Steve Meets the Master of American Auto Manufacturing

In this issue, Steve meets the man who made American auto manufacturing the wonder of the world. Steve took advantage of the opportunity that the track offered to meet important personages like Henry Ford, who sponsored cars at the track. Although Ford could be taciturn about racing, he knew that winning a race with a name-plated Ford would spur demand for his cars.

 

Ford stands next to ‘999’, and Barney Oldfield is in the driver’s seat.i

Ford’s first venture in racing was in 1902, when Ford custom built a car and beat his friend Alexander Winton. Ford used the winnings from that race to fund the start of his company.

In May 1902, Ford and Tom Cooper, a noted bicycle racer, built the famous ‘999’ car. As the picture clearly shows, race cars were barebones machines. They looked to be one step above a soap-box derby racerFord lost interest in racing and sold the car to Barney Oldfield. . Four weeks after the sale, Oldfield won his first race with ‘999’ at the Grosse Point course.

In 1913, Ford re-entered racing at the Speedway with a modified Model T. However, track officials turned down his entry telling him that the car was too light and needed an additional 1,000 pounds to be eligible. Ford’s retorted “we’re building race cars not trucks.”ii Ford left racing disgruntled with the rules and returned to building the Ford manufacturing empire. In 1935, he briefly and unsuccessfully returned to racing with the Miller-Ford cars. This is when he met Steve Hannagan.

Ford and Steve at the Track

It was at the 1935 Indianapolis 500 that Steve met Ford for the first time. In the accompanying photograph,iii Ford is chatting with Steve. Ford’s son Edsel, President of Ford at that time, is to the left of his father and out of the conversation.

It is not known what Henry and Steve were discussing. However, Ford did not lightly spend time mulling over the events of the day. So, it might be assumed that Steve and Ford’s animated conversation indicated that Ford found something in their discussion that could benefit the Ford Motor Company.

It is a fair assumption that Steve also saw an advantage to talking with one of the most powerful men in America. Steve intuitively knew that someday the conversation might benefit him. He formed networks long before networking became a buzzword.

Steve at Ford Motor Company – World War II

The next time that Steve connected with Henry Ford was though his son Edsel Ford. Edsel looked to Steve to help Ford resolve a nasty public relations mess at its River Rouge plant. River Rouge built the B-24, the country’s largest workhorse bomber until late in the War. The plane had 152,000 parts; 313,000 rivets; and 30,000 pages of drawings to guide assembly.iv

Consolidated-Vultee originally designed and built the B-24, but they lacked the manufacturing capacity required by the US Army Air Force (USAAF). To gain manufacturing capacity, the Army turned to Ford Motor Company with its reputation for mass production.

When Ford received the contract, Henry Ford and his son Edsel claimed that Ford would quickly produce a bomber an hour. They made this unfortunate prediction before top management and engineers could determine how to apply automobile mass production techniques to building a complex aircraft like the B-24.

 

B-24s in Formation on a Bombing Mission v

When Consolidated-Vultee’s engineering team met with Ford’s engineers, Ford’s Team discovered that Consolidated did not have a completer nor reliable set of blueprints for the plane. They also learned that Consolidated was a craft manufacturing plan and did not use mass production techniques. Before Ford Motor Company employees could build the first bomber the Company needed standard drawings and a manufacturing process that did not depend on handcrafting to fit everything together.

Ford engineers had to design machine tools and a manufacturing process from the ground up for mass production of the aircraft. For example, Consolidated used easily formed soft dies that quickly wore out. Ford replaced the soft dies with hard steel dies that took longer to make but could reliably produce thousands of pieces that did not require handcrafting for a final fit.

Before Ford could build planes in mass, they had to assemble the production equipment and that took about a year. It is not hard to imagine that during a world war no one the Army Air Force, the various government procurement and Senator Truman’s Special Committee to Investigate National Defense had little patience with Ford’s delays. The Army wanted the Ford plant to produce B-24s at the rate that Henry and Edsel Ford claimed.

An early moment in the public relations debacle came in September 1941 when President Roosevelt secretly visited the plant to see for himself Ford’s highly touted plant for building B-24s by the thousands. The President, to his vexation, discovered that the plant had only produced one bomber, and it sat forlornly on a runway.i

By June 1942, it was apparent that Ford could not deliver on its promise. The press, the public, the Pentagon, and the Truman Committee were outraged with Ford. The government had paid millions of dollars with nothing to show for it. Some bureaucrats and politicians thought that Ford, who was an eccentric, a pacifist, and vociferously anti—Roosevelt, was bilking the government and American taxpayers. The critics were ready to kick Ford to the curb.

 

Ford’s Massive B-24 Plant at Willow Run

Designed by Alfred Kahn i1

Edsel Ford Hires Steve Hannagan

At the same time, Edsel Ford, Henry Ford (final arbiter of the Company’s decisions), and Charles Sorenson (Ford’s production manager) were having lunch in the Dearborn engineering laboratory. They recognized the dangers to the Company of the bad press about the B-24. Sorenson called Henry Ford’s attention to a recent column by Drew Pearson about Steve Hannagan’s skills as a press agent. Edsel noted that “he had met Hannagan in Miami Beach, and he heard that Hannagan was well-respected. Edsel suggested that “maybe we can get Hannagan to straighten things out for us.”ii Henry agreed but showed little enthusiasm.iii The problem that Steve soon discovered was that Edsel was a weak manager, and Steve would need Henry’s enthusiastic support. As time would tell, there was another player at Ford who would torpedo Steve’s relationship with the Company.

 

Henry and Edsel Ford iv

(Edsel Ford is to the right)

Steve’s job, as described to him by Edsel Ford, was to calm the storm in the press and to handle the Pentagon’s USAAF officers who were demanding answers to the debacle. While the ‘Hannagan Way’ could work miracles with the press and public, Steve could not apply the same magic to resolve Henry Ford’s disdain toward his son Edsel, nor to the debilitating internal politics within the upper reaches of management at Ford Motor Company.

Press Wonders Why Steve Is Hired

The press soon asked why Ford,

“…had engaged a ‘loud shouting, belligerent, whip-smart press agent’ whose specialty had been described as ‘peddling photos of pretty legs in mid-winter.’”v

Or, as the Detroit News succinctly pointed out: “America will expect a lot from Steve Hannagan and Henry Ford.”vi Immediately after signing the contract, Steve assigned his top aid Joe Copps to oversee news operations and set up one of his most successful news management expedient – a news bureau.

The news bureau sent out “swift and accurate reporting [on] the facts ‘… [as] the best way to offset vacuums of curiosity that would be filled with rumors.”vii The head of the bureau eventually became director of Ford’s public relations department.viii

When Steve took over publicity at Ford, he recommended to Edsel that the company stop further publicity about the B-24 until the bomber “started to roll off the assembly line.”ix Next, Steve moved to stop rumors about the plant by making his news bureau the “sole source of news” about the B-24.x Then, he took the big leap into Ford Company politics with the following letter to Charles Sorensen and Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s bodyguard and main advisor, whose charge was to put the kybosh on decisions made by his son.

“Today the nation has the general impression that bombers are rolling off the assembly line at the rate of one an hour. This is not yet true. When it is, we will tell the story with newsreels, radio, press association stories, and pictures, in its full bloom.”xi

Because of the depth of the publicity problems at Ford, Steve’s counsel about publicity was accepted. No further stories on the bomber were released until November of 1942, when large scale production began.

Soon after Steve took over press relations in June 1942, he convinced Ford to resume radio advertising that Henry Ford had stopped years earlier. The ads were part of “Watch the World Go By,” a Ford produced program that explained Ford Motor Company’s contribution to the War effort.xii

The steps that Steve took at Willow Run reduced press clamor about the B-24 until Dutch Kindleberger through-in his two cents. Kindleberger, head of North American Aviation,2 condemned… the political cowards who are withholding from the American people the full ‘true facts’ about the auto industry’s production problems.”xiii Soon after Kindleberger’s, charge press attacks on B-24 production resumed in full-blooded fervor. The March of Times, a newsreel service, played before featured movies, “lambasted Willow Run.”xiv Next in line to attack the pace of production at the plant was Life magazine, a large photo news weekly, whch led with the story “Detroit Is Dynamite?”xv To the surprise of the news media, neither Ford nor the Pentagon responded to the charges. The Company shuttered the plant to inspection by the press and took a ‘no comment policy’ on production of the B-24.xvi

On January 29, 1943, the War Production Board (WPB), the federal agency charged with coordinating War production, for the War effort, acknowledged that “there had been disappointments and that even … [a non-Ford plant] was far from full production.”xvii For all of 1942, Ford only produced 56 aircraft.xviii This piddling amount illustrates the scale of the failure at Ford’s Willow Run plant that had been constructed to produce one plane an hour, not four planes a month.

Several weeks after the WPB report, the Office of War Information (OWI) issued the following statement that “widespread, conflicting stories, reporting [Willow Run’s] output” were creating confusion about the plant.xix However, OWI said that exact production numbers would be held for “military security.’

Coincident with the OWI statement Steve let loose a barrage of photographs and press releases about operations at Willow Run. The pictures and stories were printed throughout the country. Of course, Steve being Steve, the pictures were populated with ‘attractive young women’.xx By the end of 1943, Ford achieved its 1943 goals, though they were much lower than originally estimated.xxi By the end of 1944, the problems were completely resolved, and Ford produced nearly 5,000 B-24s exceeding its original goal of one bomber an hour.

The scale of production at Willow Run at full throttle is evident from the following picture where nearly-completed B-24’s stretch far into the distance at the final assembly stage.

 

Inside Willow Run xxii

(Showing the long-line of B-24s nearing the end of the production line)

The publicity campaign was a huge triumph for Steve and Hannagan Associates. However, Steve would not be around at the end of the War to celebrate Ford’s success. Steve had been hired by Edsel Ford, and as noted earlier, Henry was never enthusiastic about any decision that his son made. By 1943, Edsel was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed in mid-year. Immediately, Henry Ford re-entered the political fray at Ford as President. His personal enforcer of company discipline, Henry Bennett, was given full sway.

Even though Charles Sorenson fully supported Steve’s retention, Harry Bennett fired Steve four days after the death of Edsel. The firing had nothing to do with the quality of the work; Bennett was ridding the company of people hired by Edsel. Next, he fired Sorenson, whose manufacturing genius produced a mighty stream of B-24 bombers…. By early 1944, Bennett moved from simply being the enforcer to Henry Ford’s consigliore.

Despite being shoved out by Bennett’s power play, Steve told his friends that his time helping Ford was the best year of his career. Bennett’s reign of terror would last only a year, when Henry Ford’s grandson, became President and fired him.

 

Harry Bennett xxiii

Henry Ford’s Thug Who Dominated Edsel Ford and

Ford Motor Company from the Mid-1930s to the Mid-940s

 

FOOTNOTES

1 Alfred Kahn designed many large factories for automobile and airplane manufacturers prior to the War and for the war.

2 James ‘‘Dutch’ Kindleberger was president of North American Aviation the Company that produced the iconic P-51 Mustang fighter during World War II.

END NOTES

i Photograph of Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield in “999” (1902); (Retrieved August 27, 2012); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BarneyOldfieldHenryFord.jpg.

ii “Henry Ford and Racing into the Future” (Retrieved August 27, 2012); http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=7242.

iv Hyde, Charles (2013); Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II; Wayne State University Press; Detroit; p. 89.

vi Hyde, Charles (2013); Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II; Wayne State University Press; Detroit; p. 100.

vii Photograph of Ford’s Willow Run (Retrieved October 3, 2014); Plant Retro Kimmer Blog: http://www.retrokimmer.com/2013/10/final-tour-of-bomber-plant-this-weekend.html.

viii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 257.

ix Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 257.

x Photograph of Henry and Edsel Ford before A Ford (Retrieved October 5, 2014); Byron Reginos Weblog: http://beracuda.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/about-ford-model-as/.

xi Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Powert; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 269.

xii Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc;. p. 269.

xiii Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; p. 269.

xiv Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc;. p. 270.

xv Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p; 270.

xvi Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xvii Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xviii Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xix Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xx Cutlip, Scott (1994) The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p 270

xxi Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xxii Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xxiii Cutlip, Scott (1994) The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc;. p. 270.

xxiv Hyde, Charles (2013); Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II; Wayne State University Press; Detroit; p. 102.

xxv Hyde, Charles (2013); Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II; Wayne State University Press; Detroit; p. 102.

xxvi Cutlip, Scott (1994); The Unseen Power; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; p. 270.

xxvii Hyde, Charles (2013); Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II; Wayne State University Press; Detroit: p. 103.

xxviii Photograph of B-24 production at Willow Run (Retrieved October 1, 2014); Retro Dimmer Blog; http://www.retrokimmer.com/2013/10/final-tour-of-bomber-plant-this-weekend.html.

xxix Photograph of Harry Bennett (Retrieved October 5, 2014); Vintage Ford Facts; http://vintagefordfacts.blogspot.com/2011/01/homes-of-ford-executives-harry-bennett.html.

xxx Photograph of Steve Hannagan (January 1950); Image 50712327 Photo Lofman/Pix Inc. /Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.