August 5, 1899 – Henry Ford starts his first car biz, the Detroit Automobile Company

He had a gift. At least, that’s what 12 investors believed of Detroit mechanic and inventor Henry Ford. The Quadricycle and other early Ford ventures wooed the men into funding the Detroit Automobile Company, which was founded on this day in 1899. The investors, which included Detroit Mayor William Maybury, pooled $15,000 (~ $456,000 in 2020) in capital to start the car company, which was the first of its kind in the city. Henry, not to be left without means, negotiated a salary of $150 per month, about $4,560 in 2020. This allowed him to resign from his strenuous job at the Edison Illuminating Company. His investors would soon find that Henry, though a hard worker, was also a perfectionist. This characteristic would turn out to be rather unfortunate for the wallets of those 12 men.

Above: The Detroit Automobile Company factory with its first product, a delivery truck, parked in front. The factory would later house Cadillac.
Top: Henry Ford in a Detroit Automobile Company delivery truck, circa 1900.

The Detroit Automobile Company operated out of the manufacturing plant at 1343 Cass Avenue and Amsterdam in Detroit, with Henry as manager. While Ford focused on innovation, his investors began to lose confidence in his ability to bring a vehicle to market. Ford refused to put a car into production unless it met his exceedingly high standards. While this caused bemoaning among the money men, they continued to offer more funds for development, confident Ford could turn a profit. To their appeasement, the first Detroit Automobile Company vehicle, a delivery truck, finally left the factory in January of 1900.

While the new truck received praise in local media, it hardly met Ford’s expectations. It was heavy, hard to handle, difficult to manufacture and ultimately unreliable. Ford wanted more money and more time to perfect his vehicle. This was something his investors were unwilling to provide. After producing just 20 vehicles by November 1900, the company dissolved, with investors never seeing a return. Ford, not ready to give up on his dream, turned to racing to build his reputation and gain new capital.

Henry Ford Company

In 1901 Henry and his associate Ed “Spider” Huff completed work on a 26 horsepower, two cylinder racer. In testing it clocked in at more than 75 miles per hour, a phenomenal speed at the time. The vehicle became known as the Ford Sweepstakes car, named after the type of race he built it to participate in. An October 10, 1901 event at the Grosse Pointe Race Track pitted Ford against seasoned racer Alexander Winton from Ohio. Winton who was also operating one of the largest car companies, was favored to win, but Ford had his hometown out to cheer him on.

Racers on the Grosse Pointe Track in 1901.

The 10 lap race around the mile long dirt track was anything but dull. Winton pulled out to an early lead, but as Ford grew more comfortable at the tiller, he soon gained ground. The crowds cheered when Ford overtook Winton on the 8th lap. Ford held off the veteran automaker and won the race. Ford had demonstrated his capabilities as an engineer, and was once again approached by investors.

After founding the Henry Ford Company in November of 1901 following the racing success, he was soon at odds with his new investors over manufacturing intent. Just five months later, in March 1902, Henry again found himself out of his own company. While the Henry Ford Company was being reorganize into Cadillac, Henry was probably uttering “The third time’s a charm!”

Ford Motor Company

The Mack Avenue Ford Motor Company plant.

At 39, intent on building a car for the masses, Henry founded the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. It’d been seven years since he debuted his Quadricycle. Now, with new investors, including John and Horace Dodge, who believed in his goal and his skills, he raised the equivalent of $800,000 to start the new business. With shop set up on Mack Avenue in Detroit, Ford began production of the 1903 Ford Model A. Ford produced 1,708 cars at the facility before the company moved to the Piquette Avenue plant. It was there that Ford would cement his success and conquer his dream with the development of the Ford Model T. The third time was indeed the charm.

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