On this day in 1940, Edsel Ford telephones William Knudsen of the U.S. Office of Production Management (OPM) to confirm Ford Motor Company’s acceptance of Knudsen’s proposal to manufacture 9,000 Rolls-Royce-designed engines to be used in British and U.S. airplanes.
By the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany had conquered Poland, Norway and Denmark and pushed France to the brink of defeat. An increasingly nervous General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the United States needed to rearm in order to prepare for the possibility of a German attack on American shores. That May, Roosevelt called on Knudsen, a former Ford executive who became president of General Motors in 1937, to serve as director general of the OPM, the agency responsible for coordinating government purchases and wartime production. Knudsen had barely settled in Washington when he received an urgent appeal from the British government: The Royal Air Force (RAF) was in desperate need of new airplanes to defend Britain against an expected German offensive.
Unlike other automakers, Ford had already built a successful airplane, the Tri-Motor, in the 1920s. In two meetings in late May and early June 1940, Knudsen and Edsel Ford agreed that Ford would manufacture a new fleet of aircraft for the RAF on an expedited basis. One significant obstacle remained, however: Edsel’s father Henry, who still retained complete control over the company he founded, was known for his opposition to the possible U.S. entry into World War II. Edsel and Charles Sorensen, Ford’s production chief, had apparently gotten the go-ahead from Henry Ford by June 12, when Edsel telephoned Knudsen to confirm that Ford would produce 9,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin airplane engines (6,000 for the RAF and 3,000 for the U.S. Army). However, as soon as the British press announced the deal, Henry Ford personally and publicly canceled it, telling a reporter: “We are not doing business with the British government or any other government.”
In fact, according to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Ford, “Wheels for the World,” Ford had in effect already accepted a contract from the German government. The Ford subsidiary Ford-Werke in Cologne was doing business with the Third Reich at the time, which Ford’s critics took as proof that he was concealing a pro-German bias behind his claims to be a man of peace. As U.S. entry into the war looked ever more certain, Ford reversed his earlier position, and in May of 1941 the company opened a large new government-sponsored facility at Willow Run, Michigan, for the purposes of manufacturing B-24E Liberator bombers for the Allied war effort. In addition to aircraft, Ford Motor plants produced a great deal of other war materiel during World War II, including a variety of engines, trucks, jeeps, tanks and tank destroyers.