The moment is etched in time, like a tire track across the automotive landscape. The day Henry Ford found his way down a busy Detroit, Mich., street and into the Columbus Buggy Works building is the prelude, the climax and the denouement of automotive history, all rolled into one.
It wasn’t the starting point; it was the turning point. And not only for an industry but a whole new century.
Ford had one request for the unassuming clerk at the front counter: “I’m here to see Harvey Firestone,” he said. It was 1895.
Mark the moment and you’ll see how the world changes. You’ll see how Firestone, then an agent for Columbus Buggy Works, met Ford, a man who was building his first automobile. Ford was using bicycle tires for a car that weighed 500 pounds. Not viable, Ford knew at the time.
Mark the occasion and you’ll see how Ford approached Firestone to inquire about obtaining some solid-rubber tires as a substitute. And how Firestone told Ford he had just begun creating some new tires that were softer.
“They were pneumatic tires,” Ford remembered later. “I had him order me a set.”
Harvey Firestone’s career, and the path of an industry, was forever altered.
How did Firestone put himself in this position and what did he do following it? Firestone’s own tracks tell all.
They show a man who was a legend because he had grand visions. They show someone who would positively affect the way employers treated their workers. And a man who would ultimately rub elbows with Ford and Thomas Edison and botanist Luther Burbank, all legends in their time.
Born in 1868 in Columbiana, Ohio, Harvey Samuel Firestone lived the American dream. He grew up in love with land and the farm he was raised on. He was a farmer at heart, but he was also a businessman with a wealth of ideas.
He worked his way up through different buggy companies and then opened his own shop at age 22.
With very little money, Firestone had created a set of rubber tires for his own buggy. While riding around one day on those new tires, he impressed a friend so much they began discussing the idea of running their own shop to produce them. With a third partner in tow, they raised the $1,000 it took to open the shop, known as the Rubber Tire Wheel Company. They had one employee.
Firestone’s vision was simple: mass produce a tire that would reduce the jolt transmitted through the steel wheel. Ford was his launching point.
It was kismet for both men. Ford created his car; Firestone eventually created the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, out of nothing but one large contract and 17 employees.
Within a decade, Firestone was making rubber tires for the automobile that everyone wanted, in a factory that was the envy of the new economy. He was as progressive in his management of men as he was in his business. Firestone knew that if he ensured the welfare of workers, his company would be a success. His factories were a model of efficiency. Firestone employees received medical and dental benefits, free life insurance and all the benefits of the Firestone Club House, a $350,000 building constructed in 1915 that offered employees a restaurant, swimming pool and a library.
The company also purchased nearby land and helped workers build and finance their own homes.
In 1916, with his business booming, Firestone was one of the first to introduce the eight-hour day in his Akron rubber factories. He even revised pay rates so men earned as much in eight hours as they had in 10 or 12. Firestone set aside company stock for employee purchase and promised that those in his company who served in the Second World War would have their job “or a better one” when they returned.
During the war, Firestone developed a new tire that made truck transport more efficient and reliable. When it was over, more than 600,000 trucks were in use in the United States, thanks to his “Ship by Truck” campaign, which encouraged private industry to take advantage of the efficiency. That then led to the “good roads movement” and the beginning of the national highway system.
Right up until his death in 1938 at age 69, Firestone was constantly in search of better solutions. He created a better farm tire; the culmination of a dream to put “the American farm on rubber.” And he never forgot where he came from or whom he met that day in 1895.
Both men had simple goals. Both lived the dream. “You get the best out of others when you get the best out of yourself,” Firestone once said. He lived every word of it.
All through July and August Wheels will be paying tribute to the people and vehicles that have become legend in the world of automobiles. Next week we take a look at Rudolf Diesel and the Saleen S7.
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