Features - News Feature

APRIL 28, 2001

Forgotten lessons in Ford history


Pedro de la Rosa, Spanish GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

They say that those who do not know history are condemned to make the same mistakes as those who went before them and one wonders if there is anyone in Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, who remembers the story of Fordlandia.

They say that those who do not know history are condemned to make the same mistakes as those who went before them and one wonders if there is anyone in Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, who remembers the story of Fordlandia.

The company founder Henry Ford had always tried to control as much of the automobile production business as possible. Nowadays, they call it "vertical integration". Ford owned iron mines and forests for raw materials. He owned steel mills and even electricity plants. He controlled shipping lines and railway companies. And in 1927 he decided that he was no longer happy paying the price being asked for rubber by the British planters. Ford figured that growing rubber was an easy enough business for a big company and he did a deal with the Brazilian government for two and a half million acres on the Rio Tapajos in the state of Para, in the Amazon basin. He named this vast area Fordlandia and ordered that five million rubber trees be planted.

It takes many years for rubber trees to mature enough to produce latex but the company had planned for this by figuring that it would cut timber to pay for activities until the rubber was ready. But no-one checked to see what kind of timber was available and soon found that going into the lumber trade was not a good idea.

To make matters worse the rubber trees he ordered were not sufficiently robust to survive in the harsh world of the Amazon Basin. And those that did survive were planted too close together and soon fell victim to leaf-eating insects and plant blights. The problems were not spotted initially because Ford had his little empire run by people with no experience in the rubber trade.

The company offered good conditions and decent wages but Ford and his managers failed to understand that one could not treat Amazonian Indians as they could workers in Detroit. They were fed American-style food and entertained with US movies. They were even encouraged to learn to square dance. Worst of all Ford banned alcohol.

The result was that Fordlandia was constantly troubled by problems amongst the 5000-strong workforce.

In 1945, having spent around $10m on Fordlandia, the company finally admitted defeat. The land was sold back to the Brazilian government and today Fordlandia is a ghost town, quietly rotting away as a reminder to those who care to listen that the world is not one vast homogenous place, where anyone can do anything they please.

It seems that some of the executives in Detroit are having to learn that lesson again. Ford has got itself into a pickle over its Formula 1 plans with Jaguar Racing.

Ford helped Jackie Stewart to set up Stewart Grand Prix back in 1996. The team achieved little in the next three seasons (which was to be expected given that they had started from scratch. But in the autumn of 1999 Johnny Herbert scored a lucky win in one of the cars at the Nurburgring. It was not really a true representation of how competitive the team was at the time and it added to the belief in Detroit that everything was maturing nicely and that it was the right moment to give Jackie Stewart some more money to go away. Ford's dream was to have a company-owned Formula 1 team which would give out the clear message that Ford was in the big league when it came to technology. It also meant that engineers could be trained in F1 ways (which are a lot faster than the engineering offices in Dearborn, Michigan) and that, in principle at least, this would result in lots of people buying new Jaguars.

But many people in Formula 1 thought the whole idea was fundamentally flawed. They argued that big automobile companies are far too bureaucratic in outlook to be able to cope with the fast-moving world of Grand Prix racing and that it would have been a lot wiser for Ford to have remained simply an engine supplier and not taken over the team.

BMW has proved very effectively in recent months that leaving the job of building F1 cars to a lean, mean and focussed organization like Williams produces quick results.

Jaguar is on the same path that British American Racing took. Problems are encountered and everyone seems to think that they are the only ones who know the right answer as to how the problem should be fixed. The men in Detroit put in someone they knew and trusted - Bobby Rahal. He came to F1 with a good pedigree but was well off the turf he knows. But then - just as Rahal was getting down to work - the boss of Jaguar Wolfgang Reitzle decided that it would be a better idea to appoint Niki Lauda to watch over all motorsport activity under the Premier Automotive Division label. Rahal was not pleased. Suddenly no-one seems to know who is taking the decisions. Is Rahal the boss or is Lauda in charge? And higher up the ladder, is Reitzle answering to Nasser or doing his own thing?

At Imola Lauda was saying one thing, Rahal another. It was a bad sign.

Neither man has any experience running a Formula 1 team. Rahal runs his own team in the United States but F1 is different. Lauda knows a lot about Formula 1 but he never run a team. Is either man right for the job? The jury is out on that one. But what everyone agrees is that any Formula 1 team needs only one boss if it is going to make progress...

That would be a start.