Elon Musk and Henry Ford at 45: Comparing the Two on Musk's Birthday

The similarities and where they end.

Getty, left, Wikipedia, right

Elon Musk and Henry Ford are compared a lot. At first glance, the comparison seems apt (at least more apt than the Musk and Iron Man comparison). Ford was the industrialist of the early 1900s, and his company still dominates parts of the American market today. Musk is changing the way people think about electric vehicles — and mobility in general — in the 21st century.

Today, Musk’s 45th birthday, the comparison seems all the more appropriate. By the time Ford turned 45, he had laid the groundwork for a business empire and had the best years for his company still to come. Musk has done something similar, and his companies are poised to dominate the electric and space markets in the longterm and near future.

The first inventions

In 1896, when Ford was 33, he built his first automobile. He dubbed it the “quadricycle,” and built it in his spare time over two years while working in a shed behind his rented home in Detroit. When he was done, he took it for a spin through the streets of Detroit and investors caught an early glance of the invention that would eventually make the city’s economy boom.

The Quadricycle.


Three years later, when Ford was 36, Ford started the Detroit Automobile Company with money from investors who saw the quadricycle. Ford would eventually wear his investors out, PBS reports, because of the constant updating and changing of his models.

Fast-forward 100 years: Musk had recently dropped out of a Ph.D program at Stanford to take advantage of the dot com bubble. In 1999, at 28, he sold his first company, Zip2, to Compaq for $307 million and nets $22 million for himself. he bought a McLaren and was featured in a ridiculous news story. He also bought the domain, which eventually becomes PayPal.

Musk sells PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002 and gets around $180 million for himself. He uses the money to create SpaceX in 2002 and then invests in Tesla in 2004 at age 33. Four years later, he was the CEO of the premier car technology company.

The first cars

In 1901, Ford set the five-mile speed record for a vehicle at five minutes and 28 seconds with his Model 999. He took the momentum from that race and founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with Alexander Malcomson. The duo incorporated with $28,000 of their own money and $21,000 in funds from investors, which is equivalent to around $1 million today.

Then, in the company’s first five years, it makes the Ford Model A, B, AC, C, F, K, N, R, and S. The cars succeeded as luxury vehicles, with the Model N being at the top of the class.

Musk’s first years at Tesla followed a similar trajectory. The company shipped the first Roadster sports car in 2008, and then the first Model S in 2012. Both cars are fast and sexy — not the common perception of an electric vehicle.

In between the two releases, Tesla went public with an IPO of $17 per share. The valuation quickly skyrocketed, and Tesla continued to make adjustments and additions and changes to its vehicles as well as introduce the Model X.

For Ford, his life-changing moment came shortly after his 45th birthday in 1908 when he debuted the affordable Model T.

“Within months, demand is so high that the company puts new orders on hiatus,” PBS writes.

Sound familiar? Because while Musk is getting ready to release the Model 3, all of the hype and the flood of pre-orders led him to advise people to order soon before the wait time becomes unbearable. It remains to be seen if it’ll be the EV version of the Model T, of course.

Where the comparison fails

Cars are far from the only thing that Ford and Musk had, and have, their hands in. But technology has made being a thought lead in the 21st century a whole different ball game.

Musk is a technology maverick first, and Tesla is just as much a technology company as a vehicle manufacturing company. The cars have autonomy and huge screens to control the vehicle. The cars rely on computer programming, not pistons.

Perhaps most of all, Musk is a man without a single focus. He is a rocket man as well as a car man — not to mention a solar power revolutionary, transportation disrupter, and philosophical thinker. Musk’s SpaceX was the first commercial company to send a rocket to the International Space Station, and it is also helping to decrease the price of launches with a reusable rocket.

Technology has allowed Musk to quickly learn on his own and create new and improved inventions in many different sectors.

At 45, Musk has already accomplished much. His companies seem on the edge of collapse at times, but he has survived thus far. If those years are any indication, the next 45 years will be something to witness: Mars, the hyperloop, and autonomous cars.

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