Is Elon Musk Destined To Become Henry Ford?…The Evidence Is Strong And Not Welcome!
The trajectory of technology over the past 150 years has been defined in large measure by a few massively egotistical entrepreneurs who seemingly single-handedly forged innovations so impactful that they became society-defining machines. No two individuals exemplify this fact with respect to automotive technology more than Henry Ford and now Elon Musk.
Would it be fair to say that Elon Musk is the Henry Ford of the modern electric vehicle (EV) market? The answer is most likely yes. Tesla under the partial stewardship of Musk has forged a market for EV cars essentially from the ground up. Henry Ford of course invented the internal combustion automobile industry at large and played a major role in the design of modern production line assembly and cost reduction theory. Both men made their mark and their fortunes through the invention of some aspects of the modern automobile. However, Henry Ford changed the look and feel of every major city on the planet. Musk changed the look and feel of the automobile itself by employing electric battery technology and world-class styling. However, there is a much darker story here.
For decades, Henry Ford dominated the early automotive market through the application of intuitive and often unquestioned personal decision-making. He was by most measures a ruthless, impatient, and tyrannical executive who micromanaged every detail of his production plants, automobile designs, and even financing programs for customers.
In terms of management style and intuitive decision-making, it is well-known and now publicly validated that Musk is the Henry Ford of the Modern era. His approach is characterized as “my way or the highway”…(no pun intended). His approach is operationalized for the world to see in his post-purchase Twitter feed. There is a very strong parallel here between Henry Ford and Elon Musk, not only in the automotive space but also surprisingly in the media business.
Many mega-rich individuals have purchased media properties, including Jeff Bezos and others…so nothing new. However, how these massively successful hardware entrepreneurs make use of such acquisitions is of interest here. Both Ford and Musk migrated from automotive engineering to social engineering by way of acquiring major media properties. The social engineering by both Musk and Ford through their respective media properties shows a much darker impact on the world we populate. Specifically…!
As Ford’s success in the automotive industry expanded he turned his interests from automotive engineering to social engineering through the purchase of media properties, including the newspaper Dearborn Independent. Prior to Ford’s acquisition, the paper was a weekly with reasonable profits and somewhat limited circulation. However, under the management of Henry Ford, the paper became a nationally circulated and widely read paper. At its peak, the Dearborn Independent achieved a national circulation of over 700,000 paid subscribers.
This massive transformation in the paper came about due to the writings of Henry Ford and his editors in the form of opinion topics that were highly controversial and most would say outright terrifying. Ford’s focus was aggressive support for antisemitism. The Dearborn Independent rapidly became a raging publication of antisemitic rhetoric, publishing weekly opinions of leading antisemitic authors and even including occasional articles by Henry Ford himself. Henry Ford opened up the media of his time, the modern newspaper, to all manner of hate speech, antisemitism, and racial superiority. He did all of this in the interest of, you guessed it, “Free Speech”. There is more.
Apparently, through the use of his media empire, Henry Ford had an unnerving penchant for unsolicited slanderous statements and propagating attacks on important individuals. In Mr. Ford’s case, these statements almost singularly centered on individuals of the Jewish faith. His rank bigotry centered on an age-old trope that a “Jewish cabal” was working behind the scenes to fundamentally change American society for the worse. It was this belief that fueled the weaponization of his publication, the Dearborn Independent, to attack not only the Jewish people at large, but certain individuals.
One especially unlucky target of his ire was a Jewish lawyer from California by the name of Aaron Sapiro, whom Ford would attack personally utilizing the Dearborn Independent. After a yearlong campaign of non-stop attacks, Mr. Sapiro sued Henry Ford for libel. While the almost three-year-long case finally came to a close in 1927 in a mistrial, it had the intended effect and resulted in a public apology issued by Ford.
Musk’s recent attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, prior key Twitter executives, and others, through the use of Twitter, can only be seen as mirroring Ford’s attacks of a similar nature. Much like Henry Ford, Musk seems to again think of himself as a sort of a validating world-class expert making totally inaccurate statements about another expert’s published works without regard for the truth. Of course, this is at best a fool’s errand, if not grist, for serious litigation against Musk. This is a problem Musk has had before and will likely have again…soon.
Henry Ford was said to have been a master at offering up to the press, on the spur of the moment, short highly quotable quips, which sometimes made sense but were mostly so strange and threatening as to present Ford as slightly deranged. Henry Ford provided such comments to reporters in the most off-handed manner when exiting his limousine or even walking down the street. It goes without saying that Musk has become the modern master of the meaningless, yet highly charged off-handed Twitter post. These little incendiary Tweets have become, like Ford’s quips, clear indications of deranged if not totally loony thinking on the part of Musk. In this strange and interesting way, Ford and Musk are strikingly similar and they both seem not to have realized that such behavior is cumulative in the mind of the consumer. Ford never learned this lesson, and so far, neither has Musk.
Ford routinely attacked with impunity, politicians, scientists, and especially Jews, only to see circulation grow as his paper became a cesspool of antisemitic and hate speech. This is Henry Ford who invented the modern automobile. One can ask whether or not Musk has, by his recent actions at Twitter, done much the same by allowing all manner of hate speech back on Twitter. In this regard, has Musk become the Henry Ford of our time? How are Musk’s actions at Twitter any different from those of Henry Ford at the Dearborn Independent? They are different because Musk, through his control of Twitter, reaches hundreds of millions of users on a sub-second time domain, while thankfully, Ford never reached 1 million readers weekly.
In this context there surfaces an interesting and important question. How did and how will the social engineering of Ford and Musk impact their automotive businesses? Are their automotive businesses and media outlets linked in the mind of the consumer? Did Ford sell fewer cars? Will Tesla stock take a major hit based on #boycottTesla social media pressure? If Henry Ford is any indication, we can expect Tesla under Musk to eventually experience a major negative impact. However, the reason for such a negative impact is not what you might think.
For the first three decades of the automotive industry, Ford Motor Company (FMC) was ascendant with almost no meaningful competition. During this period, Henry Ford ran FMC with total control based on his own intuition. He sold only black cars, only two models, and kept the same body shape for decades. He optimized entirely for the cost to the consumer. He never consulted colleagues and never conducted consumer research. He ignored advertising almost entirely. During that time he ran his media empire exactly the same way, with total control and personal intuition, and a strong belief that social engineering was the same as automotive engineering. It was Ford’s intuitive and ruthless decision-making that stopped the dominant trajectory of FMC, not his media practices. It was Ford’s belief in his own thinking that did him in.
When in 1925, GM and Chrysler started selling cars in different colors, Henry Ford refused to follow. When competitors started selling new body styles every year, Henry Ford refused to follow. When competitors hired designers, not engineers, to create visually attractive new automobiles, Henry Ford refused to follow. By the end of the roaring twenties, Ford was the number three automobile company in terms of sales. The failure of Ford to maintain a dominant position was due to Henry Ford’s decision-making practice, not the customers who failed to purchase his cars because he was a raging antisemite.
If we had to take a bet, we would expect that Tesla will slowly decline under the direction of Musk, because Elon Musk, like Henry Ford, believes that his personal intuition can solve both hardware problems and social engineering problems in an increasingly complex world. Tesla’s corporate value may suffer and degrade under Musk for decades to come as Detroit, Hamburg, and Tokyo automobile companies produce better and more consumer-friendly EV solutions. It is only a matter of time.
Let’s have Elon run out the clock. The Dearborn Independent ceased publication after many years of profitability based on the propagation of extreme right-wing antisemitic rhetoric under the theory of so-called free speech. Ford never recaptured the early success of his innovative automobile company. Elon Musk has already likely driven down the value of Tesla stock essentially by thinking of himself as a savant of social engineering. I wonder how many Tesla drivers look at their EVs the same as they did a month ago? This leaves the final question: Is Elon Musk destined to become the modern-day Henry Ford? Time will tell, but so far, the parallels are beyond surprising.
Charles Lee Mauro CHFP / President and Founder / Mauro Usability Science: https://www.linkedin.com/in/charles-l-mauro-chfp/
Mauro Usability Science: https://www.mauronewmedia.com/
Woeste. (2012). Henry Ford’s war on Jews and the legal battle against hate speech. Stanford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780804783736
McElheny, Victor. (2006). The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (review). Technology and Culture – TECHNOL CULTURE. 47. 433-435. 10.1353/tech.2006.0138.
Norton, Peter, (2021) Autonorama: The illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving. Island Press 2021 Library of Congress Control Number: 2021937486
Research / Editing: Addison C. Mauro