A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 2 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Part III-Chapter 13 : Automobile & Aviation  >  Index and Introduction  :   Previous  1 2 - 3 - 45   Next


In a way only history could set coincidences, both men had their decisive years in 1908, 1919 and 1947. Henry Ford launched his famous Model T, the car which made his success, in 1908 and Willie Durant founded General Motors in that same year. Both reached the peak of their power within their companies in 1919, Ford when he bought out his minority shareholders for an aggregate $105'820'894.57 and Durant, whose position as president and largest shareholder, enabled him to direct the company at his discretion, or almost, after having re-conquered it from the hold of a banking syndicate in 1916. Both men had personal fortunes exceeding $100 million in 1919, putting them in the league of America's richest people. Durant stumbled over his own speculative nature and lost control of General Motors along with the major part of his fortune in the post war recession of 1920, while Henry Ford weathered the storm and eventually became a billionaire. Both men died less than a month apart in 1947.

It is around these two towering figures, that most of the remaining automobile producers, parts suppliers and managers, developed their businesses and oriented their careers in the first decades of the Twentieth Century.

After building his Quadricycle in 1896, Henry Ford gained recognition as one of the most promising automobile constructors in Detroit. In these days, Detroit was a bustling city of some [116'000] people, heavily engaged in metal works, carriage and wagon making, engine and railcar production, as well as tobacco, flour milling, brewing and chemicals. Stoves, cast in the abundant Michigan iron were among its major products. It's economic and social elite was made up of frontier entrepreneurs or their descendants*, always eager to invest into a promising new venture. Under the sponsorship of Detroit mayor William C. Maybury, the city's elite was induced to finance Henry Ford's first manufacturing venture, called the Detroit Automobile Company and capitalized at $150'000.

The venture failed and was closed after almost 60% of its capital had been wasted in pointless development costs, but after winning a race against Alexander Winton on Grosse Pointe's first racetrack, Ford was again sponsored by a group of Detroit's wealthy capitalists, this time under his own name. Henry Ford again failed to satisfy his backers with the development and manufacturing of a functional passenger car and was fired in 1902. But this time, William Murphy and the other investors did not liquidate the company. Instead they turned to Henry Martyn Leland, whose Leland & Faulconer machine shop was the most proficient in the Midwest. Leland and his son Wilfred joined the company, which was renamed "Cadillac" and built it into one of America's most admired and successful automobile manufacturers.

Meanwhile Ford left to do more racing and to found yet another company, again bearing his name, in 1903. And another group of Detroit capitalists, led by Henry Bourne Joy invested into the automobile factory a disgruntled Winton owner, James Ward Packard, had started in 1899. In 1903, Packard was moved to Detroit and joined Cadillac as a premium brand of high quality cars manufactured in the nascent motor city of America.

* see " Detroit millionaires in 1892 " for a list of leading Detroit capitalist of the pre-automobile
          times. A feature of Encyclopedia of American Wealth.

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