HENRY Ford had to fight to build the Model T, even within
the company that bore his name.
The Russian immigrant engineer who saved the Chevy Corvette
bucked the General Motors brass to do it. Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich built
the minivan at Chrysler only after the vehicle - and they - had been rejected
Those three cars were not just huge commercial successes -
each also placed its stamp on American life, much as the iPad has today.
Two were utterly practical while the third was
ostentatiously stylish, but what they all had in common is this: the people who
created them overcame formidable obstacles to put them on the road.
Unblinking determination is a common theme in the biggest
American business success stories, such as Ray Kroc's damn-the-odds effort to
build McDonalds and Steve Jobs' audacity in reshaping Apple.
Luck and timing are involved too, but they aren't enough.
The special sauce (apologies to Kroc) is a strain of determination that blends
self-belief with belief in the commercial potential of a product.
Determination and self-belief sometimes goes awry in the
auto industry, as in other arenas. Exhibit A is the Chevrolet Corvair,
introduced in 1960 with an innovative air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that
produced 29 miles a gallon, more than double most cars of its day.
Despite the weight concentrated in the car's rear, Ed Cole,
the Corvair’s creator, stoutly rejected putting a weight-stabilising bar under
the car's front end. The result was a plethora of accidents and a muckraking
1965 book by an unknown lawyer named Ralph Nader: Unsafe at Any Speed.
The Corvair scandal prompted a boom in product-liability litigation
that continues to this day.
Then there's John Z DeLorean, whose 1970s effort to build an
"ethical sports car" in Belfast collapsed amid financial overreach.
Most guys would have tried to rescue their company with an IPO or junk bonds,
but DeLorean tried selling cocaine.
Though he was acquitted at trial when a jury judged that the
FBI entrapped him, his career and his company were finished.
But both Cole and DeLorean enjoyed enormous success before
their signature failures. Cole created a small-block V8 engine that powered the
legendary '57 Chevies and was a key figure in the success of the Corvette.
DeLorean created the Pontiac GTO, which launched the
muscle-car craze of the 1960s and still invokes strong emotions among onetime
boy racers. A sign on a restored GTO displayed in suburban Chicago a few years
ago declared: "This car was built in honour of Almighty God, in memory of
my dad, and of my fellow hometown veterans who did not have the chance to live
Determination and self-belief have fostered hubris among
automotive innovators over the years, sometimes with disastrous results. But
history shows that they're also the critical ingredients behind the most
spectacular automotive successes.
The Model T, perhaps the most revolutionary product ever
made, was hardly a no-brainer to the people supplying capital to Henry Ford
when he proposed it. It was the world's first "people’s car", but
with an initial sticker price of $850 wasn't the most affordable car of its
That distinction went to the $500 Brush Runabout, which had
a chassis, axles and wheels made of wood. The Runabout's detractors quipped:
"Wooden axles, wooden wheels and wouldn' run." In contrast,
reliability made the Model T an overnight success - quite unlike the man who
Henry Ford was the proverbial late bloomer. Raised on a
Michigan farm, he left home at 16 to work in Detroit's machine shops. By 1893,
at age 30, he had become chief engineer at the local electric company, but his
mind was turning to the newfangled automobile.
He started tinkering in his shed (like Steve Jobs in his
garage 80 years later) and in 1896 produced his first car. Three years later he
got backing from local investors to start the Detroit Automobile Company, but
it went broke in less than two years.
In 1901, he raised money to start the Henry Ford Company -
he was one-sixth owner and chief engineer. But he soon squabbled with his
investors and quit. By age 38, Ford had formed two car companies and lost both.
He vowed that his days as an employee were over.
He assembled another group of backers and on June 16 1903
formed the Ford Motor Company. Within 10 months it sold more than 650 cars.
Finally, Henry Ford was successful, or so it seemed.
In 1906 he wrote to an automotive magazine describing his
vision of "a light, low-priced car with an up-to-date engine... capable of
carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go." But
many of his other investors saw more profit potential in big, expensive cars
aimed at luxury buyers.
As the debate grew intense, Ford and his allies played
hardball - they formed their own company, Ford Manufacturing, to make and build
parts for Ford cars, and charged outrageously high prices for the parts,
plunging Ford Motor into red ink while keeping Ford Manufacturing's profits for
Had Ford attempted such a scheme a century later he would
have found himself making licence plates in prison instead of making cars. But
the dissident investors capitulated, selling their stock in Ford Motor and
leaving Henry Ford with a 58% stake.
In October, 1908 Ford Motor introduced the Model T, so named
because it followed Models N, R and S. It used a new kind of steel - vanadium -
that was lighter and stronger than traditional carbon steel.
Other cars of the day had heavy frames to withstand
America's primitive roads, but the agile Model T flexed with the road, a
blessing with certain drawbacks. One joke described a man who named his Model T
the Teddy Roosevelt because, he explained, it was the "Rough Rider".
Henry Ford preferred another joke, the one about the farmer
who asked to be buried in his Model T because it had gotten him out of every
hole he'd ever been in.
The car was so popular that Henry Ford started exploring
ways to boost production. He found inspiration in the slaughterhouses of
Chicago, which were basically big disassembly lines. In 1913 Ford started
building on a moving assembly line.
The efficiencies were so great that in 1914 the company was
paying factory hands $5 for a day's work, more than double the prevailing wage.
In just six years Henry Ford had put America on wheels, invented mass
manufacturing and spawned America's middle class.
He continuously increased manufacturing efficiency and
passed the savings on to consumers. In 1921 Ford's market share topped 60%.
The Model T's influence on early 20th century America was
pervasive. "Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T
Fords and not a few were born in them," author John Steinbeck later wrote.
"The theory of the Anglo-Saxon home became so warped that it never quite
In America, personal mobility became a cornerstone of
But as the Roaring Twenties unfolded, many Americans wanted
style and status, not just a low price. "Slowly at first, then more
rapidly, people passed up the flivver for more ornamental machines,"
lamented the Bismarck Tribune.
In May 1927 Henry Ford conceded that his car had fallen
behind the times, and the Model T was discontinued. Pretension trumped
practicality, and "more ornamental" automobiles lay in America's
Nineteen fifty-three was a pivotal year in America. The
Korean War ended. Elvis Presley started recording music. Hugh Hefner started
Playboy. A real-life playboy, John F Kennedy, went to the US Senate, prompting
a Saturday Evening Post headline: "Jack Kennedy - The Senate's Gay Young
Americans who had been raised through the Depression and a
few wars were finally letting loose. It was the perfect year, then, for
Chevrolet to launch America's first true sports car, the Corvette. There was
just one problem: the Corvette looked great, but it wasn't a great car.
Its anaemic six-cylinder engine accelerated with more hope
than horsepower, and the indifferent two-speed automatic transmission didn't
help. The convertible top leaked, so some early owners drilled holes in the
floor to let rainwater drain out.
By late 1954 the Corvette's sales had stalled, and General
Motors was contemplating killing the car. Rumours of its impending demise
reached Zora Arkus-Duntov, a middle-aged, middle-management engineer at Chevy.
His journey to that job at GM had been adventuresome.
Bolshevik boy to the rescue
Duntov was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish parents and raised
a Bolshevik in St Petersburg, where he learned to struggle early in life. As a
boy he once brandished a pistol to threaten a doctor who was refusing to come
treat his ailing mother. The doctor changed his mind.
By the mid-1930s Duntov's parents had been posted to Berlin
as Soviet trade attachés. Later in the decade he moved to Paris, where he
married Elfi Wolff, a Folies Bergère dancer from a well-heeled German Jewish
When the Germans overran Paris in 1940, the couple fled
across France and Spain to Portugal, where they caught a boat for New York. He
started a small engineering company, specialising in components for high-speed
In January 1953 Duntov visited GM's Motorama display at the
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where the company unveiled the Corvette. He was so
enthralled with the car that he got a job at GM, starting in Detroit on May 1.
Four months later he gave a speech that would define his life's work.
"In our age... the average person is a cogwheel who
gets pushed in the subways, elevators, department stores, cafeterias, (and)
lives in the same house as the next fellow,"” he told the Society of
"The ownership of a different car provides the means to
ascertain his individuality." In his own awkward way, Duntov had expressed
the vast potential of the Corvette.
Nonetheless, European sports cars were clearly superior to
the Corvette, and critics wrote withering reviews. "The Austin-Healy will
eat it alive and so will the Jaguar," wrote one, adding that the Corvette
was mainly suited "to impress the hillbillies".
By the autumn of 1954 more than 1 000 Corvettes, one-third
of those made, languished unsold on dealers' lots, like orphan puppies waiting
for an owner.
When word spread that the Corvette would be discontinued,
Duntov bypassed GM's rigid chain of command and penned a memo to Chevrolet
chief Ed Cole. He warned that with Ford on the verge of launching its own
two-seat roadster, the Thunderbird, a retreat by Chevrolet would be disastrous.
In an awkward blend of immigrant English and corporate-speak, he pleaded for
the Corvette’s life.
"If Ford makes success where we failed, it may
hurt," Duntov wrote. "With aggressiveness of Ford publicity, they may
turn the fact to their advantage... We will leave an opening in which they can
hit at will. 'Ford out-engineered, outsold, or ran Chevrolet's pride and joy
off the market.'
"In the bare-fisted fight we are in now, I would hit at
any opening I could find and the situation where Ford enters and where
Chevrolet retreats, it is not an opening, it is a hole!"
It was a brash memo, even for a man who had survived the
Russian Revolution and escaped the Nazis. But the bosses relented. The
Corvette's leaks got fixed and in 1955 it got a V8 engine that was lighter than
the Thunderbird's, but just as powerful. In 1957 the Corvette got a
fuel-injected engine that produced nearly 100hp more than what it had under the
hood two years earlier.
That March, a Corvette gave Maserati a scare at the
high-profile auto races in Sebring, Florida. "The seeds of a storybook
tale were sown," gushed Sports Illustrated. "A Detroit sports car, of
all things... contending in a world championship race."
In 1958 Ford added a back seat to the Thunderbird, sharply
boosting sales. GM was tempted to do the same with the Corvette, but Duntov
argued that a four-seat Corvette would be like a sprinter carrying a backpack.
He got a break when GM president John Gordon had to be
pulled out of a four-seat Corvette prototype because the back seat was so
It was just one more battle in the war Duntov fought for
three decades to keep the Corvette from becoming a bloated boulevard-barge, as
the Thunderbird eventually did. Through sheer determination and a willingness
to buck his bosses, a Bolshevik boy saved the great American sports car.
"Zora Arkus-Duntov is so firmly identified with
Corvettes they could bear his name," wrote Car and Driver in 1962. When
Duntov died in 1996, columnist George Will wrote: "If you do not mourn his
passing, you are not a good American."
When Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich launched the Ford Mustang
in 1964, they caught America's baby-boom generation coming of age. By 1984 both
men were at Chrysler, and the boomers were entering a new phase of their lives
- they had gone to college, gotten haircuts, taken showers, gotten jobs, gotten
married and started families.
Not always in that order, of course.
Defining a generation
Thus the stage was set for Iacocca and Sperlich to capture
the mood of America's largest generation once again. The two men responded with
a totally new type of vehicle.
Like the Mustang, this one would help define the lifestyle
of a generation, or at least the lifestyle of baby-boomers now painting the
nursery instead of the town.
Ironically, the Chrysler minivan could have been Ford's.
Sperlich pitched it to CEO Henry Ford II in the early 1970s as the
"Mini-Max" - minimal exterior length but maximum interior space, and
deemed it the perfect vehicle for families in an era of high gas prices.
But Henry II deemed the idea too risky and grew increasingly
irritated by Sperlich's persistent lobbying for it. In 1976 he fired Sperlich,
and two years later he fired Iacocca. Both men landed at Chrysler, and couldn't
have arrived there at a worse time.
In 1980, the ailing company was saved only by Congress'
Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act. That fragile lifeline gave it enough cash to
launch the K-cars - the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant - in 1981. The hugely
successful K-cars were built on front wheel-drive platforms, which Ford didn't
They were lighter and roomier than rear-drive cars because
they didn't need a bulky drive shaft. The K-car platforms also provided the
ideal chassis for the vehicle Sperlich had been pitching for years.
The cover of Car and Driver in May 1983 showed five members
of the Detroit Pistons basketball team posing in front of a new Chrysler to be
launched that autumn. It had a short hood and a large passenger compartment.
The headline read: "A Van for All Seasons", and dubbed it a
"Picture a van that is three inches shorter, ten inches
narrower and fifteen inches lower... than the next-smallest (van) on the
market," the magazine wrote, "yet has enough room for the Detroit
Pistons and their luggage."
In February 1984, five months after the minivans debuted,
Chrysler paid dividends to stockholders for the first time in five years. By
February 1986 the company's stock had surged above $48 a share, a 1 500%
increase since the dark days of 1980.
Minivans quickly replaced station wagons as America's family
vehicle of choice, thanks to their copious interiors. A Kansas City homemaker
told the local newspaper that she shuttled her kids among doctor appontments,
piano lessons and soccer games, making the minivan the family's home-on-wheels
between 3 and 7 pm.
"My kids eat in the car, they change clothes in the
car, they do their homework in the car," she said.
SUVs have since replaced minivans in many suburban
driveways, but Sperlich's "mini-max"” remains an enduring symbol of
American family life. It also speaks to the sheer determination sometimes
required to push an innovative idea through a big corporate bureaucracy.
Iacocca once said Sperlich approached product development as
if it were hand-to-hand combat. Sperlich took that as a compliment.
*This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.