When Henry Ford died in April 1947, his industrial empire was in a precarious position. Any muscle the Ford Motor Company has previously flexed had sagged and grown sallow after years of stubborn complacency from its founder.
One could argue that Ford's decline had begin in the mid-1920s when Henry spurned attempts to upgrade or replace the incredibly successful Model T, introduced in 1908. The Model A was introduced for 1928 and was a hit, but competitive forces, especially from GM's surging Chevrolet division, demanded more change, which came with the first Ford V8s in 1932.
Although the V8 was an engineering triumph, and although Ford remained an industrial colossus in the 1930s, the company had lost its edge. Early in the decade, Chrysler Corporation became the No. 2 Detroit automaker, while Ford slipped to third. It would remain there for two decades.
Much of the company's hope was riding on the shoulders of Henry's only son, Edsel, but his many attempts to modernize the company were often sabotaged by Henry. Yet when Edsel died in May 1943 of stomach cancer, even the U.S. government was worried. Ford was key to the Allied effort and substantial contracts had been awarded for the building of military machines. Chief among them was Willow Run, a massive factory that would produce bombers.
So worried was Washington that it permitted Edsel's oldest son, Henry Ford II, to leave the navy, in the hopes the oldest Ford grandchild would help the company survive some of its internal turmoil and Old Henry's senility.
How bad was it at Ford? According to many accounts, Ford's factories were in great need of upgrading. Its finances were so unorganized that observers reported that accountants regularly weighed invoices to determine approximate values. Old Henry had so despised accountants and controllers that the company's finance department had been stripped of most of its authority and employees.
Equally troubling was the Ford workforce. Ford had been the last major carmarker in Detroit to accept the demands of the UAW, and then only after bloodshed and death. But even with a union in place, the company lent its support to a murky, almost Mafia-like security organization that maintained order on the factory floor that was frequently violent.
When Henry Ford II became an executive of the company in August 1943, his first task was to rid the company of the leader of its security force, Harry Bennett, whose power had once rivaled that of Old Henry's. But it wasn't until September 1945 that the Ford grandson assumed complete control the company, and he wasn't even 30.
Young Henry realized he needed help, and his first major decision was to hire a group of young men who had established a reputation during the war for maintaining statistical records for the air force. Known as the Whiz Kids, they brought the necessary discipline to Ford's finances.
His second decision was to hire Ernest Breech away from General Motors, who was tasked with reorganizing Ford's production and improving its product. Almost immediately, Breech's focus was on a completely new Ford, to be introduced for the 1949 model year.
At the time, Ford was producing cars that were warmed-over pre-war models. Ford wasn't alone; it was the same at GM and Chrysler. But as the No. 3 automaker, Ford's position was more precarious and so a lot more was riding on a completely new car.
It can be argued that the all-new 1949 Ford saved the Ford Motor Company. It was so different from the '48 model, and so in keeping with that era's design trend, that the public embraced it fully. Ford sold a total of 1,118,762 cars in that model year. That wasn't enough to surpass Chrysler, but that would happen very soon. In fact, the '51 Ford actually outsold Chevrolet.
With the exception of its V8, the 1949 Ford was completely new. It featured new smart-looking slab-sided styling, a distinctive bullet grille and clean sheet metal. Inside, Ford offered a new front suspension, new shock absorbers, a lower drive shaft tunnel, and a simple yet attractive interior. Also new was an improved ventilation system.
The new Ford came with two engines, a six-cylinder that developed 95 horsepower, and the venerable Flathead V8 that turned out 100 horsepower.
The wheelbase remained at 114 inches and the car came in two series: an unnamed base model and the more expensive Custom. Available was a two-door, four-door sedan, station wagon and convertible.
The convertible was particularly popular; Ford built 51,133 units. They were available only as Customs with V8 engines,and sold for $1,948. The cheapest Ford, a six-cylinder base model, retailed for $1,498.
The new car was introduced at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City on June 10, 1948, and was released to dealers a week later. Crowds reportedly mobbed the Waldorf ballroom, many of them placing an order without even taking the new Ford out for a test drive.
It wasn't long before the new '49 was deemed a hit. Ford eventually sold over 800,000 units. That, plus the Mercurys and Lincolns that were sold (these divisions also benefited from a similar design) pushed the company's sales to well over one million units, the first time Ford had surpassed that mark since 1930.
The impact on the bottom line was astounding. In 1946, Ford had posted a profit of just$2,000. Profits under Young Henry's astute new management team surged to $64.8 million for 1947, but more than tripled in 1949.
And from Young Henry's perspective, there was more reason to celebrate: Ford sold only 5,000 fewer units in '49 than Chrysler. But within a year, it regained its No. 2 status.