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Ford’s centennial

By the time the Ford Motor Company was set up on June 16, 1903, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Buick were well-established businesses. Although he had built a "horseless carriage" called the Quadricycle in 1896, Henry Ford, a Dearborn farm boy and self-taught mechanical genius, was a latecomer to the manufacturing business.

By 1903, the car business was thriving, with 15 manufacturers in Michigan and 88 in the United States. Henry Ford established his own niche by building cars that were both simple to operate and affordable. Instead of raising the price slightly each year, as most companies did, Ford’s Model T got cheaper, dropping from $950 in 1909 to an incredible $240 in 1925.

Ford’s farm background undoubtedly helped him keep perspective about his customers’ needs in a still largely rural America. The approach worked: By 1918, nearly half of the cars in the world were Model Ts, and Ford’s efficient assembly lines were capable of turning out 10,000 of them a day.

"The company’s centennial challenges us to look ahead and create a vision for continuing success in the future," says Bill Ford, chairman and CEO. It certainly does. A five-day celebration commemorating the anniversary will be held in Dearborn this month, and will include interactive displays, concept cars and "country music superstar Toby Keith."

It’s been a while since Ford has been in a celebratory mood. Last year, the company lost $539 million, which nonetheless was a huge improvement over 2001 (when it lost almost $2 billion). Things may be looking up: The company had a profitable quarter at the tail end of 2002 but, like many American automakers, it’s suffering from thin profit margins that come with 0-percent financing.

On Ford’s side is brand loyalty that, at 58 percent in 2001, was the highest in the industry, according to J.D. Power and Associates. There are many, many Americans who believe that Fords are "built tough," just like the ads say. The 2004 Mustang has great retro appeal and should bring ’em into showrooms. A 40-mile-per-gallon hybrid version of the popular Escape SUV is on its way.

But Ford’s celebration is being marred by environmentalists who have up to now been the green Bill Ford’s biggest allies. "We think Bill Ford wants to be a leader, but there are people in his company who don’t want him to be a leader," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which has joined with the Rainforest Action Network and Global Exchange. Perhaps looking for hands-on environmental control, a former Sierra Club president, Robert Cox, is running for the Ford board of directors.

An ad running in the New York Times and Business Week points out that the Model T got 25 miles per gallon, and the Explorer only 16. Ford’s cars and trucks average 22.6 mpg. That’s fairly miserable, though no worse than GM or DaimlerChrysler. Ford has already reneged on a 2005 goal of improving its SUV fuel efficiency by 25 percent. The green groups want Ford to achieve average fuel efficiency of 50 mpg by 2010, and move more quickly on fuel cells.

Of the big American companies, Ford seems the most sincere about its environmentalism, but its actual achievements have definitely fallen short of its goals. Given the company’s rich history, a celebration would seem to be in order, but it’s too bad there aren’t more reasons to get excited.

The 100th anniversary Web site can be accessed at www.ford.com.

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