Drive: Henry Ford, George Selden, And the Race to Invent The Auto Age, by Lawrence Goldstone
Henry Ford is one of the names that is associated with the auto age, and it is clear that this author wishes to take Henry Ford down a few pegs when it comes to the view of Ford as being a major innovator in the automobile industry, at least to the extent that he is viewed as. This book therefore has a clear focus on revisionist history in focusing on the people that Ford copied and stole from in his search for wealth. If you like automotive history, there is a lot to enjoy here, and it must be admitted that the history of the late 19th and early 20th century was a dramatic time for vehicles and automobilism and that there are some compelling characters here. As this is a part of history that is not well known and that marks the origin of the car in culture, this book does a good job at bringing an accessible history of this formative period of the automobile industry to the attention of the general public, at least those who like reading about the history of cars and drivers and manufacturers.
This particular volume is about 350 pages long and it covers the period of a few decades in the late 1800’s and early 1990’s that show how it was that automobile culture was created around the world. We have the development of various replacements to the horse and buggy, ranging from electric cars whose limitations (especially outside of cities) were not helped by the monopoly that sought to profit from them, as well as various efforts at creating the roads and transportation infrastructure that would allow for the gasoline-powered vehicle to succeed. There are discussions of auto racing, endurance races, courtroom drama about pioneer patents, efforts on the part of some early manufacturers to form a cartel that would exclude independents like Ford, and Ford’s own efforts at mobilizing the efforts of a diverse group of auto designers and salesmen and marketers, using their abilities for the benefit of his company, and then letting them go off for other companies to less success. If Ford comes off as an unfriendly person for his bullying ways and his generally unpleasant views in such matters as anti-Semitism, the whole period itself seems full of corrupt business practices and a lot of unpleasant figures, some of them daredevils, some of them would-be monopolists, and some of them seeming like snake-oil salesmen. Together they helped create the world of the automobile age.
This book is a salutary reminder that the more important the social change that is involved in a given place and time, the more likely that a few people are likely to gain credit and attention for it that they do not entirely deserve. Ford has gotten an outsized reputation for things that other people did, and this author feels strongly motivated to give credit where credit is due and to give Ford grudging respect but not a whole lot of praise as an innovator. The author writes with a clear awareness of the historical record, including early articles and magazines devoted to the automobile, in sources that are not only American but European and even worldwide, and altogether the picture that is pained is of an industry that some elites tried to consolidate for their own personal benefit that ended up being far more egalitarian than most people had planned or desired it to be. But in the end the developments came about gradually in the right place and the right time for the automobile to be available to many, in such a way that the industry eventually was consolidated in the hands of only a few firms, and where the logistics of making the car work to its potential were finally explored.