- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

Would Henry Ford be allowed to build his Tin Lizzie today? It’s a question worth pondering as Ford Motor Co. celebrates its 100th birthday this month. In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, much of the world saw Henry Ford as a hero — the man who found a way to mass-produce one of the most revolutionary products in all of human history, the automobile. But in recent decades the automobile has become something of a dangerous villain.

It started with “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Ralph Nader’s tirade about the alleged dangers of the Corvair, and morphed into an all-out attack on the automobile as little more than a modern death trap and all-around menace to the environment and civilization itself. If Henry Ford were to wonder into the regulatory labyrinth known as Washington, D.C. today, he no doubt would be told to take a hike.

What, the regulators would shriek, you want to build a device that will kill thousands of Americans a year? You want us to give you a license to build a low-cost internal combustion engine that scientists say will lead straight to global warming and a planetary meltdown? You want us to allow the sale of a product that will free ordinary citizens to escape from the cities to clutter up the horizon with houses and lawns of their own?

Get outta here.

Fortunately, Henry Ford came from a particular time and a particular place. The time was the late 1800s and early 1900s, when entrepreneurial risk-taking was turning the United States from a bucolic backwater into a world power. And the place was Detroit, where a combination of manufacturing expertise, financial capital and highly skilled, low-cost labor came together to make the area home to a radical idea: placing the automobile within reach of the masses.

Michigan’s forests, having provided the wood needed to house a big chunk of America, were playing out. But there were plenty of lumber barons and their scions with fortunes to burn on new ideas, the income and inheritance taxes not having been invented yet. Detroit had long been a center of carriage and bicycle technology. (Ford’s first car was little more than a motorized bike on four wheels.) Michigan’s location amidst the Great Lakes had created lots of expertise in marine engine technology.

And Michigan’s conservative political leadership had succeeded in keeping the young union movement at bay, making the area attractive to factory owners, who would eventually provide high-paying jobs to millions, accelerating America’s emergence as the first middle-class nation. Ford was the first to offer $5 a day wages, but it wasn’t out of compassion: It was the best way to attract scarce workers.

What is sometimes forgotten is that America was already a nation on the road. As a former vice president for government relations at General Motors, Jim Johnston, has pointed out in his book, “Driving America: Your Car, Your Government, Your Choice” (AEI Press, 1997), in 1910 there were 2.4 million miles of roads in America. Today there are about 4 million miles, most of them paved (generally by the asphalt pioneered in the 1870s by a Howard University teacher).

That represents a substantial increase, but the real change was the auto’s ability to cover large distances in a short time. Americans use their cars to travel an average of 10,000 miles a year.

Yes, the highway carnage is awful. But those who oppose new roads must take part of the blame; older roads tend to be less safely engineered. And can you imagine the carnage — and pollution — from 280 million people trying to cover that sort of distance by horseback? Even aside the fact that we would be waist deep in disease-enhancing manure, just providing the hay would require clear-cutting vast additional areas of forest.

The 100th anniversary of Ford — and the July centennial celebration of Buick — is occasion not just to celebrate an industrial genius or the substantial role of the automobile in turning America into the first middle-class nation. It’s also time to celebrate the role of the automobile in expanding freedom at its most basic: the freedom to get where you want, when you want. And to remember that progress only comes to societies willing to take risks on crazy ideas like the automobile.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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