Henry Ford changed the world. He didn’t invent the automobile, but he figured out how to design, build, and mass-produce one that America could afford and wanted to drive.
He was undeniably brilliant, with a mind that seemed to be custom-built for the industrial age. He was at once an inventor, designer, and production engineer. If he hadn’t been a dreamer as well, he might have ended up just another cog in the fast-growing machine of industry. But in the early days of Ford’s adult life, he did have a dream. A big one.
When not at work, he spent endless hours in a little garage in which he and a few friends endlessly tinkered and experimented with the technologies they believed could combine to create a working prototype vehicle. In those days, Ford was just another hobbyist, playing around with the dream of building a car. He was not the billionaire captain of industry that we now think of when we think of Ford. He was not internationally respected as a pioneer of mechanics. He was just a man spending his evening hours mucking around in oil and grease, trying out ideas that might or might not lead to something.
In those early days, when the dream was still just a dream, you might imagine it would have been easier for Ford to concentrate on his endeavors had he been single. But, in fact, Henry was blessed with a strong marriage—even in the beginning.
One would think his constant passion to produce something he hadn’t proved he could build, in order to lead to a career that might or might not pay off, for the purpose of providing a commodity the American market didn’t even think it needed, would strain a young marriage to the breaking point. Surely his wife, Clara, would berate Henry for his obsession with a project that absorbed much of his off time, and their resources. But she didn’t. How do I know? Because Henry Ford told us so. He mentioned more than once that he had nicknamed his wife Clara “the believer,” because she believed in his dreams when no one else did.
In fact, we know that she so supported Henry’s dreams, that she worked hard to economize her household budget so that he would have the funds to purchase the parts he needed to continue his building project.
One particularly interesting anecdote was told in Richard Bak’s book, “Henry and Edsel.” When Henry was perfecting his internal combustion engine for the quadricycle, he brought it inside the house one night, placed it near the sink, and tried to get it to run. Clara, the story goes, was drizzling gasoline into the intake when Henry spun the crankshaft and the engine sputtered to life. The engine then began spitting fire out it’s exhaust, and making a tremendous amount of noise, causing Clara to jump up to grab their son Edsel, who was sleeping, and take him to an upstairs room. From everything biographers tell us, it seems Clara didn’t scold her husband for the kitchen engine incident. It seems she viewed it as he did… another victory on the way to achieving an audacious goal.
Had you ventured back to Henry Ford’s little workshop on the evening of June 4, 1896, you would have encountered a tall, thin, but determined young man, taking a sledgehammer to one side of the garage exit. While Henry had been meticulous in his design of the automobile itself, he had neglected to make sure he could get it out onto the street. Once again, Clara isn’t recorded to have scolded him for the mistake, or the crumbled brick mess he created in front of the shop. My best guess? She was excited, as he was. It was the day the dream started to become a reality. And, in my opinion, when Ford drove down that bumpy road in his very own automobile, Clara was just as responsible for the success as Henry.
Sure, Henry Ford is partially responsible for starting the chain of events that led to the manufacture of the car you drive to and from work everyday, but I propose that Clara might be more responsible. For Henry, building automobiles was a life-long obsession. It was hard work, but it was work he wanted to do. Since it was his passion, sacrificing time and resources for “the cause” came naturally. For dreamers, dreaming comes naturally. But when you’re married to a dreamer, supporting a dream is HARD WORK. It requires tremendous sacrifice, patience, and open-mindedness. It requires a very long fuse and a very short grievance list. It requires that you not just love your spouse, or even like them. It requires you to believe in them.
All truth told, Ford isn’t my favorite character in industrial history. Especially in his later years, he was cantankerous, demanding, harsh, unreasonable, and somewhat emotionally unintelligent. Even then, though sometimes Clara had to confront him about his poor decisions, she supported him as he built an American empire. She really was “the believer.”
In Henry’s final days, he experienced several symptoms some might associate with dementia, probably related to his multiple strokes. In those days, Henry was comforted when Clara was present, not wanting to be apart from her even for short periods of time. I believe that was because even though he was, perhaps, viewing the world through a thick fog, he knew from lifelong experience that no one in this world would be there for him like she would.
Though few have attempted to write her biography (as of the writing of this blog post, there is not even a wikipedia article on Clara Ford), and her name often appears as a minor detail in the write-up’s about Henry Ford you might find in your local museum, I propose that without Clara Ford, there would probably not have been a Ford motor company. The absence of a car like the model T would likely have stalled the transformation of the automobile from an expensive luxury to an affordable part of common American life. The assembly line might not have become so central to the manufacturing process in our country, as it has been since Henry invested so much time and energy in developing and perfecting it.
Ultimately, with no Clara Ford, we might not have the opportunity to pause today and consider the amazing power of being “the believer” in the life of the dreamers we married. Sure, your spouse’s dream requires that they have the dedication, the skill, and the willingness to work passionately for their dream. They need to be realistic about the challenges they might experience. But they also need someone who has faith in them. They need someone who is willing to support their audacious goal even when others don’t. For that reason, I encourage you to be “the believer.” It will likely be a huge shot of confidence for your spouse, an opportunity to grow closer as husband and wife, and who knows? It might change the world.