. Highly publicized for paying wages considerably above the average, Ford began in 1914—the year he created a sensation by announcing that in future his workers would receive $5 for an 8-hr day—a profit-sharing plan that would distribute up to $30 million annually among his employees.
In 1915, in an effort to end World War I, he headed a privately sponsored peace expedition to Europe that failed dismally, but after the American entry into the war he was a leading producer of ambulances, airplanes, munitions, tanks, and submarine chasers. In 1918 he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. After weathering a severe financial crisis in 1921, he began producing high-priced motor cars along with other vehicles and founded branch firms in England and in other European countries. Strongly opposed to trade unionism, Ford—who incurred considerable antagonism because of his paternalistic attitude toward his employees and his statements on political and social questions—stubbornly resisted union organization in his factories by the United Automobile Workers until 1941. A staunch isolationist before World War II, Ford again converted his factories to the production of war material after 1941. In 1945 he retired.
His numerous philanthropies, in addition to the Ford Foundation, included $7.5 million for the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and $5 million for a museum in Dearborn, where in 1933 he established Greenfield Village—a reproduction of an early American village. Ford also wrote, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work (1923), Today and Tomorrow (1926), Moving Forward (1931), and Edison as I Knew Him (1930).
Ford's international reputation made him a natural target for journalists. His libel suit against the Chicago Tribune in 1919 led to an examination by the Tribune attorney, intended to show Ford's lack of education. Anti-Semitic articles in Ford's Dearborn Independent brought further legal controversy; he was forced to apologize for the articles. In the 1930s, Ford was widely attacked for employing Harry Bennett, a former boxer who established a squad of thugs to spy, beat up, and otherwise intimidate union organizers.
Ford was also a poor manager who failed to capitalize on his company's early success. In the 1920s he failed to respond to consumer tastes by introducing new models and the company fell far behind General Motors. By the time of his retirement, the company's accounting procedures were so primitive that Ford's managers were unable to accurately tell how much it cost to manufacture a car and the company was losing $9.5 million a month.
Henry Ford's son, Edsel Bryant Ford, 1893-1943, b. Detroit, shared in the control of the vast Ford industrial interests. He was president of the Ford Motor Company from 1919 until his death, when his father once more became (1943) president of the company. The eldest Ford soon retired again when his grandson, Henry Ford 2d, 1917-87, b. Detroit, succeeded him in 1945. The younger Henry Ford moved quickly to restructure and modernize the company, which had slipped from the world's largest automobile manufacturer in 1920 to number three in the U.S. market in 1945. He removed a number of long-time Ford executives, such as Bennett, and for the first time in company history, recruited outsiders for positions of responsibility. The company spent $1 billion between 1945 and 1955 to expand its operations, introduced successful new models, and raised $690 million in capital by offering stock to the public (1956). Although Ford modernized and revitalized the company, his tenure also saw the introduction of the Edsel, which lost the company $250 million, and Ford's autocratic management style forced a number of top executives, such as Lee Iacocca, to quit. In 1960, Ford became chief executive officer and chairman of the corporation, offices he held until retiring as CEO in 1979 and as chairman in 1980.
Although family shareholders continued to have voting control of the company, nonfamily members headed Ford until 1999, when Bill Ford (William Clay Ford, Jr.), 1957-, became chairman. Working at Ford Motor Company from 1979, Bill Ford became vice president of the commercial truck vehicle center in 1994, chairman of the finance committee in 1995, and chairman of the board in 1999. In 2001 he also became chief executive officer of Ford, but the company's difficulties led him to resign that post in 2006.
See biographies by A. Nevins and F. E. Hill (3 vol., 1954-62), B. Herndon (1969), R. Lacey (1986), and S. Watts (2005); R. M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (1970); P. Collier and D. Horowitz, The Fords (1987); N. Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews (2001); D. Brinkley, Wheels for the World (2003).