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Recommended Reading: The Man Who Saved the V-8

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Photo by the author.

It is well known that before World War II, Ford Motor Company was never a well-organized corporation, and that in the wake of Edsel Ford’s death in 1943, things spiraled so nearly out of control that the Roosevelt administration contemplated nationalizing the company to preserve its contributions to the war effort. Instead, Henry Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, was released from his service with the U.S. Navy to take control of the ailing company and curb the excesses of his increasingly senile grandfather and corrupt henchman Harry Bennett.

After the war, Henry II set about remaking the company in the style of its arch competitor, General Motors. Included in this effort was the hiring of former GM executive Ernest Breech and others with a background at what was then the world’s largest automaker. Breech, in turn, hired a group of veterans of the Army Air Forces’ Statistical Control units who would be collectively remembered as the “Whiz Kids”.

1952 Ford engines

Had it not been for newly hired product planner Chase Morsey, Jr., the 1952 Ford brochure pages pictured above would have featured only the Mileage Maker Six and not Ford’s venerated flathead V-8. Photos courtesy Ford Motor Company unless noted.

While Breech was remaking FoMoCo as GM Lite, the Whiz Kids were tasked with rationalizing the way management was performed, replacing the anachronistic, seat-of-the-pants decision-making process with something logical and driven by data. In 1949, they elected to create a department tasked with product planning, the first of its kind in the industry. The 1952 Ford was the first model to come under the oversight of the product planning department and its newly hired head, Chase Morsey, Jr.

Morsey was a sort of Junior Whiz Kid in that he too was a Statistical Control veteran, and had served under Robert S. McNamara and Jack Reith during the war, but had not been hired in with the original group of Whiz Kids in 1946. To Morsey’s advantage, however, was that he was a lifelong Ford enthusiast with a personal enthusiasm for the product he would now help to shape. The original Whiz Kids were interested in scientific management and had dispassionately hired themselves out to the highest bidder.

1932 Henry Ford with V-8

By 1949, Ford’s 1932-vintage V-8 design was getting long in the tooth.

It was into this environment of GM men and statisticians that Morsey stepped and almost immediately came into conflict. Handed the already approved plans for the 1952 Ford, Morsey learned that his beloved flathead V-8 (he had owned V-8 Fords exclusively since high school in the 1930s) was to be unceremoniously dropped in favor of a very Chevrolet-like inline-six. Morsey’s gut instinct was that this was a very bad move for Ford that would not only fail to solve the company’s existing problems, but would drive off a presently very dedicated customer base.

Morsey’s journey to prove to Breech, McNamara, Henry Ford II and the rest of the decision makers at Ford that the V-8 needed to remain in production is just the springboard for the rest of his memoir, The Man Who Saved the V-8, but it forms an important frame of reference for all of his later actions at FoMoCo. And important actions they were: Morsey would be instrumental in the creation of the Thunderbird, the Skyliner retractable and ultimately the Mustang—not as an engineer, or a stylist, but as someone who understood what the public wanted and how the company could give it to them and thereby sell more cars.

1955 Ford Thunderbird

Morsey’s customer-oriented approach to product planning resulted in the 1955 Thunderbird halo car, something that would have been unimaginable under the Chevrolet-centric approach that existed in the company in 1949.

Other reviews have criticized The Man Who Saved the V-8 as egotistical or hyperbolic, but in reality it is neither. Morsey is not modest, but he is humble. While Morsey is highly aware of his own contributions to Ford and to the industry as a whole, he recounts those contributions without boast and he is quick to give credit to the others involved, as well.

Further, it does not seem Morsey gives unwarranted urgency to the action or weight to the decisions. The past is a comfortable place because we know the outcomes, but at the time these were current events with the potential to make or break the company’s place in the market. It is also worth noting that Morsey was a young man at the time, and his enthusiasm for the product and view of its importance to the consumer come off as completely genuine.

Journalists on the road during the introductory Ford Mustang Road Rally in April 1964.

The Thunderbird’s spiritual successor was the Mustang, the last car that received substantial input from Morsey before he left the company.

Not only is this book an amazing peek behind the curtain at Ford Motor Company in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and as such an invaluable historical account, but it’s also an inspirational primer on leadership and courage in the workplace. Morsey came to Ford not only with a great work ethic, but a vision for the company that he was not afraid to defend to his superiors. He was still a probationary employee when he made his boardroom presentation in defense of the flathead V-8. That level of commitment and willingness to risk his job for the sake of the product was not often seen at that time, or ever, and that daring act led him to become the de facto voice of the customer within Ford.

If you’re looking for something to read as the weather turns colder, you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Man Who Saved the V-8 and learn something about a little-known chapter in Ford history.